By Jeffrey Utsch
A society addressing illegal immigration might learn –or recoil– from looking at how we handled underage smoking
When I went to high-school in the early 1980s in Midlothian, VA, there was an area outside the cafeteria where students took a break to smoke.
This was certainly not unique to my school. Virtually all had some equivalent. Yes, it was illegal for anyone under 18 years old to smoke. But habits and customs of the day allowed it. I remember a single occasion in childhood at which a 7-Eleven clerk asked a purchaser for ID. Asking didn’t matter anyway because there were vending machines — and no one there to verify age.
We knew that smoking caused cancer. But willful blindness was a way of life. Norms of the day allowed adolescents to smoke, but woe to the high school kid who wore shorts to school or the young woman a skirt above mid-shin.
So how did this happen?
At the time it was no big deal, I thought. A culture that benefited from disobeying the law made no effort to enforce it. The state profited from tax revenue. Tobacco companies — Phillip Morris, where my dad worked, is headquartered in Richmond — guaranteed themselves markets of future addicts. Television and radio didn’t object to the additional income. Schools didn’t object either, as they enjoyed increased income from local taxes.
Parents? They made perfunctory gestures to keep their own children smoke-free. But that message, coming from parents with cigarettes in their hands, was often useless.
The young didn’t mind. Smoking was a rite of passage. All the real men on TV smoked. Remember all those cool cowboys and frontiersmen we saw in the commercials? Were Cigarettes dangerous? Yes. Bad for health? Yes. Addictive? Yes. Costly? Yes. Time- consuming? Yes. Smelly? Yes.
But, there were the other sides that the young cared more about. Manly? Yes. Exciting? Yes. Cool? Yes. Part of the crowd? Yes. The positive, for my peers, far outweighed the negative. It was worth the risk and society acquiesced.
Now to a simple question: Who is to blame for the underage smoking? The young? Certainly they share in some of the blame. But there was a chain of facilitators and enablers.
Consider what would have happened if police showed up one day and arrested all smokers under age 18. Are they the only ones to face the wrath of the law?
What about the parents? Tobacco companies? State departments of revenue? Television and radio stations? Today, I submit, we have this identical pattern with regard to immigration.
The list is vast of those benefiting today from the sweat of undocumented workers. The players are many of the same: governments, private companies, politicians, and, of course, the undocumented themselves. Many of us, numbed to the issue and reaping short-term benefits, see no danger.
There are those who do recognize the problem and wrestle with solutions. Many of these solutions, however, point only to the illegal immigrant – equivalent to the young smoker — as culprit. I believe that we, as a people and as a nation, need to take responsibility for what we have allowed to happen.
We have allowed these underage smokers, so to speak, to thrive for too long. We share that blame. Our pointing elsewhere does not purge us of responsibility. As my pragmatic son once said, “Dad, why take responsibility for your own actions when you can blame somebody else?”
We all believe in the rule of law, no? But, what do we have to say when laws are not enforced? They become nugatory.
Sweeping cultural change is needed in immigration and its enforcement. Solutions, however, that only focus on the illegal immigrant will not work. I return to adolescent smoking: Today in Richmond, there aren’t smoking sections for high school students. This didn’t happen because of sweeping changes in the law but through a process of cultural transformation (or a sense of enlightenment of what is really going on and its costs to society) and pressure on all those benefitting from the trade. The chain of complicity is gone. In hindsight, many can’t believe the way it used to be. A completely new way of thinking has taken over.
The same thing needs to happen in regards to illegal immigration. It means that we need sweeping cultural change from top to bottom that recognizes the true cost of what we have allowed. It means actions need to take place simultaneously that include everyone involved in the chain of complicity.
This change will not occur voluntarily. Moreover, it has to happen without the blame being assigned exclusively to the undocumented worker. He or she may have made the decision to enter the United States illegally. We, however, aided and abetted that desperate or ambitious worker and, in so doing, sent a message to others who might follow. In other words, our adherence to the rule of law was tested — and many of us, citing whatever expeditious reason, failed.
Many of those who smoked back in my high school days are still smoking now, but the number of new young smokers has dropped dramatically. That suggests that introspection and resolve can yet rule the day when it comes to undocumented workers.