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How to Have a Productive Conversation on Immigration

What's tough is discussing the personal myths and misconceptions individuals carry with them about immigrants.
 
 
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In preparation for the August recess, the Immigration Policy Center  released a new guide to answering the tough questions on immigration. This is perhaps a misnomer, as the issues we cover—the intersection of crime, the economy, integration, and immigration—aren’t so much tough as they are complicated. There is plenty of evidence available on the significant contributions immigrants make to the country, so providing that is easy. What’s tough is discussing the personal myths and misconceptions individuals carry with them on the topic.  Aren’t immigrants to blame for…?

Sometimes the questions are tough even between like-minded people who want to see immigration reform happen. How much enforcement is reasonable? How much should we spend on border enforcement? How do we upgrade and update our visa system?

These are the kinds of questions people will be asking and answering throughout the August recess and beyond. While we can provide the facts and available data, this alone will not keep the conversation going without something more: a genuine willingness to listen and learn. Over the years, in many forums, meetings, and call-in radio shows, I’ve learned that while the facts are important, they have to be married with a genuine desire to engage with other people’s views and concerns, and meet them where they are on the issue.

How do you prepare yourself for that task?

  1. First, try to figure out why people are upset about immigration. If you probe, regardless of what the first question is, you often find a very specific reason—a relative who lost a job, or the changing of a neighborhood. Sometimes it goes back to the feelings that shook the country on 9/11. Knowing why helps you figure out if you are really answering the question.
  2. Next, what are the specific issues of greatest importance in your area? Jobs and the economy are often at the heart of much of the opposition to immigration reform, so arm yourself with the information that demonstrates the importance of immigration to the growth of the local economy. More and more small businesses, farmers, and religious groups have begun to speak up for immigration reform precisely because they are witnessing the effects of a slowly decaying immigration system in their community. Get as much of the information as possible about the role of immigrants in your area—as workers, consumers, community members. Search the media for stories about new businesses and check out our  state fact sheets. Time and again, we find that there are more stories about the positive contributions from immigrants than not.
  3. Then, with that kind of information, you are more prepared to go to the next level. When pressed, most people don’t think the system is working right now. Poll after poll refers to a consensus on the idea that our immigration system is broken. If the system isn’t working, and people agree on that, then the real question is how do we move forward? There is ample evidence that the costs of trying to deport all undocumented immigrants would be exorbitant and a disaster for many industries. If all-out enforcement isn’t the answer, then part of the solution has to be something new and creative. Get ideas about what people think would make this better.
  4. Also, accept that some people will think you are naïve. I’ve been on the receiving end of some incredibly nasty questions and comments over the years. But we are in this business because we believe we can make the world a better place with genuine dialogue. Walk into your meetings ready to listen and not just cite facts—the combination of the two is powerful.
  5. Finally, articulate your vision of reform. Can you paint a picture of how the necessary pieces of this complex system fit together? Whether someone talks about comprehensive reform or step-by-step reform matters far less than what changes would take place as a consequence. The real question is do we have a vision that coordinates and links the various pieces of our immigration system? What do people need and want—and how can immigration reform help us get there?

Much of the work the American Immigration Council does boils down to one simple statement: contrary to myth, immigrants and immigration are not causing the problems facing this country. Rather, evidence shows they can be part of the solution. Most people are on the road to this conclusion. Engaging in a productive conversation with them can hopefully get us there a bit faster.

 
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