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Immigration Debate: Press One For Culture War In English

Anxiety about immigrants, immigration, and therefore immigration reform, tends to revolve around three broad categories of concern: economics, security, and culture.

There are number of illuminating moments in the HBO Documentary “ The Senators’ Bargain” that aired Wednesday night on  HBO2 (and airs Friday at 6 p.m. ET on HBO Latino and is available on HBO On-Demand; see a trailer  here).  The documentary  looks behind the scenes at the fight in the U.S. Senate in 2007 for comprehensive immigration reform legislation and focuses especially on Senator Ted Kennedy and his staff.  Among the remarkable moments are a floor speech by Sen. Trent Lott (of all people) imploring his colleagues to buckle down and pass an immigration bill that – while far from perfect – begins to address the problems with the current system (sound familiar?) and a showdown in Sen. Robert Menendez’ office the day before the vote where advocates make their case for his “yea” vote on cloture to move the bill forward.

But there is one scene that sums up the long and short of the immigration issue as it played out in 2007 and as it plays out today (and as it has throughout the history of the United States).   Frank Sharry, one of the advocates fighting for the bill is shown speaking to a group of Hispanic evangelical leaders in a hotel meeting room in D.C.  He addresses the crowd in Spanish and responds to a question about why there are so many negative and hurtful things said about the Latino community in the context of the immigration debate.

Sharry sums up the immigration debate by saying there are really three areas of controversy at the heart of the immigration debate. One is the economic debate about whether immigrants – including immigrants in the U.S. illegally – are a boon or a burden to the country.  Second, there are the security and safety arguments about borders and foreigners and protecting the country from crime and terrorism.  Finally, there are the cultural concerns about assimilation, integration, race, religion, and especially, the English language.

Almost everyone’s concerns about immigration – and therefore about immigration reform – fall into one or more of these three categories.  Sharry’s point is that the cultural arguments are often the most difficult and most important concerns in the hearts of opponents of immigration reform and of legal immigration and that they often use arguments related to jobs and the economy or security and crime as more acceptable covers for what they are really concerned about: the differentness of immigrants.

The anxiety of the American people is real and too often dismissed as simply racism or xenophobia by pro-immigrant advocates.  But the reality is that many of these concerns are fictions – heavily subsidized by the anti-immigration movement and repeated as fact on the air and deeply held as truths.  However, as the advocates and Senators in the film demonstrate – and as the issue is debated today – whichever concerns you have about immigration and immigrants – economic, security, or cultural – the way forward is immigration reform along the lines of what Sen. Kennedy and his colleagues were fighting for.

Economics, Jobs, and Wages

Earlier in the week, the Federation for American Immigration Reform ( FAIR), one of the leading organizations  opposed to immigration reform (despite its name), released a report damning immigrants for America’s economic woes including unemployment and stagnant wages.  Walter Ewing, a researcher and writer at the  Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council wrote  a succinct and crippling response on his organizations  Immigration Impact blog that I highly recommend.

Almost all of the evidence points towards immigrants being an economic boost to the United States and the communities into which they settle.  Ewing assembles this evidence, augmented by recent  research by his organization and others, to forcefully push back on the report from the restrictionists group.  Immigrants tend to  complement the existing domestic workforce – filling in gaps in the workforce where their skills are needed – rather than competing directly with natives for available jobs.  Furthermore, their power as  consumers and entrepreneurs provide direct injections of taxable economic activity that benefit all of us.