Immigration

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.

More to the point, fixing our immigration system would bring more economic benefits, not because it would bring more immigrants, but because it would allow the immigrants here and coming in the future and their economic contributions to exist above board in the legitimate economy.  As the Center for American Progress has shown, legalizing immigrants here would create a windfall of $1.5 trillion in taxes and increased GDP.  Eliminating the incentives to hire people off-the-books to skirt labor and wage laws would force employers to act within the law, compete fairly with each other, and reduce the disadvantage native U.S. workers have by working within a two-tiered labor market – part “legal” and part “illegal.”

The economic arguments against legal immigration are unfounded and should make people favor legal immigration because wages and economic conditions are improved by the presence of immigrants.  And even if you still have economic concerns, legalizing those here and allowing those coming to do so with visas, rights, and legality should resolve those concerns when placed against the alternatives.  Deporting more than 10 million or more immigrants would be a huge expense — $285 billion by one recent estimate – and would remove millions of consumers from the economy just when we need them most.

Safety, Security, and Crime

It speaks volumes about our society’s attitudes towards immigrants that the agencies charged with regulating immigration and enforcing laws against immigrants are housed within the Department of Homeland Security.  When that agency was created a half-dozen years ago as a response to America’s woeful security conditions, it seemed natural to many that regulating immigration would be a fundamental part of “homeland security.”  Set aside the “Great Wall of Chihuahua” along the border that the build-the-fence activists got the government to build at great expense to our purses and credibility, our system is set up to divert money from real security priorities that would make us safer to keep out economic migrants that would make us more economically secure.

Right now, inflows of people illegally across our borders are at the lowest levels in recent history because the jobs and economic opportunity that draws many people into our country are no longer abundant.  But a vast criminal underground continues to operate along our borders to get people in, which is at the heart of our need for immigration reform and contributes to border security problem.  It’s not that we have not devoted resources to it; we have.  But we have poorly structured our priorities.

Restrictionist groups that point to 9-11 as proof that we need to further restrict immigration diagnose the problem all wrong.  We spend so much manpower and resources keeping home health care, construction and hotel workers from Latin America and elsewhere out and denying them visas, but we were vulnerable to college educated terrorists entering our country from Western Europe.  Even terrorist suspects known to U.S. government authorities and living more or less openly in our society were allowed to train and plot here.  The problem of international terrorism and criminal drug cartels call for different and more complicated responses than simply rounding up tax-paying, employed, heads of households and deporting them because their visa has expired or they are here in spite of the fact that our system would not have allowed them to apply for a visa in the first place.

And many of the knots we twist ourselves into over economic migrants have perverse affects on our actual security.  Crime sweeps by local police to round up the undocumented drive a wedge between immigrants – regardless of their immigration status – and the police, which erodes the ability of local police to keep neighborhoods safe.  Withholding driver’s licenses from immigrants means more unlicensed and uninsured drivers on our roads, not fewer immigrants in our society.  And our jails are bursting at the seams with non-violent individuals accused of immigration violations clogging the courts, and hampering legitimate law enforcement.

When you factor in the fact that immigrants are far less likely to be involved in any serious criminal activity – despite the cries of the anti-immigration side, Americans are a much greater criminal threat than immigrants – you have another conundrum like the economic arguments discussed above.  If you are worried about crime and national security when it comes to immigrants and immigration, you probably shouldn’t be, based on all of the credible evidence, and even if you are, you should be supporting immigration reform not opposing it.

Getting immigrants in the U.S. illegally into our system, registered, passed through criminal background checks, and legal will alleviate the problem – mostly imagined – of criminality in immigrant communities.  We would be able to focus resources on actual threats to public safety and national security, divert most immigrants through controlled ports of entry along the border and at airports, and dampen the black market for human smuggling and false documents that has arisen to fill the gap left between the economic draw of America and the restrictive visa system we maintain to regulate it.

Culture, Race, and Language

In the film, Frank Sharry explains the cultural, racial, and language elements of immigration anxiety particularly eloquently to his questioner.  In Spanish, Sharry explains how much people in America flip-out when they have to “press one for English” on a customer service call or what many monolingual Americans fear when they hear two women speaking Spanish in the grocery check-out line.  Most times, of course, the women are talking about their husbands or some mundane thing, but it sparks a deeply felt fear in many Americans.  The fear is that people who were born here and whose families have been here for generations will no longer be welcome in their own country.

This fear drives a good deal of the “take back our country” rhetoric on the right and is not just confined to immigrants or the immigration issue.  There is a very widely held sentiment that “special rights” are given to immigrants, members of the LBGT community, or African-Americans, or women, or liberals or ethnic groups, or whatever that “regular Americans” can’t get or don’t qualify for.  The narrative pushed by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are loaded with themes that tap the fears of many Americans that things are changing too fast and that they are being left out or left behind.  It is often expressed as overt racism, as when the teabagger protesters at the U.S. Capitol hurled racial epithets at Members of Congress because they are convinced they are not legitimately eligible – because of special rights or affirmative action or reverse racism – for positions of authority in society.

But to write off these cultural concerns as simply racism or ignorance – as many on the left are quick to do – is to miss the point and a great opportunity to build bridges.  The fear of being left out or left behind is so deeply ingrained in Americans that they usually don’t recognize it as racism or anything untoward and often justify their concerns by laying on the economic and security arguments discussed above as a justification for their concerns over immigration – or any number of other issues.  That’s why defaulting to a racism argument is almost always counter-productive and fuels the right – or anti-immigration, or anti-universal health care – side’s sense of indignation and victimhood.  Reverting to shouts of “racism” is a short-cut that tends to short-circuit debate and drive people with emotional, deeply felt concerns about immigration away from, not towards supporting immigration reform solutions.

By all measures, immigrants today are assimilating as fast or faster than previous waves of immigrants, whether it be measured by English language skills, rates of home-ownership, inter-marriage outside one’s ethnic group, or other measures.  Yet the narrative persists and is exacerbated by laws that prevent immigrants from fully participating in and investing in our society.

Take for example the contractor who remodeled my kitchen a few years back.  He had a temporary immigration status that allowed him to work legally but didn’t allow him to fully set down roots because he feared – correctly – that his stay in America could become illegal if his temporary status were revoked or if he was deported.  This limbo status made investing in a contractor’s license – or in English classes or any number of other investments he might make in himself and his ability to thrive in the U.S. economy – seem like less sure bets if he might have to leave or go underground at any time.  So he worked for the very nice but not so creative or attentive Anglo contractor who had invested in a contractor’s license rather than starting his own business and branching out.

If we had legal channels sufficient to accommodate this young and skilled entrepreneur and his family or a way for craftsmen like him to get legal once here, they would be even more fully integrating themselves into U.S. society.  Like my great-grand father from Russia who never spoke English well and who sacrificed his own comfort for his children when he came in the 1880s, the children and grand children and great-grand children of today’s immigrants will be no more immigrants or less American than I am, especially if we remove unreasonable barriers to legal status and assimilation.

Sharry’s argument in the film is that we spend too much time accusing people who are concerned about immigration of not knowing the facts about the economic contributions of immigrants; or explaining that the pro-immigration reform side has better solutions to security and safety concerns by envisioning an orderly legal immigration process; or even the arguments that a lot of people’s concerns with immigration are functions of cultural or racial or language fears.  The greatest and most effective arguments for immigration reform are that immigrants are us; that the shared destinies and shared values of immigrants today – like immigrants of previous generations – is fundamentally intertwined with the destinies and values of all Americans.  When we live up to our ideals, we pursue policies that welcome and incorporate immigrants into our society legally and with respect and dignity – both for these New Americans and the Americans already here.  The United States is an idea, Sharry explains, not blood.  And being American is therefore a mindset, not an accident of birth geography.

Conclusions

With 200,000 people gathered on the Mall last weekend, a new bill in the Senate on the verge of introduction by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a contingent of House leaders in both parties working on or building support for proposals, the health care bill on the verge of resolution, and the White House showing signs of engagement, a new debate over immigration appears to be just over the horizon.  Watch as these three major areas of concern are expressed in the debate – the economic, the security, and the cultural aspects of immigration reform.

The analysts at The Opportunity Agenda in New York conducted a content analysis of previous immigration press coverage to show how disciplined the anti-immigration side really is in their communications.  Their arguments almost always stress two points that flow across these themes: Immigrants are not like “us” and they are competing with “us” for scarce societal resources.  The ways “they” are not like “us” relate to “their” values, “their” language, “their” criminality, “their” different and special rights, and “their” disdain for America, the land “we” love.  On top of that, “they” want what “we” have.

The bad news is that under our current circumstances, with a weak economy, national fear of terrorism and crime that borders on hysteria, and a viscerally divided and antagonistic political environment, us/them dichotomies carry more weight.  The good news is that familiarity breeds acceptance in immigration – as with many other social issues.  The closer you live to immigrants and the longer they have been established in your community, the more immigrant-friendly your politics.  This explains why younger voters are more immigrant-friendly (they have grown up in a society with more immigrants) and Senators from states like California, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts can afford to be more pro-immigrant – and more pro-immigration reform – than Senators like David Vitter of Louisiana, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and the one consistent villain of The Senators’ Bargain, Jeff Sessions of Alabama.  With time, today’s immigrants, like every generation of immigrants before them, will become ingrained in the vocal and voting constituencies of these Senators too, or more accurately, the Senators who replace them from these states.  In the meantime, buckle up for another bumpy, culturally driven debate over immigration.