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Why Are So Many Americans Scared of Undocumented Immigrants?

As long as our national life revolves around unrealistic, hyped-up fears of "foreign invaders" and "illegal aliens," we all lose.

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Since the public concern is about illegal immigrants, perhaps the crucial, fear-inducing line is between the lawful and the lawless. And indeed, in the NYT/CBS poll, 54% believe it “will reduce crime in that state.” Yet it’s hard to see why they think so, since 78% say the law “will burden the resources of state and local police departments,” and 80% think “the new law will deter immigrants from reporting crime or cooperating with authorities out of fear of being deported.” And then there’s the small but notable minority who support the law even though they don’t think it will reduce crime. So it seems unlikely that the hope of reducing crime is the central factor at work here.

Let’s hope that true, because the belief that illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crime is another myth. In fact, says Doris Meissner, former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, “foreign-born rates of criminal activity -- among legal and illegal immigrants -- are significantly less than that of native-born.”

So what border line is really at stake here? What’s the main source of public fear? Watch any TV news report on the immigration issue and you’ll have your answer in a few seconds. It’s the physical, geographical border of the United States -- the border that the camera will inevitably show immigrants (virtually always Latinos) jumping, running, tunneling, or swimming across.

Americans have not always been so worried about the integrity of their geographical borders. From the mid-19th century on into the early 20th, fear of attack from abroad waned and then virtually disappeared. In the late 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to revive that fear, he faced an uphill task. Most Americans assumed that they were physically safe from attack by foreigners.

FDR grabbed at any rhetorical tool that might swing public opinion in the opposite direction, to back his plans to resist the Nazis. Playing on the homey imagery of his “fireside chats,” he said: “We seek to keep war from our firesides by keeping war from coming to the Americas.” After the Germans conquered nearly all of western Europe, Roosevelt warned: “At no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.” He treated each family’s home and the entire nation as two sides of a single sacred entity. He treated war and Nazism as two sides of a single threat to that sacred entity.

Thus Roosevelt laid the groundwork for public acceptance of the basic idea that has dominated American public life ever since: Our nation must be ever vigilant against enemies who are plotting, night and day, to cross our borders and destroy us. The name of the enemy has changed several times: first Nazis and Japs, then Commies, then terrorists.

In recent years the fear of terrorist attack from abroad has waned. Most polls that asked “What’s the most important issue facing the country?” in the last year no longer even bothered to list “terrorism” as an option. Those that did found it way down on the list. Occasional scares like the recent botched car-bomb in Times Square don’t seem to change that result.

But the question, “How can we keep our borders secure against the evil-doers?” remains a powerful element -- very possibly the fundamental element -- in American political culture. With no other threatening foreigners in sight, the illegal immigrants, who prove how porous and easily violated our borders are, become the target of choice.

Oh, yes. Some other important numbers from that NYT / CBS poll, which Democratic party strategists will surely take note of. Three quarters of the respondents believe that “illegal immigrants are a drain on the economy.” Most research shows that’s a myth; in fact, more immigrants, whether legal or not, mean more jobs for everyone and a more robust economy.

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