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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.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans think the country’s immigration policies need to be seriously overhauled.” And most Americans support Arizona’s stringent new immigration enforcement law, “even though they say it may lead to racial profiling.” That’s the finding of the latest New York Times / CBS News poll, according to the Times article summarizing the poll.

No surprise, huh? Anyone who is paying attention to the mass media probably believes that the U.S. is in a pretty ugly anti-immigrant mood.

But that belief comes more from media hype than real facts. Buried in that NYT / CBS poll (though ignored in the summary article) are these startling items:

33% of the respondents say “America should always welcome all immigrants.” Always! All! And only 21% of the poll respondents identified as liberals. Even if all of them gave this answer, it still leaves about a third of self-identified moderates wanting our nation’s doors open to anyone and everyone, all the time. That’s amazing.

Another 34% of respondents say “America should always welcome some immigrants, but not others.” Only 27% of all respondents say “America cannot afford to open its doors to any newcomers.” Back in 1994, when the nation was supposedly in a much more confident, expansive mood, only 19% wanted to welcome all immigrants, while 34% wanted no new immigrants at all.

49% now say “most recent immigrants to the United States contribute to this country”; only 31% say “most of them cause problems.” In a 1993 poll the numbers were almost exactly reversed. Clearly, the nation is moving in a pro-immigration direction.

Why, then, are the Democrats apparently moving in just the opposite direction? The outline for an immigration overhaul that the Dems unveiled last week in the Senate “lays down a new starting point for any national debate: tough immigration enforcement. … The enforcement would be more far-reaching than anything in place now -- or anything proposed by the administration of President George W. Bush,” the Times reported. “Across the board you see language that would be very comfortable in a proposal written by Republicans,” one pundit commented -- to which Times reporter Julia Preston added: “The move to a more security-minded consensus comes as the Democrats face a challenging midterm election season.”

The crucial point, which the Dems apparently understand, is that public opinion is not against immigration and immigrants. It’s against illegal immigration and immigrants. It’s not the immigration but the law-breaking that bothers so many people. According to the latest poll, 78% think “the United States could [and presumably should] be doing more along its border to keep illegal immigrants out” (though less than a third want illegal immigrants actually deported).

Why all this passion, even anger, about illegal immigration? It’s a symptom of a chronic underlying disease in American culture: the growing fear that the familiar borders and boundaries that give life its secure structure are breaking down.

But what borders and boundaries? It’s important to understand this fear accurately, since it lies at the heart of such a major issue in this year’s elections. Ever since there has been a United States, many of its citizens (especially its white citizens) have worried about keeping a strict boundary line between “us” and “the foreigners.” With more and more people welcoming immigrants, that worry is steadily diminishing. It’s no longer the central concern.

Racism -- the boundary between “white” and “non-white” -- is a factor, no doubt. But it is apparently not as salient as many think. Everyone knows that the vast majority of immigrants coming now and in the future will not be from white Europe. They’ll be people of color. Yet two-thirds of the public still support immigration for all or some of them.

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