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Xenophobia, not immigration, is the real border crisis

Feb 13

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The United States, it has been said, is a nation of immigrants, and was founded by many immigrants themselves. Yet we are also a nation with a long history of anti-immigrant laws and policies stretching back to our founding. This reality has resurfaced as Congress again debates updating U.S. border security and immigration policies.

Straight Arrow News contributor Ruben Navarrette disagrees with the notion that immigration is “a problem” at all. Americans need immigrant labor, and he warns against the strains of nativism that have persisted in American politics from its founding to the present day. Navarrette cites a Straight Arrow News focus group on immigration, arguing that these anti-immigrant sentiments are sadly alive and well in modern American society.

Americans are taught perhaps as early as elementary school, that the United States has a tradition of welcoming immigrants. Yeah, actually not so much. America is, in fact, a land of immigrants, that much is true. But it’s also a place that has never liked immigrants, no matter where they came from, whether they crossed a river or an ocean to get here, or whether they had documents or brought doughnuts.

And here in America, the real tradition is actually three-pronged. One, we view immigrants with hostility and resentment. Two, we’re convinced they’re inferior in every way to those of us who are already here. And three, we doubt that immigrants will ever fully assimilate unless we force them, and maybe not even then.

That last one is really important and problematic, because unlike the other two, which can be much more in your face, this fear that immigrants won’t blend into the culture and get with the program tends to operate under the radar, and you can sneak up on us, like when, once every 30 or 40 years or so, Congress overcomes the paralysis that normally keeps lawmakers from moving an immigration bill through the process and decides to take a stab at some aspect of the issue. Notice I didn’t say the “problem.”

The jury is still out on whether immigration is in fact a problem for the United States. The only problem I see, as a journalist who has covered the issue for more than 30 years, is that we often run out of immigrant workers to do jobs Americans just won’t do. See, that’s straight talk right there, the kind you will never hear from Congress.

Americans are taught perhaps as early as elementary school, that the United States has a tradition of welcoming immigrants. Yeah, actually not so much. America is, in fact, a land of immigrants, that much is true. But it’s also a place that has never liked immigrants, no matter where they came from, whether they crossed a river or an ocean to get here, or whether they had documents or brought doughnuts. And here in America, the real tradition is actually three-pronged. One, we view immigrants with hostility and resentment. Two, we’re convinced they’re inferior in every way to those of us who are already here. And three, we doubt that immigrants will ever fully assimilate unless we force them, and maybe not even then.

 

That last one is really important and problematic, because unlike the other two, which can be much more in your face, this fear that immigrants won’t blend into the culture and get with the program tends to operate under the radar, and you can sneak up on us, like when, once every 30 or 40 years or so, Congress overcomes the paralysis that normally keeps lawmakers from moving an immigration bill through the process and decides to take a stab at some aspect of the issue. Notice I didn’t say the “problem.” The jury is still out on whether immigration is in fact a problem for the United States.

 

The only problem I see, as a journalist who has covered the issue for more than 30 years, is that we often run out of immigrant workers to do jobs Americans just won’t do.

 

See, that’s straight talk right there, the kind you will never hear from Congress. You’re more likely to hear lawmakers talk right smack in the middle of a debate over immigrants, about something that has nothing to do with immigration, and that is making sure newcomers speak English.

 

True story: back in about 2007, which represents one of the last times that lawmakers on Capitol Hill had a really substantive discussion about comprehensive immigration reform, I went to bed watching the process. Congress was debating a bill with immigration limits and border security measures and a path to legal status for the undocumented. But when I woke up in the morning, the news was that sometime in the middle of the night, or early morning, a lawmaker had slipped into the bill an amendment making English the official language of the United States. Now the proposal didn’t go anywhere. But the point is, wow, was it ever a short walk to get from immigration to language?

 

You know who wouldn’t be surprised by that story? Frank Luntz. The so-called word doctor is a pollster and consultant who focuses on communication and messaging. He has an actual doctorate from Oxford University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. And as he likes to say, he believes while 80% of our life is emotion, and only 20% is intellect, he conducts focus groups around the country to rummage through that 80%.

 

Recently, Luntz put together a focus group for Straight Arrow News. He asked a group of mostly White voters to speak freely about immigration. Rest assured, boy did they. White people don’t hold back even when they’re raging over subjects they don’t fully understand. At first, the focus group participants brought up familiar worries about preserving law and order, the dangers of an open border, etc. But when their discussion turned to the immigrants themselves, to the human beings involved, one of the participants said the quiet part out loud, insisting, well, they have to speak English. Yikes. We’ve been down this road before.

 

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin invented a good many things, including the American version of nativism, which he directed in the 1700s at German immigrants and Pennsylvania, who Franklin worried would “Germanize the Americans” before the immigrants could ever “learn our language and adopt our culture.” Nice, Ben, real nice. And it turned out real wrong. In fact, those German immigrants, they did learn our language and adopt our culture. The worry that immigrants won’t learn English or otherwise assimilate is driven by ignorance and fear. Those are two other American traditions that tend to surface whenever we talk about immigrants.

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