What is the immigration debate in need of most?
It depends on whom you ask. Conservatives say it requires more toughness, a willingness to seal the border and round up illegal immigrants. Liberals say it could use more compassion, an understanding that many of those who come to the United States illegally do so for a better life just like earlier waves of immigrants.
They’re both wrong. What the immigration debate needs most isn’t toughness or compassion. It’s honesty. Whether it is to make their camp look better or to make it easier to discredit their opponents, people on both sides of this argument sure do spend a lot of time and energy denying the obvious.
On the right, that means accepting some hard truths: that racism and ethnocentrism are part of this discussion and they have been since the first immigrants arrived in the 18th century; that many of those who rail against illegal immigration also want to limit legal immigration even if they’re reluctant to admit it; that cities and states that complain about the cost of illegal immigration also benefit from it through taxes and a more productive business climate; that illegal immigration is a self-inflicted wound that some cities and states bring upon themselves and some don’t; that illegal immigrants do not usually take jobs away from Americans but rather do jobs that Americans won’t do; and that it is simply not the case that lazy and entitled young Americans in particular would rush out and do the kind of hard and dirty jobs their grandparents did if only employers paid higher wages.
On the left, that means accepting some uncomfortable facts — that those in the country without authorization are illegal immigrants and not “undocumented persons”; that Mexican immigrants who receive money from their families back home are defeating the purpose of immigrating and should go home; that a newly devised cell phone gadget equipped with a GPS device to help people find water stations along the U.S.-Mexico border aids and abets lawbreakers; that efforts to legalize illegal immigrants must be conditional so the immigrants can make amends for violating the law; that those who have been here for a long period of time are more deserving of earned legalization than those arrived more recently; and that so-called criminal aliens wanted for other offenses must be rounded up and imprisoned or there will never be public support for legalizing those illegal immigrants who came with more admirable intentions.
Imagine how far we could get toward an immigration reform solution that is firm and yet fair if both sides of this argument just accepted all these uncomfortable truths and started acting in good faith. This would do a lot to build our own credibility and get the negotiation moving in a constructive direction. Instead, we keep waiting for the opposing camp to acknowledge the facts with which we agree, while denying those sets of facts that we find inconvenient. The result is that neither side is in any mood to negotiate because they each think the other side is either insincere and untrustworthy, or delusional and woefully uniformed.
It looks like Congress is going to take another swipe at this debate in the next few months thanks to a comprehensive reform bill introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-IL. Lawmakers can certainly improve on the inefficiency and unprofessionalism they demonstrated the last time they tackled the issue. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Obama — who has not been as outspoken on this issue as many of his supporters had hoped given the promise he made on the campaign to tackle immigration reform at the beginning of his administration — can also certainly improve on his performance with regard to this issue.
But, away from Washington, the rest of us have a chance to do better as well. We can start by owning up to those things that we’ve been reluctant to acknowledge, and doing our part to make sure that wherever the discussion leads, at least it’s an honest one.