The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Debate Immigration

From the thousands of emails I’ve received over the years from readers regarding illegal immigration, I take it that a lot of Americans are fed up over three things. They resent being called “racist” whenever they voice concerns about illegal immigration. They dislike being accused of opposing all immigration when they claim to only oppose the illegal kind. And they’re unclear about why U.S.-born Latinos side with Latino illegal immigrants instead of their fellow Americans.

All fair points. But all of those things can be traced back to something that people don’t like to talk about: the unsavory language often used to discuss U.S. immigration policy. As we’ve learned over the last 200 years -- or at least should have -- there’s a right way and a wrong way to discuss this issue. When Americans give the topic of immigration the respect it deserves, we can gain insight, perspective, and perhaps even empathy. But when we approach it the wrong way, we only create more division, hostility, and xenophobia.

We can talk about how we need to fix U.S. immigration policy because we can’t afford to have a porous border or because every nation has the right to protect its sovereignty. We can talk about the costs that illegal immigrants put on our hospitals, schools, and social programs. We can talk about the threat of overpopulation and concerns that the United States, which is already home to 300 million people, cannot take on another 100 million in the decades to come without coming apart at the seams. And, of course, we can talk about how preserving the rule of law requires that we take seriously the fact that millions are living in the United States illegally and that many of them go on to commit more illegal acts while here.

But we shouldn't give in to the temptation to approach this issue in ways that appeal to our worst demons. We should not insist, as we tend to do, that the latest wave of immigrants is inferior to earlier ones or that they’re the equivalent of an invading army. Nor should we frame the issue, as we have too often, as being about protecting society from a foreign menace.

Simply put, we should avoid anything resembling the screed of the conservative radio talk show host who recently charged into the immigration debate with gums flapping. He called for not only a crackdown on illegal immigration, but also a wholesale tightening of immigration policy to allow fewer legal immigrants in as well. The host warned that, unless something was done, these waves of foreigners would “alter our demographics, erode our culture, and threaten our language.” He went on to say that continued Latino immigration would phase out “traditional Americans” and turn the United States into “a third world country.”