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.”

Note the hot buttons. Demographics. Culture. Language. Third world.

So, of course, accusations of racism and xenophobia keep resurfacing in this debate. It’s because, sooner or later, for many, the conversation always turns into a diatribe against group or another. The discussion has never been race-neutral. It’s about keeping out the inferior and undesirable.

Of course, the debate goes from anti-illegal immigrant to anti-immigrant. This isn’t about legality. It’s about concerns that run much deeper. If you’re worried about changes to culture, language, and demographics, you’re going to be as concerned about legal immigrants as the illegal kind.

And, of course, many U.S. Latinos wind up feeling a sense of solidarity with those Latino immigrants who are under attack and turned into scapegoats for all of society’s ills. That’s because they realize that, since the other side is intent on painting with a broad brush, they’re under attack as well.


It’s time to accept the truth. Americans have been griping “there goes the neighborhood” for more than 200 years. The first group of immigrants accused of diminishing our quality of life by altering the demographics, eroding the culture, and threatening the language were the Germans, followed by the Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Muslims, etc.

Now, it’s Latinos’ turn to be in the cultural crosshairs. It’s ugly. But it’s nothing new.

The concerns back then were best described as outbursts of needless paranoia born of ignorance. And the same is true now.


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