Public Discourse, Pragmatism and Policy: The Souring of the Immigration Debate

Written by on September 15, 2009 in Legislation, Reform with 2 Comments

Photo by owaief89.

The behavior of anti-immigrant groups and talk radio hosts gathering in Washington this week is a reminder that immigration, like so many divisive issues before it, brings out the worst in the body politic. Many of those classic hot-button culture issues—such as euthanasia or abortion—shift into intensely personal religious, moral and philosophical disagreements that often erupt in ugly ways.

On the surface, immigration—which is fundamentally about regulating the flow of people into this country—lacks that kind of gut-wrenching, personal dilemma. This doesn’t mean that the consequences of a broken immigration system don’t inflict untold personal hardship. Nor does it mean that individual’s lives are not at stake in the course of enforcing our immigration laws. The immigration debate just shouldn’t raise the kind of moral and philosophical issues that plague public policy debates like abortion and euthanasia.

That’s not to say that there are no moral issues here—quite the contrary. But the fundamental questions regarding the nature and sanctity of life, and the government’s role in regulating the choice individuals make, simply doesn’t resonate in the same way. The primary “moral” objection raised by many anti-immigration voices is that no one should receive benefits or opportunities that are premised on breaking a law. But that’s an argument that can be made without resorting to the kind of vicious diatribes that course through the arguments of those opposed to immigration reform.

Immigration, like abortion and euthanasia, is being used as a wedge issue in the current health care reform debate. This week, E.J. Dionne pointed out in the Washington Post:

It should bother us a lot more than it does that alleged plans to kill off seniors and promote abortion are spoken of in almost the same breath as the matter of delivering health care to fellow human beings, however they arrived on our shores.

The actual process of reforming our broken immigration laws really shouldn’t have much of an emotional charge to it. On the question of legalization, it’s a debate about how to address the status of twelve million people. Is it practical, cost-effective, responsible public policy to try to deport them all? No. Once you get over that hurdle, then the debate is really about details—how do you create a process, what are the requirements, who is eligible, should there be fines, what will it cost and countless other details. It’s not particularly the stuff of moral outrage.

And yet that is where the immigration debate is mired. Joe Wilson has become the darling of the anti-immigration crowd precisely because he couched an objection to immigration in terms of morality and falsehood. It’s the very incivility of his action that makes it so emblematic of the immigration debate, which has devolved into personal rather than policy issues. Congress’ paralysis in the face of the emotional and highly charged rhetoric of immigration opponents has led to a further breakdown of the immigration system—and it’s this breakdown that sets the stage for even more temper tantrums.

The lack of comprehensive immigration reform is both a cause and a product of the degradation of this debate, and it is now helping to coarsen the quality of other key policy debates. Until we confront the issue of immigration reform with pragmatic and dispassionate solutions, public discourse has nowhere to go but down.

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  • Bob Hill

    Well said; there is much wisdom in your analysis. I have devoted the past 25 years of my professional life to the law and policy of international migration and for much of that time have been discouraged by the divisiveness and incivility of the public debate on issues that are of vital national importance.

    Speaking before the CMS Annual National Legal Conference on Immigration and Refugee Policy in March 1999, I expressed my own concern about the divisiveness of the politics of immigration. “Debate over immigration policy has become polarized and intolerant. Civility in this debate has eroded noticeably. Extremes on both sides have come to view those with whom they disagree not as fellow Americans pursuing solutions to real problems nor even as respected adversaries, but as enemies to be marginalized, even demonized, for political advantage. In such a poisoned atmosphere, thoughtful legislators and policy makers have little incentive to get out front and take a proactive approach to immigration issues.” Little has changed in the past 10 years and I myself withdrew from the public debate after 2001 and retreated into the comfort of my own practice.

    During my years on the Jordan Commission working with the finest public servants I have come to know in 33 years in Washington, I witnessed the sting of the vitriol too often at public hearings, roundtable discussions or site visits. The terms “nativist, xenophobe and racist”; “facist, communist, and traitor” were recurring themes; there were thinly-disguised and even overt ethnic and anti-Catholic slurs not only from the spiritual descendents of the 19th century “Know Nothings” but from 21st Century “progressive” population control and environmental activists as well. Even some of the members – Republican and Democrat alike – were called such things to our face or behind our backs.

    All of this was symptomatic of that poisoned atmosphere I spoke of in 1999 and is the reason that I remain pessimistic about the prospects for meaningful immigration reform today. Until the debate itself becomes thoughtful and respectful, there is not much chance of reaching the kinds of compromise needed to make real changes in the law. Senator Kennedy understood this to his very core. How else could he have worked so effectively and so collegially for so long with his colleagues, his fellow Americans, his friends – Senators Hatch, McCain and Simpson – across the aisle?

    I would finish by stating the obvious – words hurt and should be chosen carefully. Resist the temptation to demonize those with whom you disagree, however unpleasant you may find them. Indeed, cast out the log from your own eye first so that you may then be able to see more clearly the speck in your neighbor’s eye. And maybe, just maybe, some eyes will open and some minds will change – and we will emerge a better country for it tomorrow.

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