My daughter had a knock-down drag out fight on the playground a few weeks ago over immigration. She was preaching immigration reform and another little girl said that immigrants steal American jobs. They reached no resolution and walked away furious. A couple of days ago, Rebecca told me how nice this girl was and that she had “decided to put political differences aside for the sake of friendship.”

A lot of us will be sharing the Thanksgiving dinner table with people whose political and philosophical views differ. Like the kids, we may need to put political differences aside for the sake of family, friends, and pumpkin pie. But when you work in immigration, people inevitably bring the topic up and say things you feel compelled to rebut.

In that spirit, here are a few tips for talking turkey about immigration:

  • Be prepared. The Immigration Policy Center’s website,, contains numerous short fact sheets on immigrants and the economy, crime, unemployment, immigration reform and more. At a minimum, download your state fact sheet. And since the DREAM Act is in the news, make sure to read our latest fact sheet rebutting DREAM Act myths.
  • Be sympathetic. Most people who profess to be anti-immigration are really worried about something else. Whether it is the sour economy, concerns about public safety, or the much more insidious fear that the America they know is changing too rapidly, there’s usually a reason that has nothing to do with immigrants. Probe a bit and find out what that reason is.
  • Know your audience. While this is a follow-on to item two, it also requires a bit of personal research. If your Uncle Joe watches Fox News 24/7, you can pretty much predict what he’s going to say about securing the border first and Phoenix being the kidnapping capitol of America. These arguments ignore the facts and logistics of border security (the amount of money and resources poured into the border is greater than ever, violent crimes are going down in Arizona, the real issues along the border have more to do with drug and gun smuggling than immigration, and economics, not enforcement is a better predictor of illegal immigration). But as much as I believe in the facts, the perception of safety is what is really in play here. So, make sure to mention that polls of border residents show that they feel safe in their communities—in other words, if people on the border aren’t feeling threatened, why are people in Iowa feeling threatened by the border? Help your uncle see that facts and perceptions are two different things.
  • Be practical. You are not necessarily going to win your loved ones over with one brilliant analysis. But you can ask questions that get them thinking differently. Ask them what the solution is from their perspective? Can we really afford to deport 12 million people? How can legalization be an amnesty when it requires people to register, pay taxes, stay right with the law and “earn” citizenship? Wouldn’t you rather have folks paying taxes at their full potential than being paid under the table and not paying their full share? These kinds of questions really do start the dialogue.
  • Find common ground. It may sound hokey, but most of us want the same things for ourselves and our families. Go back to your own immigrant roots—how was Grandma or even Great-Grandpa treated when they came over from Italy? What did they want for their future? Where would we be today without those immigrants who took a risk? The more people realize that they have a personal stake in getting immigration right, the more likely they are to move from opposed to open to suggestion.
  • Remember, everyone has a friend who defies the stereotype. I’ve had plenty of conversations that start out so badly, but then I hear, “well, I do have this friend that taught himself English, put himself through school and now employs fifteen people” Seriously. Immigration, like all social issues is neither black nor white but many shades of grey.
  • Have another piece of pie and a cup of coffee. Food is a universal facilitator of conversation. It’s much harder to yell at someone with pumpkin pie in your mouth.

I’m really heartened by my daughter’s willingness to put politics aside to be friends with someone who disagrees with her. This doesn’t mean that she will stop believing in immigration reform or that she will stop trying to persuade her friend. It does mean, however, that she is beginning to understand that the bonds of friendship allow us to talk to one another. Cultivate those bonds and we cultivate a richer, more tolerant society. Ignore our differences and we just ignore our problems.

Photo by simplysharpe.