Washington, D.C. area schools participate in the Urban Debate program, which gives middle school children the opportunity to learn the art of debate. My sixth grader signed up right away. She was surprised to learn, however, at her first tournament that many people have no qualms debating either side of an issue, no matter how they personally feel about it. She also discovered that a few kids had no problems saying whatever they had to say to win. She was in tears because another twelve year old insisted that American lives were more valuable than others in a debate over U.S. military involvement abroad.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that in the debate over immigration we see far worse nearly every day. The misinformation that is routinely spread and the disregard for human lives is common in the immigration debate. Whether it is politicians calling for electrified fences, schoolchildren herded in to gymnasiums to determine their legal status, or blatant misuse of statistics to scare the public, immigration is hardly a genteel topic.

This year in particular, as the Alabama law unleashes a civil rights crisis in that state, I can only imagine that there will be some very difficult conversations around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Although proponents of immigration reform are armed with more anecdotes and statistical information than ever, the increasingly preposterous stories coming out of Alabama will make some people shake their heads and say—it just can’t be so.

So what to do? We offer a list of tips for making the case, politely but firmly, for a rational immigration policy.

  1. Be prepared. The Immigration Policy Center’s (IPC) 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 Alabama is all over the news, check out IPC’s recent publications and blog posts that detail some of the absurd consequences of HB 56.
  1. Be sympathetic. The evidence is mounting that most people who fear immigrants are really afraid of the change that immigrants represent. This is particularly true in states that have relatively little immigration, such as Georgia and Alabama. The number of immigrants is small, but the percentage of growth can seem huge. Try to figure out what is really irking your relative—are they angry that their favorite restaurant has changed hands? Ask them what they would do if that same restaurant closed. Are they afraid that there will be no jobs for Americans? Ask them if they believe immigrants, rather than lack of job training and job growth are better targets for their ire. Helping them to see that change can be positive and is rejuvenating many communities can help to reframe the conversation.
  1. Avoid the blame game. Don’t get trapped into arguments that start out, “well, those people broke the law.” Try to move the conversation forward by stressing that rather than focusing on punishing the past, you want to think about how we make the future better for everyone. I often say—because I believe it—“I can’t get the jobs back that may or may not have been lost in your community. All the economic studies show, however, that immigration is essential to further economic growth. So, if we want a better future for everyone, we have to find solutions that work right now.”
  1. Know your audience. There are issues you just shouldn’t touch and maybe immigration is one of them. But it might also depend on the way your present your arguments. A deeply religious person could be unmoved by your crisp economic analysis, but genuinely touched by the biblical call to aid the stranger. There are so many different reasons to support immigration reform—you don’t have try to list every one of them in one breath. Less, in fact, may be more.
  1. Be practical. You are not necessarily going to win your loved ones over with a single 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.
  1. Find common ground. The fact that most of us have an immigrant past—no matter how distant—sets the stage for a conversation. How was grandma or even great-grandpa treated when they came over from Italy, Germany or Ireland? What did they want for their future? Where would America be today without those immigrants who took a risk? The more people realize that they have a personal stake in keeping those opportunities alive for others, the more they might listen to your point of view.
  1. Find the exception to the rule. No matter how anti-immigrant someone is, they will have at least one friend or colleague who defies their stereotypes of immigrants. If you let people talk for a while, the story of that friend will inevitably come up. Start asking questions about that exceptional immigrant’s life.
  1. 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.

Sooner or later, Urban Debate will probably tackle the question of immigration, but when it does, I want my daughter to be able to draw a distinction between arguments grounded in reality and compassion and those that are motivated by nothing but fear or a desire to win. There are legitimate policy debates to be had on the immigration question, but for many people, the conversation never gets that far. If you can get past square one, I’m convinced that most people will see that immigration reform is in the country’s best interests. And if that happens, then maybe next year’s feast will be a bit more pleasant.

Photo by moonrat42.