After cheers for football, some of the loudest shouting at many Thanksgiving feasts will come from political discussions gone awry.   You might think that you can take it easy on the immigration issue this year, as the political chatter is now heavily in favor of immigration reform.  But the blessings of conservative politicians and pundits won’t necessarily translate into harmony and world peace at the dinner table, especially if your relative is part of the 35% of voters that don’t support legalization for unauthorized immigrants.

Still, the framework for the conversation will be different this year—there’s a chance that you will have a more receptive, curious audience who wants to know what is likely to happen.  There’s also a chance that your friends and family may be frustrated, willing to blame immigrants for various social ills, and uncomfortable with what the future will bring.  In either case, the basics of engagement remain the same, but here are some specific tips for talking turkey on immigration in 2012:

  1. No gloating.   It may be tempting to say “I told you so,” given that Latino, women, and youth voters all rejected anti-immigrant sentiment in the election, but it only gets you so far.  Political strategists are in the business of tracking demographics and figuring out where the votes are, but most people are looking at the elections in a much more local way.  If you are really going to talk to your relative, you better know who won and who lost in your hometown and why.  What role did immigration play?
  2. And while it was fun for a while, don’t say, “demographics are destiny.”   Yes, the remarkable demographic changes in this country do mean that the very face of the country is changing.  It does mean that issues of concern to Latinos and other immigrant voters are going to take center stage, but an important point often gets lost in this discussion.  The issues of most concern to new voting blocs are pretty much the same, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality—how do we ensure good jobs, good education, a secure country, and a better life for our kids? The trouble is, the immigration laws have become so bad that they impact all of these other areas—meaning that truly resolving the immigration crisis is a litmus test for how voters judge politicians.  Lead with the need for a solution, not with the overwhelming power of numbers.
  3. Don’t take the bait. You may find yourself arguing with someone who is uncomfortable with culture change and likely to be defensive or to find the one heinous anecdote that supposedly proves that all immigrants are bad news. They may latch on to arguments like the President gave a gift to the “children of illegals” with his deferred action initiative.  Don’t get sucked into these debates. Focus on the here and now and how we can have a productive debate going forward.
  4. Focus on the future.  We have a chance in the coming year to see bipartisan immigration reform.  This should be something to celebrate.  Try to keep the discussion focused on the fact that we need solutions that work for everyone.  Because we are at the beginning of the process, it is an opportune moment to stress what we stand to gain.  We know that immigration reform will yield positive economic and social benefits.  Try to steer the debate towards benefits and away from punishments, emphasizing how immigration reform improves our chances at a more stable economy and community.
  5. Something that hasn’t changed since last year is our final piece of advice:  If things get too heated, have another piece of pie.  It’s hard to argue with food in your mouth.

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