Thanks to an election year that has produced more heat than light, the immigration debate is back. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that it never really went away.
In the late 1700s, the arrival of German immigrants was met by hostility from Englishmen like Benjamin Franklin who worried that Philadelphia would become a “Colony of aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”
Americans have picked on immigrants ever since, whether they came legally, illegally or with a referral from the Queen of England. Makes no difference. Because, regardless of what they say, they’re not concerned with the concept of legality. They’re too busy being worked up over the notion of inferiority. Upon arrival, every group of immigrants is declared inferior to groups already here.
The national motto isn’t really E pluribus unum. (“From many, one”) It’s really: “There goes the neighborhood.”
As someone who has served up, over the last quarter century, hundreds of columns and dozens of speeches on immigration, I know the terrain fairly well. And so, here are 15 truths, observations and conclusions about the modern immigration debate in America:
› The United States is schizophrenic, a nation of immigrants that has never liked immigrants and always managed to dislike some more than others.
› Immigration is the most divisive issue that Americans have dealt with since slavery. It’s just as complicated and just as emotional. And to many, the moral issues involved are just as clear.
› The biggest problem with the debate isn’t that Americans are too tough or too compassionate, it’s that the entire conversation is a flurry of lies.
— Americans have two signs on the U.S.-Mexico border: “No Trespassing” and “Help Wanted.” And the gate opens and closes depending on which sign is dominant at any given moment.
› The debate can go dormant for years, and then flare up without warning when Americans are fearful or spiteful. It happened in 2005-2007 (when Congress debated immigration bills) and in 2010-2012 (when Arizona approved and implemented a law that turned local police officers into immigration agents), and again in 2015-2016 (when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump characterized Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.”)
› It’s fair to say that, nationwide, the modern immigration debate started in California in 1994, when voters approved Proposition 187, an indecent ballot initiative that would have denied education, social services and non-emergency health care to undocumented immigrants and their U.S.-born children. The initiative was struck down as unconstitutional.
› Proposition 187 changed the rules of the game by taking the immigration debate out of Washington and bringing it to the grassroots, where much of it was fueled by ugliness, nativism, fear and cruelty.
› Sometimes it seems as if every American has his own 10-point plan to solve the immigration problem, but we can’t get past step one: clearing up all the dishonesty that is clogging up the debate.
› Americans are too proud to admit their dependence of foreign labor, so they prefer to frame the discussion in terms of America doing the world a favor by humanely taking in immigrants desperate for a better life.
› Simple solutions sound good, but they never work. If an idea can fit on a bumper sticker, i.e., “Build The Wall” or “Deport Them All,” then it’s not a very good idea.
› Liberals tend to brag about deporting immigrants when they’re called “soft” by conservatives, and then turn around and deny they’re doing any such thing when they’re called “heartless” by progressives.
› Conservatives have a knack for playing racial politics to scare up votes from white people who are worried about changing demographics, and then turn around and deny they’re pandering to racists.
› Americans always romanticize their own family history and prefer to see it as the heartwarming tale of immigrants who all came legally and learned English the minute the ship docked. There is only one problem: Most of the time, it didn’t happen that way.
› Most of the undocumented are ashamed for having done something wrong so they cling to the comfort of left-wing narratives that insist they did nothing wrong (e.g., the Southwest was once part of Mexico). And that only makes things worse.
— The Bible doesn’t mince words on how we’re all supposed to behave toward the stranger. A typical passage: “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9 NLT)
These are just some of my insights into the immigration debate. Now dive into the mix, and collect some of your own.
Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a columnist for the Daily Beast, author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” (Bantam), and the editor of MOSH OPINIONS — the opinion page of the multi-platform digital media company MOSH.US.