Immigration Reform's Hidden Factor

Immigration Reform's Hidden Factor

By Ruben Navarrette - June 7, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- A month ago, before most Americans had ever heard of Sonia Sotomayor, I predicted to a group of friends that Latinos would get either a Supreme Court justice or immigration reform -- but not both. My theory: The political gurus in the Obama White House know that many Americans think the country does too much to accommodate the nation's largest minority as it is. Asking for more would seem gluttonous.

Still, with the administration promising to at least restart the debate on comprehensive immigration reform this year -- although apparently waiting for Congress to act first -- advocates are now convening in symposiums or conference calls to search for a new strategy to convince Americans that it's time to fix a broken system.

As someone who tries to travel down the middle on immigration -- for instance, favoring both a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and stringent conditions on how to earn that privilege -- I've been invited to participate in a few of these sessions.

Some of what is being said -- sprinkled with research and results from focus groups -- is insightful. Other parts of the dialogue are frustrating. For me, one thing that is especially hard to swallow is that so many enlightened and well-meaning immigration reform advocates are so eager to run away from the race issue. They believe -- with some justification, no doubt -- that, once anyone on their side even hints that racism is part of the immigration debate, the conversation is over.

And so, they say, the best way to increase the chances for reform is to avoid that kind of talk and concentrate on arguments that might actually persuade people. Talk about personal responsibility, they say -- about how those who are in the country illegally must acknowledge wrongdoing, make amends, learn English and otherwise assimilate. And, they say, avoid making any demands on U.S. citizens -- most of whom don't accept that they share any responsibility for the current situation, much less a duty to help correct it.

Still, I'm in no hurry to let go of the racial angle. It's absolutely true that a big part of the anxiety that many Americans currently feel about increased immigration levels fits a historical pattern. What worries people most is what they see as the inferior quality of the immigrants coming ashore -- or, if you prefer, crossing the border.

After all, that's one way that racism typically manifests itself -- through a sense of superiority. It can also come through fear or animosity. You'll find all these variations in the modern immigration debate, which has taken on a discernibly anti-Latino, specifically anti-Mexican, flavor. Some Americans dispute this and insist that race and ethnicity have nothing to do with concerns over illegal immigration. Rather, what has so many people upset, they claim, is that it is -- hello -- illegal.

Rubbish. If that were true, the debate wouldn't lapse so quickly into talk of limiting legal immigration as well. It wouldn't be the case that some of the most vocal organizations on the restrictionists' side -- the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA, etc. -- have an agenda that includes limiting all immigration. There wouldn't be such ugliness, as when conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan wrote in a recent book that the United States was better off when most of its immigrants came from Europe as opposed to Asia, Africa and Latin America. Also, Americans wouldn't have such a long and unpleasant history of being unwelcoming to immigrants if race and ethnicity didn't figure in.

After all, the Germans, Chinese, Irish, and Italians who entered the country in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries were mistreated in much the same way that subsequent waves from other parts of the world would be. Why? It's because, as foreigners, they were believed to be inferior.

Which brings us to why it's important to be honest about racism in the immigration debate: Acknowledging it allows Americans, the children of immigrants, to empathize with new arrivals who suffer many of the same trials as those who came before them.

Still, some maintain that the best strategy for getting comprehensive immigration reform is to downplay racism because it makes some people feel uncomfortable.

Yes, I know. The truth has a way of doing that. And any campaign that asks Americans to deny the truth to achieve a political goal asks too much.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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