Why Is Immigration So Controversial?
By Ralston Deffenbaugh, LIRS President
The contentious national debate over immigration has made it challenging for legislators to work out legislation that a majority can embrace, and comprehensive reform has stalled in the Senate. Radio talk show hosts and TV commentators have taken up the issue (unfortunately, usually on the anti-immigrant side). Congressional offices are bombarded with messages to “control the border!” States and towns are voting on referendums and ordinances. A traditionally bipartisan issue is becoming partisan and polarized. And yet our country prides itself on being a nation of immigrants; we still have a Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
How did this come to be? Let me offer four factors that help me understand:
First, there are record numbers of immigrants in America. Out of the 300 million people in our country, about 34 million are foreign born—11 percent of the population. The numbers have never been higher but the proportion is still below the nearly 15 percent of a century ago. Some people raise concerns that America will not be able to continue to absorb such large numbers.
Second, the face of immigration has changed, and immigration has literally changed the complexion of America. A lesser-known outcome of the civil rights movement was the removal of racial quotas for entry to the United States. Since then, immigrants have come in larger numbers from Asia and Latin America. The visible change in the face of immigration has led more people to raise concerns: Will the newcomers assimilate? Will they speak English? How will they change America? This is nothing new, by the way. Benjamin Franklin asked the same questions about German immigrants in the 18th century.
Third, our country’s post-September 11 fears include a heightened fear of the stranger. Do we know who we are allowing into the country? How do we know they won’t harm us?
The fourth factor—the one I think is most important—is concern over the rule of law and having an orderly society. The presence of 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States—one out of every 25 residents—shows that current immigration law is being violated on a vast scale. So many undocumented immigrants are here because U.S. law does not allow sufficient legal channels for people to come to America for the reasons they have and always will: for family, for work and for freedom.
Clearly the immigration system is very badly broken. I think what we’re facing now must be like it was during the Prohibition Era: A well-meaning law was violated on a massive scale, proved to be unworkable, and eroded respect for the law in general. At the end of the day, the solution was not to keep throwing resources into enforcing the ban on alcohol consumption, but rather to regulate it in a workable way. We need the same sensible approach to immigration issues today: Instead of an unrealistic, unworkable law that causes such harm, let’s have a realistic system of regulation that upholds America’s tradition of welcome for those who, like us, value family, work and freedom.