U.S. immigration: from rhetoric to reality

By Naomi Ishisaka
Institute for Justice and Journalism Fellow

“STOP THE INVASION!!!
BUILD THE FENCE!!!
MANDATE E-VERIFY!!!”

This comment, made by a writer under the name “Buzzm1” on a Hartford Courant forum page in December, neatly sums up – capital letters, exclamation points and all – the sentiment of many on the restrictionist side of the immigration debate. Their fear is that illegal immigrants are flooding the Southern border, taking jobs from native workers, contributing to the downturn of the economy and threatening our nation’s financial stability and national security. The Web is teeming in these screaming anonymous screeds, certain to follow any story touching on the immigration issue and opening an uncensored window into the true feelings of many Americans.

Yet what is often missing from the conversation is a solid grounding in fact. While it is true that partisans on all sides of the immigration conversation (for example FAIR on the right and America’s Voice on the left) all have their own interpretation of what constitutes truth, some well-regarded organizations have come closer than others in ferreting out fact from fiction. What they find does not often jibe with the restrictionists’ appealingly simple rhetoric.

As a participant in the Annenberg School of Communications’ Institute for Justice and Journalism Border Fellowship this past year, I had the opportunity to gain a solid grounding in the myths vs. facts in the immigration debate. With some of the nation’s best minds and research on hand, we were inundated with historical context, facts and figures to flesh out the complex immigration debate. From our vantage point in the belly of the border beast in Green Valley, Ariz., we were able to witness firsthand the impacts of our border policy on the justice system, on the nation’s wallet, and most importantly, on the people who risk the lives of themselves and their families to find opportunities across the border.

Separating rhetoric from fact is critical now that immigration reform may again be on the horizon with the realignment of power in Washington. With the incoming administration transitioning to its new role, restrictionists and immigrant-rights advocates are gearing up for another run at changing the immigration system. While the economic crisis is pushing all other issues to the back burner, some see a glimmer of hope that the Obama team will tackle this sooner than later.

Yet according to a report on media and the immigration debate by journalist E.J. Dionne, while only about a third of the public sees immigration as a top issue, feelings seem to be hardening. Citing data from the Pew Research Center, in 2000, 38 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that, “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” This sentiment rose to 52 percent in 2006. In addition, voters who felt financially insecure were also more likely to rank immigration as more important, a phenomenon sure to increase as the economy declines. The research suggests that media play a strong role in determining attitudes toward immigration. According to a Dec. 2007 Pew Research study, of the 24 groups examined, conservative Republicans who listened to talk radio made up the one group firmly opposed to a path to citizenship (by 54 to 41 percent). Meanwhile, conservative Republicans who seldom or never listened to talk radio supported a path to citizenship by a ratio of nearly 2–to–1, a slightly larger proportion than the country as a whole.

Overall, a companion study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that conservative talk radio dedicated nearly 10 times the amount of airtime to the immigration reform debate in May-June 2007 than liberal radio programs. The study said, “On the right, there is a clear push-pull effect between the advocacy of talk show hosts and the views of their wing of the conservative Republican coalition. The immigration issue energized a significant part of the right while calling forth little militancy or concern on the left.” Meanwhile on CNN, Lou Dobbs is the most visible and strident figure in the restrictionist media landscape with his relentless coverage of “broken borders” and unabashed opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. According to Dionne’s report, while conservative talk radio moved the right to oppose immigration reform, Dobbs and CNN played a significant role in moving moderate to conservative Democrats to action against it as well.

Why does the media landscape matter? As activists and D.C. think tanks pour time and money into strategies to move members of Congress to their views, the media are successfully moving the people toward a more restrictionist position – either through overt effort on the right or omission on the left. This reality leaves room for the shrill rhetoric of the blogs and talk radio to evolve into conventional wisdom. Although these ideas resonate with an increasingly fearful and nativist public, they don’t bear up well under scrutiny. Here, taken from the mouths of the restrictionists themselves, are some of the top ideas circulating about immigration.

“Each illegal immigrant, on average, costs taxpayers $9,000 PER YEAR, over, and above, anything they might contribute in taxes!!! A total cost to American taxpayers of over 300 billion dollars each, and every, year.” – “Buzzm1,” Palm Beach Post forums, Dec. 10

It is well accepted that undocumented immigrants pay state and local taxes in addition to paying into Social Security where their taxes are held in an “Earnings-Suspense Fund.” Even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said the fund, now holding over $500 billion, is helping to keep Social Security solvent. The costs are harder to quantify, with states bearing a disproportionate share of the burden associated with undocumented immigration.

“It is time for these ILLEGAL ALIENS to go back to their home Country and get out of this Country. The problems they are causing will not go away until the ILLEGAL ALIENS are out of here and back in their own country where they belong. THEY DON’T BELONG HERE!” – “Delaware Bob,” Hartford Courant forum, Dec. 7

The question of who does and does not belong in the U.S. is not new. Since the earliest days in U.S. history, wave after wave of immigrants sought safe harbor in the United States for many of the same reasons. Political and religious persecution, famine and disease and, most of all, economic opportunity, are the common propellants to immigration. And throughout the years, each successive wave of immigrants is greeted with hostility from earlier groups, who feel their wave is superior to the ones to follow. Some instructive parallels to the current immigration debate can be found by looking at the history of Irish immigration to the United States. More than 2 million Irish, fleeing a catastrophic famine and poverty back home, crammed into the steerage quarters of ships in conditions described by writer Herman Melville as a “cesspool.” Over 25 percent died on the journey. After the brutal Atlantic crossing, the Irish arrived in the U.S. at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, taking jobs no one else would fill.

In response to the “alien” invaders, the anti-Irish, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Native American Party formed to suppress the new immigrants. Irish homes and businesses were burned and anti-Irish prejudice was made law.

Yet 30 years later, after the first waves of Irish immigrants began to assimilate into the power structure, it was the Irish-Americans that turned against the new immigrants. After an economic depression in the 1870s, many jobs were lost. Dennis Kearney, an Irish immigrant, led the Workingman’s Party in San Francisco that advocated against Chinese immigration and blasted the inferiority of Chinese people. “The Chinese are wipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things,” he said at the time. After years of whipping up nativist sentiment, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. And so it goes.

Today, one might argue that Mexicans are the new Irish. And while many anti-immigrant sentiments have percolated for years, some experts fear the downturn in the economy will only raise the level of resentment toward immigrants in the United States. According to the FBI, while the total number of hate crimes nationwide remained steady, attacks on Latinos rose 40 percent between 2003 and 2007. In an incident just days after the nation elected its first president of color, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was attacked and killed by high school students who said they were looking for a “Mexican” to beat.

Attacks on Latinos grew 40 percent from 2003 to 2007, outpacing the estimated 16 percent increase in the Latino population in the U.S., according to FBI statistics. Over the same time period, the total number of hate-crime incidents reported nationwide remained steady.

This increase comes even as the weak economy is apparently discouraging undocumented immigrants from coming to the U.S. and pushing others home. Demographer Jeff Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2008 that 11.9 million illegal immigrants are in the United States, down from an estimated 12.4 million in 2007. Meanwhile the U.S. Border Patrol reported 700,000 arrests in 2008, down from 1.1 million in 2006.

“That’s right, they wait until AMERICANS have built a sustaining economy with jobs and abundant resources for AMERICANS and then we get millions of disrespectful, uncaring, aloof, arrogant … invading our country. We should be shooting them on sight.” – “Jrdn,” Hartford Courant, forums, Dec. 10

Restrictionists today bear much resemblance to restrictionists of the past. They all want to see future immigration flows cut off now that their ethnic group has assimilated into their new country and culture. And today’s immigrants – legal and undocumented – bear resemblance to their predecessors as well. Like the Irish of the 1840s, today’s immigrants – the vast majority from Mexico – are fleeing economic hardship for opportunity elsewhere. According to Wayne Cornelius, the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego, despite danger of apprehension and increased likelihood of long-term family separations, migrants make the journey north because the economic conditions in the sending regions gives them no other option. For one community Cornelius studied in San Miguel Tlacotepec, Oaxaca, one day of wages in Mexico equaled one hour in the United States. With NAFTA putting increasing downward pressure on largely indigenous communities’ corn crops, more and more Tlacotepec people fled north to help feed their families. Lack of money for school expenses and the need to work to support their family resulted in an average of seven years of schooling for the community’s adults.

“Certainly, those of us who descend from the famine Irish would seem to have a special responsibility to look past the current evocation of innumerable, anonymous hordes threatening our borders, or the latter-day recycling of theories of ethnic and racial inferiority, and to see in the faces of today’s immigrants the image of our ancestors: those hungry ghosts who, though dispossessed and despised, passed on to us their faith and their hope.” – Peter Quinn, from “Immigration’s Dark History” in Catholic weekly “America,” 1995

While written 13 years ago, Peter Quinn’s words could have as easily been penned today. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is heating up once again and the media are fanning the flames. It’s a good time to take a breath, take a look back and think about what kind of nation we have been and what kind of nation we want to be as we move forward on the path to immigration reform in 2009 and beyond.

Naomi Ishisaka is a 2008 Institute for Justice and Journalism fellow and the former editor of ColorsNW Magazine in Seattle.