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Name-calling doesn’t encourage sensible talk on immigration

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Posted: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 12:00 am

Immigration is a tough topic. People get irate. Everyone has some sort of opinion on at least some elements of the debate. And there are strange bedfellows in the discussion. You find conservationists, nominally liberals, being anti-immigration. You find businessmen and farmers strongly for immigration increases, at least for certain categories.

My reading group recently read "Not Fit for Our Society" by Peter Schraag. It is a history of immigration and nativitism in the United States. This group reads only non-fiction and has been meeting for a long time.

The discussion was interesting, but much of the time the discussion was formless. There was sympathy and antipathy on various parts of the subject. There was a lot of criticism of past immigration laws, with snippets of data.

For example, it was pointed out that the ending of the Bracero program and the closing of the borders may have been more effective in keeping immigrants here. The annual return of workers slowed because coming back was so hard. Indeed, it was a strange discussion because the members were knowledgeable even beyond the book. And that is true of most discussions of immigration that I have heard.

Why was the discussion so formless? Why are most discussions so formless?

Immigration is a topic where there are a lot of significant considerations, both positive and negative, on many sides of the debate. The conservationists are concerned about the carrying-capacity of the United States and believe the land cannot support a growing population. Folks who do not like amnesty generally do so out of belief that laws, when enacted, ought to be enforced, and that those in this country without proper documentation should be expelled as that is what the law requires. Others against amnesty argue that it simply has not worked in the past and that there is no reason it should work now: After the 1986 amnesty, it was felt that those here without proper documentation now had reason to stay and await the next amnesty.

In addition, the discussions tend to be short of data. Examples: One frequently hears complaints that the "illegals" are coming here and committing lots of crimes. The evidence seems to be that, yes, there are crimes committed by immigrants, both legal and "illegal," but the rate of commission of crimes is lower than that of the general populace (omitting the crime of being in the country without proper documentation).

Similarly, the effect on wages is mixed. There does seem to be some moderate depression of wages for the unskilled. But not otherwise. There is anecdotal evidence that the computer industry uses some lawful immigrants at lower wages, displacing some qualified citizens.

Again, there is the question of the costs of immigrants. A frequent complaint is that immigrants cost the taxpayers money. Aggregated, this seems to be false: They probably pay more taxes than the cost in services. But the costs are not evenly spread. In certain localities, immigrants cost more than they contribute.

Finally, the debate is harmed by name-calling. The race card is played. These pages were graced with a column earlier in the year where the columnist defended himself as not being a racist even though he agreed with the Arizona state immigration law. Arizona's law permitted local officers to ask for identification if they had some cause to believe a person was not lawfully in Arizona. This was denounced as racist, the argument being that the ones who would be stopped would be Hispanic. The columnist was likely being honest and was probably correct. I do not know the man, but one certainly cannot conclude from mere support of the Arizona law that he is a racist.

In short, if we are going to have a reasonable discussion on immigration, we need to approach it much more slowly. We need to acknowledge that the issues are very complex. If it was a simple problem, our parents and our grandparents would have solved it. They weren't able to do so; indeed, the question of immigration has raged for two centuries. The Know Nothing Party became national around 1850 primarily over the issue, and the demise of the Know Nothing Party helped the development of the Republican Party.

If we are going to have a reasonable discussion on immigration, we need to spend more effort in finding the data related to the issue and respecting the data. We are going to have to respect the nuances of that data. For example, the general fact that immigrants contribute more financially to America than they cost simply does not negate the more specific fact that there are localities where this is simply false.

If we are going to have a reasonable discussion on immigration, we must not demean the other side. There are strong positive values on most sides of the debate. Most folks who enter into the debate are arguing in fairly good faith. Those who oppose one's perspective should not be demeaned simply because they oppose one's view.

If we are going to have a reasonable discussion on immigration, we need to begin to sort out the issues involved and then develop the issues so we actually understand the broad picture surrounding immigration. Only if that broad picture is understood, can we begin to formulate a reasonable plan for handling immigration in the United States.

Dave Wellenbrock is a Lodi attorney.

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