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I have regular breakfast with a group of politicos that represent a cross-section of the political spectrum. Recently we had a discussion about immigration. I referenced a recent Texas Lyceum poll which found that 72% of Texans were either extremely or somewhat concerned about illegal immigration. The same poll asked an open-ended question of the most serious issue Texas is facing. Illegal immigration and border security came in first and third with a combined total of 27%, more than double education, which came in second at 13%.
I asked my group why they thought illegal immigration was weighing so heavily on the minds of Texans. Two of the more liberal members of my breakfast group attributed the concern purely to racism. But there were some other findings in the poll that contradict this simplistic explanation. Sixty plus percent: (i) were opposed to deporting all those living here illegally; (ii) supported some pathway to citizenship; (iii) opposed building a wall; and (iv) thought immigration helped the country more than it hurt it. When asked why illegal immigration was a problem, only 2% said because it diluted American culture. These are not the responses of racists.
And to completely lay the racist explanation to rest, 68% of self-identified Hispanics were either extremely or somewhat concerned about illegal immigration. I’m pretty sure they were not motivated by racism.
After kicking around these seemingly anomalous results, one member of our group with small children spoke up. She said she was concerned about illegal immigration because of the effect it was having on her children’s school. It had become significantly overcrowded because of an influx of immigrant children, most of whom spoke little or no English. Trying to serve dozens of ESL children, including interfacing with parents who frequently spoke no English, was taxing the school’s resources and staff. She noted cultural differences, especially as it related to the disparity in maturity regarding sexual matters. She was also concerned about health issues. Had these children been immunized as virtually all American children are?
These were imminently reasonable concerns and not at all based on racial animus. And her concerns are not isolated. How many times have you heard someone complain about being involved in an accident with an illegal immigrant who had no insurance? There is no doubt that dangerous criminal gang members have slipped into the country along with those coming here for a better life. Nor is there any doubt that they are making our drug problem worse. And while we may not be able to calculate the amount by which illegal immigrant workers are driving down wages in low-skilled jobs, the basic laws of supply and demand tell us it must be having some effect.
Is some of the current anti-immigrant fervor based on racial bigotry? Undoubtedly. But, there are plenty of valid reasons to be concerned about illegal immigration other than racial hatred. And this is where I think immigration advocates hurt their case.
The American people are generous and caring. We make more charitable gifts than all the other countries in the world combined. No country has a history of accepting more immigrants and refugees than the U.S. When immigration advocates go on a screed charging racism, they are telling those with legitimate concerns that their concerns don’t matter and thereby make badly needed immigration reform less likely.
Like most public policy issues, immigration is complex. But there is a broad outline of a rational policy that is obvious. First, we must have a secure border, i.e., we must know who is coming and going in and out of country. You cannot reform immigration without this predicate. Second, we are not going to deport the roughly 10 million folks that are here without a valid visa. So, let’s come up with a realistic plan about what to do with them. Third, we must determine what is the appropriate level of immigration on an annual basis and how we should go about choosing the people we let in.
Sure, there are those on the extremes who either want to have completely open borders or shut down immigration entirely. But they do not represent the majority of the American people, notwithstanding that their slogans dominate the public debate on immigration. As John McCain recently said, “To hell with them.” It is time for reasonable people to come together to solve this problem.