When Bill O’Reilly asked Sarah Palin what she would do about illegal immigration if she were president, her response sounded an awful lot like an endorsement of comprehensive immigration reform. While she at first fell back on the old “secure the border” card, when pushed about what to do with the complicated situation of people already living in the US illegally, she said,
“Then we won’t complicate it anymore, let’s keep it simple, and let’s say no. If you are here illegally, and, um, if you don’t follow the steps that through immigration reform we’re going to be able provide and that is, is to somehow allow you to work if you’re not going to do that then you will be deported, you will be gone.”
As the president illustrated in his speech two weeks ago and as we’ve discussed in the past, comprehensive immigration reform is not about blanket amnesty. Rather, it is about restoring the rule of law so people can follow steps to citizenship, which Palin herself seems to support. When not allowed the crutch of “securing the border” rhetoric, some opponents of immigration reform just may begin to realize that comprehensive immigration reform isn’t so bad after all.
Catholics, mainline Protestants, Latino and white evangelicals, and Jews have all received extensive media coverage of their work to pass urging passage of comprehensive immigration reform this year. Now another group is gaining attention – African-American Protestants.
A great New York Times story about interfaith support for immigration reform in Houston prominently mentioned black churches, and Time, Associated Baptist Press, and Christian Post have all covered the unprecedented leadership from African-American faith leaders standing alongside racially, politically and theologically diverse leaders to make an urgent call for reform that protects our values and our interests as a nation. Good to see that Christian leaders are taking such a proactive stance to dispel long-assumed myths of a “black-brown” divide on this issue
Many journalists do a great job covering immigration, but too often I see headlines and stories that make a mistake outlined by the AP Stylebook:
This might seem like a quibble, but it’s not. Even if it’s not used with deliberate malice, a code word like “illegals” dehumanizes the immigrants to whom it’s applied, reducing people created in God’s image to nothing more than anthropomorphic crimes. Applying this term consistently, I should be called an “illegal” for having an unpaid parking ticket.
And this isn’t the only rhetorical device that degrades the immigration debate. In another example, opponents of comprehensive immigration reform often describe a pathway to earned citizenship as “amnesty,” clearly connoting that people who violate immigration law will be granted forgiveness without punishment for their violations, when in fact comprehensive reform would require those who break immigration laws to pay fines (a punishment in both legal and colloquial terms) and fulfill requirements such as studying English and remaining employed in order to become eligible for citizenship. In the context of comprehensive immigration reform, “amnesty” is a profoundly misleading term.
Words matter. When choosing which terms to deploy, especially in contentious debates about issues of great consequence, we’d all do well to consult not only our dictionaries and stylebooks, but also the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.
In the ongoing debate about immigration, some erstwhile supporters of reform say we must first “secure the border” before we can think about comprehensive reform. In his speech Thursday morning President Obama seemed to bend toward that perspective when he said that there are more “boots on the ground” at the border than at any other time in US history, a reference to his administration’s announcement last week that they will be deploying 1200 new troops to the Southwest border as well as seeking funds for two Predator drones to patrol the border.
But the prioritization of border security relies on the belief that crime is an out-of-control problem on the U.S. side of border. This false sentiment is consistently espoused by conservative politicians like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who recently asserted that
“the majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming into the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels and they are bringing drugs in.”
In fact, according to Politifact, “statistics have consistently shown that immigrants, including illegal immigrants, actually have lower rates of criminal activity and incarceration than do the native-born children of immigrants.” Moreover, US border cities have among the lowest rates of violent crime in the country.
The debate pitting border security against comprehensive reform is not only built on a shaky foundation of evidence, but is also a false dichotomy. We cannot secure the border without comprehensive reform, without a way for individuals to legally and fairly enter the system. As C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., former Assistant Secretary of Policy and Planning at the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a recent report:
“Waiting for an airtight border to solve our immigration problems would be an unrealistic, impractical, and unsuccessful strategy.”
We need our politicians, from members of Congress here in Washington and state political leaders like Gov. Brewer, to drop the “secure the border” rhetoric and instead focus on what we know will work: comprehensive immigration reform. Faith leaders have been leading the charge for reform that protects our values and our interests as a country, and this week, they ramped up the pressure and urged Congress to build on the momentum from the President’s speech.
Wednesday, Hispanic and African American pastors launched a coalition debunking the myth of the “black-brown divide” and pledging support for immigration across racial and ethnic lines. Thursday, an interfaith delegation delivered a letter to White House officials with almost 600 signatures from faith leaders in support of comprehensive immigration reform and announced a coordinated month of action for reform. The grassroots mobilization, Justice July, will include pulpit swaps between citizen and immigrant clergy, vigils, and acts of civil disobedience.
The faith community isn’t backing down on the overwhelming need for reform. They know that the pragmatic and moral solution is a comprehensive one, and not one that relies on faulty logic and calls for militarization along our Southern border.
The misguided and draconian Arizona immigration law has at least one positive effect: keeping national attention focused on the urgent need for comprehensive reform. It’s also a prime example of the moral consequences of federal inaction on the issue.
Unfortunately, many commentators have neglected to connect the dots between tremendous frustration with the federal government’s refusal to put forward a viable solution to our broken immigration system and high levels of support for the Arizona law.
At the same time that a majority of Americans back the Arizona law, most say they support a program allowing illegal immigrants already in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet certain requirements. In the new poll, 57 percent support the option, close to the level in spring 2009 at the 100-day mark of Obama’s presidency.
Furthermore, a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll found that while 57 percent of Americans support the Arizona law, 80 percent favor “[c]reating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay here and apply to legally remain in this country permanently if they had a job and paid back taxes.”
When polling shows stronger support for a comprehensive federal solution than for a divisive state solution, you have an important narrative, which is getting missed by most of the mainstream media. The takeaway from this polling should not be that most Americans think laws like Arizona’s are the best way to reform our broken immigration system. Rather, Americans desperately want Congress to do its job and fix a dysfunctional system that drives down wages for all workers, separates families, compromises our interests and our values as a nation, and leaves millions vulnerable to exploitation.
As our friend Robby Jones, president of Public Religion Research, has pointed out:
While a recent New York Times poll on the Arizona law showed that a slim majority (51 percent) said the law was “about right,” strong majorities also expressed reservations about its consequences: 80 percent said it would lead to immigrant communities not cooperating with the police, and 82 percent said it would probably lead to racial profiling. Reflecting this ambivalence, one person interviewed called it a “necessary evil.”
Too many media outlets are covering this issue in a one-dimensional way… reporting support for the Arizona law without including the important other side of the coin: most of the law’s supporters support it because it’s the only option they see on the table (a.k.a. a “necessary evil.”) Until the President and Congress step up and put some serious muscle into an effort to comprehensively reform the broken system at the federal level, we’ll continue to see overinflated levels of support for extreme state legislation.