Polarized language limits chances for real immigration reform

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The debate over immigration reform is ripe with inherently divisive language on both sides. The following is a sampling of the language used by the comprehensive reform advocates who blame immigration control advocates for the impasse in the debate. Ed Schultz on his show on July 29, 2010 said in regard to the Arizona SB 1070 law being taken to court that “Conservatives will use this ruling to scare old, white, low-information voters into believing that activist judges care more about illegals than they do about upholding the Constitution.”  Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director of the Advancement Project wrote in a blog on the Huffington Post’s website, “the conservatives’ war of attrition on immigrants is out-of-line with American values of liberty, freedom, justice and equality.” These individuals also used inherently inflammatory and polarizing words in expressing their disagreement with immigration control advocates. Dianis referred to Alabama’s immigration law as “State Hate Laws” and Ed Schultz called the Arizona SB 1070 law “racist.”  Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, described Marco Rubio’s version of the DREAM Act as a “unique and disturbing American apartheid” in reference to the proposed classification of non-citizens-for-life.
 
Immigration control advocates in turn blame the comprehensive reform advocates for the illegal immigration problem, using rhetoric which evokes fears.  A common indictment against comprehensive reform advocates is that they would allow illegal immigrants to freely cross the border and “take over.”  Bill O’Reilly said on his show on May 31, 2007 when speaking to John McCain, “Do you understand what the New York Times wants, and the Far Left want, they want to break down the white, Christian, male power structure…and bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure we have.” This is reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s 2004 piece in Foreign Policy titled “The Hispanic Challenge” in which he states among other things that “the reconquista of the Southwest United States by Mexican immigrants is well underway.” Rush Limbaugh, arguably the most controversial political pundit, uses language that seems intentionally inflammatory. On April 25, 2010 he asked listeners “Isn’t protecting our legal citizens from an invading army of illegal aliens who are using our services and taking our jobs, isn’t that the basic notion of fairness? Isn’t that in the Constitution?” Continuing with the “invasion” image, he stated on August 15, 2011 that “some people would say we’re already under attack by aliens-not space aliens but illegal aliens.”
 
In the face of such language used by both sides of immigration reform it is not surprising that productive discussion has been replaced with blame. The terms “racist” and “apartheid” conjure up images of a deeply divided society ruled by hate. “Invasion” leads people to fear for their personal safety and to look to the government for protection. Words such as these evoke an emotional response from people and once people have taken a position based on emotion, rational thought is likely to be left behind. These words also insight a level of fear, a response that inherently dismisses rational thinking.  Neutral phrases such as “controlling the border,” and “laws motivated by race” convey the same message and meaning as “racist,” “apartheid,” and “invasion,” but without the connotations of fear and division.
 
Given the impasse in the debate, some have concluded that productive discussion on immigration will have to wait until the political tides change. This overlooks the fact that both sides are in agreement that the immigration system in this country doesn’t work for anyone -- immigrant or citizen. In order for the discussion to move forward both sides need to take stop using the polarizing language and recognize that reform will only come by finding common ground. Such a moderate position would be neither entirely immigration control, nor comprehensive immigration reform, instead recognizing that immigration policy needs to be both flexible and efficient enough to make it viable but secure enough to ensure our country’s safety.  
 
For productive discussion to begin the political tides do not need to change. The complicated nature of the visa application process and the resulting backlogs in the system, and reform of the preference system upon which visas are allocated are areas of immigration policy which could readily be discussed if both sides took a more moderate stance. Addressing immigration reform in such a piecemeal fashion would be a lengthy process, but if small reforms could be made, broader reform may be possible. The first step to reform though, is acknowledging that the use of inflammatory, polarizing and emotionally charged language is the cause of the current impasse. Using words more neutral in meaning would not only allow the discussion to move forward but also would not require either side to compromise their position.
 
Smith is a graduate student in political science at Villanova University and is currently an intern at the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.