Beyond migrants vs. yahoos

The immigration debate in Congress and out has quickly deteriorated from a discussion of rational policy options to a name-calling contest likely to produce few if any real winners.

The immigration debate in Congress and out has quickly deteriorated from a discussion of rational policy options to a name-calling contest likely to produce few if any real winners.

The demonizing of immigrants by some in the name of either protecting our sovereignty or fighting the war on terror is as unconscionable as the specter of illegal immigrants marching in the streets, waving foreign flags and burning ours while demanding rights they supposedly deserve for having flouted our laws in coming here.

Many politicians sought to avoid the debate altogether but could no longer ignore a problem of increasing concern to a significant majority of the American people. Pollsters are finding that “immigration” and “illegal immigrants” are nearing the top of the list of concerns among people in states and localities that have little or no real contact with the massive inflow of immigrants who have had such an impact on Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona. For the first time in memory, pollsters tell us that people are telling them immigrants are having a negative rather than positive impact on our economy and culture.

Unfortunately, neither the Bush administration nor many in Congress grasp the core problem. It isn’t, as some aver, that illegal immigrants are “stealing” jobs that might otherwise go to American citizens, and it isn’t that most Americans are racists who can’t stand Mexicans. Nor is it that most Americans fear that those coming across our borders under cover of darkness or overstaying their visas are terrorist or criminals.

This is not to deny that there are racists out there or that one can find anecdotal evidence that someone, somewhere did lose a job to a noncitizen without the right papers. Nor is it to deny that criminals and drug dealers are moving freely in and out of the country over our porous borders. The tunnels from Mexico and Canada, the number of illegal immigrants in our prisons for crimes committed once they’ve gotten here and the fact that something like 85 percent of the methamphetamines ravaging the country have come in over our southern border are proof that the problem is real.

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol believes we are becoming a nation of yahoos, but such name-calling ignores the real problem, which is that many, many Americans fear their country is changing in uncomfortable ways.

The immigrants built the United States came from many nations and often shared little on their arrival save a desire for freedom and the hope that this was a nation in which they and their children would be rewarded for hard work. In return, they traded their allegiance to the nations from which they came for an undivided allegiance to their new home and thus became Americans. They learned English, fought in our wars (often against the nations in which they were born) and, while retaining a fondness for the heritage of their ancestors, were proud that they had achieved the reality of which most could only dream … U.S. citizenship.

When Ozzie Guillen, the Venezuela-born manager of the World Series champion Chicago White Sox, was sworn in as a citizen over the winter, he said that it was that moment, rather than getting a job as a Major League Baseball manager or even winning the World Series, of which he had dreamed and worked for most of his adult life.

The concern underlying the immigration debate that threatens to tear us apart is that there aren’t enough Ozzie Guillens coming here and that the days of the melting pot may have ended. Many of those arriving on our shores today aren’t willing to forsake the lands of their fathers to become Americans. They want jobs. They want the rights that the world associates with this country. But they don’t want or intend, even if a magnanimous Congress hands them citizenship. Instead, they’d like to be dual citizens with the right to vote both here and back home.

Some in Congress, like Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R), are grappling with this problem and working to develop programs that will encourage immigrant arrivals to learn English, educate themselves on just what it is that makes this country unique and to become not just working residents, but real citizens of the United States.

Border security is vitally important as are questions of how many immigrants should be welcomed each year, but nothing is as important as the question of how those who are allowed in are to be assimilated as real rather than paper citizens of the greatest nation on the face of the earth.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).