Understanding Contemporary Immigration Debates: The Need for A Multidimensional Approach
Published on: Jul 31, 2006

Rodolfo O. de la Garza is Eaton Professor of Administrative Law and Municipal Science at Columbia University and vice-president for research at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. He has edited, coedited, and coauthored numerous books including Sending Money Home: Hispanic Remittances and Community Development, with Briant Lindsay Lowell (Rowman and Littlefield 2002) and Latinos and U.S. Foreign Policy: Lobbying for the Homeland? (coeditor, Roman and Littlefield 2000).

Racial loyalties and predjudices have historically weighed heavily in American immigration debates. So accustomed have Americans become to racialized perspectives that both advocates and analysts tend to expect that the arguments of partisans for particular policies, whether for or against restrictionist or expansionist goals, are motivated by racial bias even when other factors may be more significant. The current debates over immigration policy are too often being seen through such antiquated lenses, which distort rather than clarify our understandings and perpetuate outdated stereotypes. To break with old patterns, my purpose here is to identify some shortcomings reflected in racialized perspectives and to suggest the contours of a multidimensional approach, one that more appropriately frames new realities and will, I hope, help to overcome our current immigration policy logjam.

Central to my proposed framework is the recognition that while racial/ethnic discrimination continues to influence how the nation deals with immigration, it is but one factor, and not a dominant one. The discriminatory history of our immigration policy is too well known to require review here. While there can be little doubt that many critics of contemporary immigration continue to view immigration through racial stereotypes, I would argue that such attitudes are less central to today’s debate than they were historically. This, even though, as was true in the early 20th century, influential scholars legitimize culturally based anti-immigrant views with their claims that the majority of new immigrants are culturally incapable of assimilating into the nation’s political culture1 or that they are of lower quality than earlier immigrants.2 Although it must be noted that the latter refers to the skills and education levels of recent immigrants rather than to inherent cultural deficiencies, such language, nonetheless, can be used to legitimize race-based anti-immigration arguments.

It is also important to acknowledge that many pro-immigration advocates, especially Latinos who are understandably especially concerned about the issue, seem to agree that racism is the only or key factor fueling the debate. An admittedly cursory and non-systematic review of how the Spanish language media, which depend on immigrants, cover the issue3 indicates that they emphasize those aspects that reflect racism, but they never discuss other factors such as those reviewed later in this essay that also are central to the problem. Not surprisingly, the views attributed to Latino community leaders in the Spanish and English press, especially those who are work with or represent immigrants, also stress the importance of racism and ignore how other factors affect the problem. This same pattern is also evident in the views of the Latino intelligentsia as is evident in the list-serve email postings of Latino political scientists.4

However, even a cursory review of how the debate has evolved indicates that racism, while surely present among many critics, is not what drives the debate. For example, Ruy Teixera5 argues that “the public favors a tough, but not punitive, approach to the problem of containing illegal immigration and is willing to consider fairly generous approaches to the illegal immigrants already here, provided they feel expectations for these immigrants are high and that they will play by the rules. ‘Tough, but fair’ is a reasonable summary of their position.”

Unlike the foreign born, native born Latinos voice similar views. While the most recent Pew Hispanic Trust poll (July 2006) found that Latinos overall favored allowing all of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States to stay and have a chance to become citizens, U.S.-born Latinos preferred restricting legalization to only those who have lived in the United States for at least five years. Also, native born Latinos favored increasing the size of the border patrol and supported a government database to check the eligibility of workers—but immigrants do not. These preferences indicate that native born Latinos, like mainstream society, support restrictive reforms. Latinos regardless of status also indicate that they feel more discriminated against because of the immigration debate.

Taken together, these patterns illustrate that Latinos are aware of and concerned about racism. Nonetheless, the native born also support restrictive immigration measures that will negatively affect the undocumented. Given their anti-racism concerns, it is untenable to argue that their support for reforms that target the undocumented are based on racism. On this, then, it would seem that to the extent that Latino leaders argue that support for immigration control and reform reflects racism is out of step with the average Latino citizen, a condition that serves neither well.

Moreover, President Bush’s support for guest workers and a “path to citizenship” reveal no racism, nor does the Senate’s version of a new immigration policy. This is not to say that the vigilantes on the border and the recent attack on a Mexican restaurant in San Diego6 are not motivated by racism. Nor would I claim that that some Congressmen who support the extreme punitive measures of the House bill are free of racism. It is rather to argue that the fact that the general public did not resort to racist denunciations in their response to this spring’s immigrant marches is further evidence in support of my argument. This is especially noteworthy given that as recently as 1994 the Proposition 187 debates were couched in racist imagery.

There are many possible explanations for this change. Among them are the increasing hegemony of a new discourse that is intolerant of racially exclusionary speech, i.e., what some would call politically correct language. Also, there are Republican strategic interests in increasing their share of Latino and Asian voters and the existence of a well organized and mobilized ethnic group network that has developed strategic alliances with groups such as the Catholic church, organized labor and African Americans. Together these factors may have convinced moderates that allying with the more racist anti-immigrant sectors would lead to major long term losses for the Republican Party. Add to this the pro-immigration attitudes and mobilization of chambers of commerce, unions, NGOs and religious groups and it is clear why the race-baiting claims made as recently as 1994 no longer hold center stage.