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

A key new component of the new structure of the immigration debate concerns cultural issues. Historically, Latino immigrants suffered under a regime structured to reduce or eliminate Spanish. The passage of the 1975 Voting Rights Act, which called for providing Spanish language assistance to non-English speaking citizens, along with the Lau decision that established bilingual education as a legitimate methodology for teaching non-English speaking children, accelerated the dismantling of that regime. Today, schools have completely reversed themselves and encourage Spanish speaking immigrants to be bilingual. Nonetheless, census and vast amounts of survey data clearly indicate a monotonic move across generations toward English. But the immigrant population so rapidly replenishes itself that it gives the image that Spanish is retained at the expense of learning English. Reinforcing this false image is the growth of Spanish language media. Although increasingly used by second and third generation Latinos, overall, research indicates that Spanish language media’s audience is the immigrant generation.

Historically, language issues were less relevant because there was no one language linking most immigrants. Today, Spanish plays that role. It is easy to understand, therefore, why mainstream America worries that there may be a move afoot to make Spanish at least coequal with English. To prevent mobilization around such claims, at least three measures must be taken. First, Latinos, especially political leaders and influentials including the intelligentsia (those who work with knowledge whether or not they produce it), must honestly describe immigrant linguistic behavior. Too often, members of this group, either out of ignorance or nationalistic sentiments, over-claim Spanish retention rates. Second, Latinos should publicly acknowledge that English is the national language even as they emphasize that it is not the official language. This is not a reactionary or assimilationist proposal; rather it is a simple acknowledgement of our reality. Societies around the globe including Latin America know this, so efforts to argue differently not only lack a substantive foundation but they enflame the nation’s political debate in ways that can be used against undocumented immigrants.

Finally, given the concern over English acquisition, Latino leaders in alliance with other social and political forces should pressure all levels of government to fund English learning programs. Those few in existence are over-subscribed, and new programs would provide immigrants a service they want and quiet claims that they are resistant to learning English.

I should add that in no way should my argument be seen as in opposition to Spanish maintenance. To the contrary, I strongly support community-based efforts to maintain and expand Spanish so long as this is done without seeking state support and is not used as a tactic to mobilize the Latino community toward narrowly focused political goals.

The final new development I will address concerns immigrant political behavior. After decades of ignoring its emigrants, Mexico has been developing a new policy designed to develop and strengthen its ties with its émigrés. In this it and other Latin American states such as Guatemala and Colombia are emulating El Salvador. While transactions between the home country and these immigrants have increased, thanks in part to new technologies, there is little evidence that this expanding relationship has led to increased political involvement with country of origin politics. Moreover, surveys by TRPI provide no evidence that the immigrants have mobilized to serve as lobbyists for countries of origin. The only possible exception to this are the on-going efforts to influence immigration policy, an outcome that immigrants would favor out of self-interest regardless of the preferences of home country governments.

Further evidence of the lack of involvement of immigrants in home country politics may be seen in the low number of Mexicans who voted absentee in this year’s presidential election. Out of over three million emigrants who were eligible to register, only approximately 40,000 did so, and even fewer actually voted.  Surveys by Pew Hispanic Trust and TRPI9 repeatedly find that immigrants are more focused on and involved with politics in the U. S. than at home. This is as we would expect, given that the issues that most affect the daily lives of immigrants include access to education, housing, health and employment where they live and not where they came from.

The American public needs to be informed about these patterns so that they may further disentangle immigration issues from security issues. Only when this is accomplished will it be possible to begin to address the issues that are inherently linked to and caused by immigration. 


The contemporary immigration debate is constructed around significantly different issues than those that shaped prior debates. The major commonality linking today’s political battles with those of the past is racism. Even its significance has changed, however. While historically racism may have driven immigration policy, today it is but one factor, and I would argue a relatively less important one in the current political battle. More relevant is the extent to which immigration concerns have been subsumed into the War on Terror. That transition affects how the nation’s leaders and mainstream society, including Latinos, view many of the issues that are the core of the immigration debate. Finally, the economic consequences of immigration merit much more clear thinking. To achieve this, it is essential to recognize that the impact immigrants have on the wages and job market reflects how globalization affects international migration and has led to the restructuring our economy. Relatedly, it serves no purpose to avoid looking at how employer utilization of Mexican immigrants keeps African Americans unemployed and may also drive wages down even as job creation in low paying service sector industries expands.

Finally, I would add that a key element of the immigration debate should focus on the extent to which foreign governments unofficially support emigration because it generates remittances and serves as a relief valve to avoid political problems. Critics of immigration seem oblivious to the possible consequences that could result if Mexican undocumented immigration were effectively stopped. Even more troubling to me is that defenders of the undocumented are silent about how little foreign governments do in terms of tax reform and labor policy to create real opportunities for their working classes.10 Immigrant rights defenders should know that most immigrants would rather stay at home, and therefore these advocates should work with all those concerned with these issues to pressure foreign governments to initiate reforms that will reduce migration.