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often being seen through such antiquated lenses, which distort rather than clarify our understandings and perpetuate outdated stereotypes.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.

In sum, while many anti-immigration advocates continue to harbor racist sentiments as they have historically, racism is clearly neither the driving nor central concern driving the current debate. Instead, as I will now argue, new factors are now shaping the nation’s view of the issue.

Among the most noteworthy is that the debate has focused on illegal immigration rather than on immigration and immigrants per se.  Historically, all immigrants regardless of their status were targeted when anti-immigrant sentiments held sway. It is reasonable to argue that this narrower and unquestionably legitimate focus is linked to changes resulting from the tragedy of 9/11.

The nation’s response to those attacks includes a transformation in how undocumented migration is perceived and addressed. Among the most important of these changes is that responsibility for immigration issues has been assigned to the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The Department’s published agenda calls for it to:

  • Increase overall preparedness, particularly for catastrophic events

  • Create better transportation security systems to move people and cargo more securely and efficiently

  • Strengthen border security and interior enforcement and reform immigration processes

  • Enhance information sharing with our partners

  • Improve DHS financial management, human resource development, procurement and information technology

  • Realign the DHS organization to maximize mission performance

Clearly, immigration issues are not emphasized by the Department. To the contrary, this agenda has led to linking immigration policies to the War on Terror, such as border security. Given that border security means, among other things, preventing undocumented immigration, the general public’s support of anti-terrorist measures is easily expanded to support efforts to curb undocumented migration. Thus, a lower tolerance for undocumented immigrants may primarily reflect the public’s understandable response resulting from conflating immigration and anti-terrorism issues within the Department of Homeland Security’s agenda.

This is especially troublesome because of the weak linkages between security and immigration issues. The 9/11 perpetrators, for example, had come as tourists or students, not as immigrants. In other words, they would have been able to enter the country if our borders had been perfectly secure. This suggests that the immigration debate could be sharpened and advanced by focusing on the extremely low probability that terrorists will try to enter the country as undocumented immigrants, an approach they are unlikely to engage in because it is such a high risk enterprise for the individuals involved, as compared to entering as commercial travelers, tourists or students, avenues that entail virtually no risk and are widely available to anyone who meets minimal requirements. In other words, to develop productive approaches for dealing with undocumented immigration we must begin by disassociating it from the War on Terror.

Unrelated to the anti-terrorist issue is the public’s concern over the cost of undocumented immigration and its impact on the labor market. Although critics greatly over-estimate the price the nation pays for undocumented immigration, the National Research Council has shown that undocumented immigration is not cost free, particularly to states with large concentration of unauthorized immigrants. In California, for example, undocumented immigrants cost citizens over $1,000 per family. This, combined with the way that immigrant taxes are distributed—the national government gains the most because the cost of the services it provides are much lower than the amount it receives from social security and other taxes, while local governments lose the most since the cost of the services they provide exceed the taxes they receive—create problems that legitimately concern citizens and legal residents. As immigration policy continues to be debated, it is essential to address these patterns. Part of that approach should include a complete analysis of a state’s and the nation’s overall economic relationship to Mexico. The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute’s report on the California-Mexico economic relationship is an example of such a study. Overall, it found that although undocumented immigration generated a net loss for the state, its cost was trivial in the context of the overall relationship. Thus, the report concluded that marshalling attacks on undocumented immigration for economic reasons could result in poisoning the state’s overall relationship with Mexico and jeopardizing the great economic benefits it brings to the state.7

The opposition of large segments of the nation’s workers to undocumented immigration also is an understandable albeit misguided response. In part it reflects dissatisfaction resulting from the loss of high paying jobs in sectors such as manufacturing and meat packing resulting from globalization. Since it is virtually impossible for displaced or down graded workers to vent their anger on the forces driving these changes, they direct their dissatisfaction at immigrants who are willing to take many of the few jobs remaining in these sectors at wages that are much lower than those received by the former workers. While the willingness of immigrants to accept such wages provides communities that were in rapid decline such as Lawrence, Massachusetts and meat packing centers in Kansas and Nebraska a new lease on life, the individual workers suffer because they often either have to accept the new lower wages or migrate to other parts of the country. Either response is likely to generate resentments that can easily be mobilized into anti-immigrant sentiments.

There should be no doubt that undocumented immigrants are not the cause of the changed world economy nor of the downsizing that many formerly thriving sectors have experienced. But it is equally clear that they are now benefiting from this restructuring. Rather than insist that immigrants only take jobs no one else wants, therefore, defenders of the undocumented need to work with the displaced workers and their leadership to pressure the government and the private sector to develop efforts to meet the needs of the nation’s displaced workers.

Also, although national level aggregate studies do not find that overall the undocumented displace less skilled American workers, there is local level evidence that suggests the opposite, especially if they are African Americans.8 Nestor Rodriguez’s studies in Houston describes undocumented immigrants completely taking over specific work sites; my research in Phoenix indicates that white employers prefer Mexican undocumenteds to African American workers; Maria Echeveste, a well recognized Democratic party activist and policy adviser, has publicly voiced concern over the extent to which undocumented immigrants rather than African Americans have been recruited to rebuild post- Katrina New Orleans; and Los Angeles service unions are now dominated by immigrants, many or most of whom are undocumented, suggesting that there, too, less educated white and African American workers have been displaced. The effort to respond creatively to today’s immigration dilemma requires acknowledging such local experiences. Failure to do so will prevent finding policy alternatives that emphasize the rights of the undocumented and ignore the well being of millions of American workers.

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.


1 Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

2 George J. Borjas, Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001); George J. Borjas, “Assimilation and Changes in Cohort Quality Revisited: What Happened to Immigrant Earnings in the 1980s?” Journal of Labor Economics 13 (April 1995), 201-245.

3 Louis DeSipio. Latino Viewing Choices: Bilingual Television Viewers and the Language Choices They Make, Research Report, (University of Southern California: Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, May 2003); Louis DeSipio. Engaging Television in English y en Español. Research Report, (University of Southern California: Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, March 1999).

4 “Latino-C: Latino Caucus of APSA,” Latino-C@listserve.listserv.ilstu.edu. That political scientists are not alone in voicing these views is suggested by the argument of a leading Mexican American historian articulated at a Social Science Research Council conference at Sanibel Island, Florida, January 18-21, 1996, titled “Becoming American/American Becoming.

5 Ruy Teixera, “What Does the Public Want on Immigration?” Donkey Rising: The Emerging Democratic Majority, April 5, 2006. http://www.emergingdemocraticmajorityweblog.com/donkeyrising/.

6 La Voz De Aztlan News Bulletin, April 12, 2006, Los Angeles, Alta California.

7 Jeronimo Cortina, Rodolfo de la Garza, Sandra Bejarano & Andrew Wainer, The Economic Impact of the Mexico-California Relationship (University of Southern California: Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, 2005).

8 This apparent contradiction reflects methodological differences. Local level job losses within particular job sites or narrowly defined sectors may be too specific to be picked up in national data. Also, displaced workers may drop out of the job market and be lost to aggregate data analyses, or they may migrate and find employment in other locations. In the latter example, they will not appear as displaced workers even though that is what they are.

9 Louis DeSipio, Harry Pachon, Rodolfo O. De la Garza, and Jongho Lee, Immigrant Politics at Home and Abroad: How Latino Immigrants Engage the Politics of Their Home Communities and the United States (Claremont, CA: The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, 2003).

10 George W. Grayson, “Mexican Officials Feather Their Nests While Decrying U. S. Immigration Policy,” Background Report (Washington, D. C.: Center for Immigration Studies, April, 2006); Rodolfo O. de la Garza, “Mexican Political Migration,” Lecture, Summer Seminar on Immigration, University of California at Irvine, July 2005; Rodolfo O. de la Garza and Gabriel Szekely, "Policy, Politics and Emigration: Reexamining the Mexican Experience," in F. Bean, R. de la Garza, B. Roberts and S.Weintraub, eds. At the Crossroads: Mexican Migration and U.S. Policy (Latham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).