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Commentary: Fear of foreigners drives immigration debate

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- This week marks the first anniversary of a series of major demonstrations over immigration reform. And while an entire year has gone by, Americans really haven't learned that much about the subject matter.

For instance, some immigration restrictionists are still playing pretend. They are still insisting that the only thing that people are concerned about is illegal immigration and that, with regard to legal immigration, America is as welcoming as ever.

What? Maybe that's true ... if we agree that -- despite the brochure -- America has never really welcomed immigrants, even the legal kind.

Those who insist otherwise point out that the United States takes in about 2 million legal immigrants annually.

Big deal. In a country of 300 million people that bills itself as the land of immigrants, taking in less than 1 percent of your population in legal immigrants is nothing to brag about.

Besides, the history is clear. In the late 1700's, Benjamin Franklin fretted over Pennsylvania becoming "a colony of aliens" thanks to German immigrants. In the mid-1800's, concerned that immigrants from the Far East wouldn't assimilate, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to keep out ... guess who. And in the early 1900's, Congress targeted Italians, Jews and Greeks by creating quotas that limited immigration by country of origin.

In each of those cases, those who tried to shut the door didn't care a whit that the people they were keeping out were coming legally. All they cared about was that the immigrants on the other side of that door were foreigners with weird languages, strange religions, and peculiar customs.

Not much has changed. Much of what's driving the current debate is the same fear of foreigners and the changes they bring.

Some groups pushing the restrictionist agenda -- such as NUMBERS USA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies, all of them started with the help of nativist John Tanton -- want to limit legal immigration as well. And Congress can't seem to debate immigration reform without declaring English the national language, even though one has nothing to do with the other.

In public opinion polls, a majority of Americans now say they want to limit all immigration, including the legal kind.

Some pundits claim that legal immigration leads to illegal immigration because, once people come to the United States legally, their relatives will follow even if it means coming illegally. On the flip side, there are those who oppose offering illegal immigrants a path to legal residency because it could make it easier for millions of additional immigrants to come into the country legally through policies that push family unification.

Others insist that the cultural concerns that come with having too much immigration -- people not learning English, changing neighborhoods, etc. -- don't go away when the immigrants in question come legally.

So let's stop pretending that it's only illegal immigration that has Americans worked up. It's immigration -- period. Along the way, we should have at least learned that much.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.external link

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.


Ruben Navarrette Jr.: A year after major immigration demonstrations, Americans haven't learned much about the subject.

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