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Keep ugliness out of immigration debate

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette: Legal immigrants have always been our most valuable import
  • Navarrette says immigration debate devalued by ugly, alarmist and bigoted statements
  • U.S. deserves principled debate on the merits, he says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to Read his column here.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- 'Tis the season of peace on Earth and good will toward men. Yet you wouldn't know it from the screed from the conservative radio talk show host who recently charged into the immigration debate with gums flapping.

He called for a crackdown on illegal immigration but also a wholesale tightening of immigration policy so we admit fewer legal immigrants as well.

The radio talker was half-right. Americans must get serious about stopping illegal immigration, mostly by doing something we never seem to do with much enthusiasm: punish employers. But legal immigration shouldn't be dragged into the mix.

Legal immigrants -- with their energy, passion and optimism -- have always been this country's most valuable import. Even in bad economic times, we need more of them and not less.

Still, the worst part was the wildly inappropriate language the host used to justify his position. He was dangerously out-of-bounds in framing the issue as one of protecting society from the latest wave of immigrants, most of whom come from Mexico and Latin America. Unless something was done to curb the flow, he said, these foreigners would continue to "alter our demographics, erode our culture, and threaten our language."

Demographics. Culture. Language.

And people wonder why accusations of racism and ethnocentrism keep surfacing in the immigration debate. It's because of ugly, alarmist and bigoted statements like these -- the sort of poison that has a familiar ring to it.

Let's be real. Americans have been griping, 'There goes the neighborhood' for more than 200 years.
--Ruben Navarrette, Jr.

Let's be real. Americans have been griping, "There goes the neighborhood" for more than 200 years. The first group of immigrants to the United States who were accused of diminishing the quality of life for everyone else -- by altering the demographics, eroding the culture and threatening the language -- were the Germans, followed by the Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, the Greeks, the Jews, the Muslims, etc.

Now, it's the Latinos' turn to be in the rhetorical crosshairs. They'll be there again this spring, when the Obama administration has promised to join in an encore to the immigration debate of a few years ago, which, as you may recall, provided substantially more heat than light.

One of the people leading that debate will be Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, who has said he plans to introduce a comprehensive immigration bill on Tuesday.

The 10-point plan provides for enforcement, but also gives illegal immigrants a pathway to earned legalization, promotes integration of immigrants and tries to manage the future flow of immigrants by protecting American workers from having to compete with foreign workers.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the White House's designated point person to shepherd immigration reform, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee what she has in mind.

"We must seize this moment to build a truly effective immigration system that deters illegal immigration, provides effective and enduring enforcement tools, protects workers from exploitation and retaliation and creates a tough but fair path to legalization for the millions of illegal immigrants already here," Napolitano said.

It's that last item, a path to legalization for illegal immigrants, that will be the main sticking point. For many Americans, this translates into amnesty for lawbreakers.

Yet, critics come up empty when asked what we should do with 12 million illegal immigrants, given that our deportation process works like a revolving door. Many of those who we deport to a neighboring country like Mexico return before the paperwork is processed. And those who we hope will "self deport" when jobs disappear can opt to "self re-enter" when the economy improves. So that's no solution.

That's one of the problems with the immigration debate. Confronted with a complicated situation, the extremes on both sides propose simplistic solutions -- whether to build a wall, or unconditionally pardon millions of illegal immigrants with the stroke of a pen.

Another problem with the debate: Both sides insist on blaming others. Neither side wants to take any degree of responsibility for fueling, through their own behavior and hiring practices, America's addiction to cheap and reliable illegal immigrant labor.

Another problem: Even when the conversation does turn to employers, it is always framed as being about huge companies. What happened to soccer moms? Our leaders in Congress somehow got through months of debate without ever uttering the words "nanny" or "housekeeper." That's not easy to do unless you're really trying to avoid drawing attention to our domestic workforce.

Another problem: Those Americans who are also parents always refuse to accept their role in creating the demand for illegal immigrant workers by raising teenagers and young adults who refuse to do the hard and dirty jobs that their grandparents did a couple of generations ago. Someone has to do those jobs. Guess who does them?

Then, of course, there's the divisive language and the tendency for some groups to look down on others.

Critics of comprehensive immigration reform can talk all they want about the alleged strain that illegal immigrants put on the U.S. economy, the alleged burden on social services, the porous borders, the undermining of the rule of law, the swelling of the U.S. population, or the alleged lowering of wages by illegal workers and the claim that it puts working-class Americans at an unfair disadvantage.

Those arguments are totally acceptable. But when opponents get down in the mud by mentioning things like demographics or culture or language, they shouldn't be surprised when they're accused of racism and ethnocentrism. And even less surprised when the label sticks.

The United States is a remarkable and compassionate country unlike any the world has ever seen. It deserves an immigration debate that is principled, high-minded and purged of the ugliness that has been part of this discussion since the first immigrants arrived. Let's make it happen this time.

The opinions expressed in the commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.