Race Forms Ugly Underbelly Of Immigration Debate

Amber Arellano, Detroit News, April 30, 2007

Tomorrow, thousands of immigrants will march across Detroit and other cities for the second year in a row, calling for respect, dignity and a chance to become a U.S. citizen.

Already I can hear the backlash, and it makes me wonder:

If today’s immigrants were from white European countries, would the anti-immigration backlash be so ferocious?

Of course not.

Race and ethnicity make-up the ugly underbelly of the immigration debate that no one likes to talks about.

Instead, anti-immigrant complainers wrap their arguments around assimilation and citizenship—largely nonissues—when what they’re really upset about is the fact that today’s newcomers are overwhelmingly non-European and brown.

Look at the evidence. Present-day immigrants assimilate at the same rate as previous generations of immigrants, an overwhelming number of studies show.

Second-generation Hispanic Americans speak English as much as other second-generation ethnic groups have. In fact, about 40 percent of U.S. Hispanics don’t even speak espanol.

The same goes for crime. Conventional wisdom says immigration boosts crime rates. The facts say otherwise. Harvard University is just one research center that has found that Mexican-Americans’ violence rate is significantly lower than both non-Hispanic whites and blacks. Many cities with high rates of immigration are actually safer now.

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But the right gets immigrants wrong, too. Conservative anti-immigrant forces attack immigrants on untruth grounds, because it’s not politically correct to attack them for being brown folks coming mainly from Latin America and Asia.

Think about it: If the thousands of new immigrants were from Ireland or Germany, would Ku Klux Klan activists be using immigration to successfully recruit new members?

No way. They’d be revitalizing now defunct German-American associations and boosting the ranks of St. Patrick’s Day parades.

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This rhetoric is so predictable and utterly untrue, it’s hard to believe people actually still buy it.

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The 1911 U.S. government-sponsored Dillingham Commission actually found that “The new immigration as a class is far less intelligent than the old. Generally speaking they are actuated in coming by different ideals, for the old immigration came to be a part of the country, while the new, in a large measure, comes with the intention of profiting, in a pecuniary way, by the superior advantages of the new world and then returning to the old country.”

The report was speaking to the masses of Eastern European, Italian, Irish and other immigrants—our grandparents and great-grandparents—that many native-born Americans found so repulsive.

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To be sure, there are legitimate economic concerns over immigration. An unlimited growth in the American labor supply is suspected to have some downward pressure on wages of low-skill earners. The evidence is mixed on this, and it may be too soon for us to know for sure.

Even so, that’s not right. The United States should be doing a lot more to counter immigration with smart policies, such as using more international development tools and applying pressure on U.S. big business to pay maquiladora workers on the Mexican side of the border more so immigrants can earn a decent living wage in their home countries—a typical preference.

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Rather, their attacks smack of racism, xenophobia and fear, those all-American qualities that continue to stick with us, along with our higher qualities of valuing liberty, opportunity and open doors to the poor and weary.

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