Is Racism Fueling the Immigration Debate?

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On May 10, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on a new census report that said 45% of the nation's children under the age of five are racial or ethnic minorities, and that the percentage is increasing primarily because the Hispanic population is growing so rapidly. If you read those facts carefully, you'd probably find them interesting, but not necessarily sufficient to draw any sweeping conclusions about the demographic and cultural future of the country.

If, however, you wanted to make a point about the dangers of illegal immigration, you might interpret the findings in your own particular way. On May 11, John Gibson of Fox News implored viewers to, "Do your duty. Make more babies... half of the kids in this country under five years old are minorities. By far the greatest number are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic. Why is that? Well, the Hispanics are having more kids than others. Notably the ones Hispanics call gabachos, white people, are having fewer."

Gibson is, of course, wildly wrong and not just because he rounds 45% up to "half" or conflates all racial and ethnic minorities with Hispanics. The Hispanic population is growing more rapidly than the white population, but nothing like what he fears. According to a projection released last year by the Census bureau, in 2030 the Hispanic population of the U.S. will be about 20.1%. Fifty years from now, the majority of Americans will still be white and 24.4% will be Hispanic.

But his comments brought to light what many Democrats contend is really beneath the fight over immigration — a hint of racism or nativism. "I have no doubt that some of those involved in the debate have their position based on fear and perhaps racism because of what's happening demographically in the country," says Ken Salazar, Democratic Senator from Colorado. A Senate Democratic leadership aide is more blunt: "A lot of the anti-immigration movement is jingoistic at best and racist at worst. There is a fear of white people being over run by darker-skinned people."

Resistance is fierce in the House to any plan to legalize the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants or to create a program of millions of guest workers who would in turn be put on a path to citizenship. No one accuses House leaders of acting out of racism, but some say they are responding to constituents who are. The House leadership is in a tight spot — they need to show some progress on the issue to placate angry anti-immigrant forces in the country. But the President and Senate want guest workers and a path to citizenship as part of any deal.

The Democratic allegations of racism may sound like just another political ploy, but there certainly is a case to be made that racial fears are informing some of the debate on immigration policy. The political demand to seal the U.S.-Mexico border, and the President's new proposal to send 6,000 members of the National Guard to help do that, is nominally based on national security. But why then is no one proposing sending additional National Guard troops to secure the U.S.-Canada border? Don't laugh. Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber, was caught at the Canadian border with a trunk full of explosive precursor material and a plot to bomb Los Angeles Airport. And as for the notion that terrorists are mixing with undocumented border crossers to infiltrate the country from the south, all 19 of the 9/11 plotters entered the U.S. legally.

But if the U.S. is trying to stop primarily undocumented Mexican workers rather than terrorists from crossing the border, is there anything wrong with that? Just because there are some racists influencing the debate doesn't mean anyone who is for immigration control is a racist. Figuring out just how many immigrants, Hispanic or otherwise, to let into the country each year is exactly what lawmakers ought to be trying to do as they undertake immigration reform. Setting immigration targets that are in the country's interest is, after all, the point of having an immigration policy to begin with.

Defining those interests should be the first thing policy makers do. Enumerating them to Americans should be the second. At that point there can be a debate about whose idea of what is good for the country is best. What kinds of skills does America need to import? And how many of them do they need? What advantage is there is in allowing family members to join new citizens, as is currently the policy?

Just as important, the debate could address the issue of race head-on: should ethnicity be a factor in granting citizenship? There are a small number of respectable scholars, like Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington, who argue that the large Hispanic influx into America does threaten its character. A large number of other respectable scholars say German, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Asian immigrants faced the same criticism throughout the country's history. But until politicians define the goals of American immigration policy — who and how many do we want and for what reason — it will be impossible to strip out the influence of anti-immigrant forces who, whether racist or not, draw dubious conclusions and make misleading statements.