The Toxicity of Immigration Rhetoric

This is not a post about being right.

Politics is not just about being right and it never has been. The way things work in a representative democracy is that you not only have to BE right, you have to convince a critical mass of other people in this country that you are right, otherwise being right will do you no good. Is it right to shut down the federal Department of Education? Probably. But since the people who hold this view are currently opposed by something like 75% of the U.S. Population, there’s no value to holding this (at least arguably) right view, and in fact in a general election saying it too loudly will get you trounced.


So please spare me the defense that the rhetoric in question conveys something that is right, true, or correct. It’s your God-given right as an American to not care if you are an obnoxious jerk and to believe that all you need to do in life is believe the right things; however, if that is the path you choose for your life, you should probably stay a good, healthy distance away from the political discourse.

Personally, I’m glad Eric Cantor lost. Personally, although I’m broadly in favor of immigration reform (depending on the particulars), I think it would be suicide to take the matter up at the present time. That doesn’t change the fact that a lot of what I’m seeing right now from people who feel more or less the same way (albeit with considerably more gusto) is counterproductive and harmful to the movement as a whole, even if it is effective at winning a low-turnout Congressional primary against an incumbent who alienated his constituency.

The immigration debate in particular is a target-rich environment for intemperate rhetoric that feeds a pre-existing narrative about the Republican party’s difficulty with race issues. Spare me your indignation about whether this narrative is fair or correct. Of course, it isn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that it exists, and needs active work to combat. And the best way to do that is not to say things that fuel the flame.


There is a way to make the point that illegal immigration is harmful and deleterious to our country and our economy without making it sound to the casual observer that what really makes your skin crawl are the hordes of dirty brown people you see more and more of these days. And if pundits cannot manage to walk this tightrope successfully they should probably just stop talking about immigration altogether at the risk of hurting both the long-term efforts of their cause and the GOP at large.

A good start would be to avoid language that invokes deliberate images of warfare like “invasion” and “invaders” or that suggests a belief that the damn Mexicans are just here to steal our welfare. Again, it does not matter if you think those words are correct or accurate; they are a tell tale sign of someone whose objection to immigration is based on “otherness” rather than sound legal policy, whether that’s fair or not. A poor example of that would be this piece by my colleague Daniel Horowitz which addresses at least arguably a real issue, but cloaked in so much rhetoric that rises immediately to the level of 11 that it gives the very clear impression that Central American kids who cross the border without their parents should be left to starve. Calling supporters of immigration reform by Spanish names as an insult as some did a la “Jorge Arbusto” or “Juan McCain” is – let’s say less than helpful insensitivity at best and a “tell” of pretty strong racial biases at worst.  Opponents of immigration reform bristle (and largely with good reason) at the suggestion that their policy preferences are based on opposition to Mexicans specifically; they should perhaps be willing to try harder to avoid giving off that public impression.


Probably, at least, immigration reform is dead for the foreseeable future, which is as it should be. And I don’t at all blame its opponents for wanting to stand vigilant against the zombie menace. But it’s long past time to at least make an effort to appear reasonable to people who are marginal on the issue and politics in general. For better or worse (probably worse), those people decide a lot of elections and they make decisions on imperfect grounds, like whether they are ashamed to stand with opponents of a certain issue because of the embarrassing language they use. Fair or not, such is the modern political condition. And if you cannot shape your public arguments with that principle in mind, please just make them privately, for the sake of the rest of us.



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