One of the most striking features of the nation’s immigration debate is the intensity of the rhetoric. It simply hasn’t been a “discussion” of the subject until someone has been called a xenophobic Nazi and somebody else an America-hating commie.
That’s puzzling, when you think about it. It’s perfectly possible to think that national security and the laws of the land are worth enforcing without despising human dignity or being a racist. And it’s perfectly possible to recognize the terrible plight of many immigrant families and call for leniency without wanting to turn the southwest United States into a Mexican province or hating the rule of law.
Not only are those views both possible, I think they are common. In fact, for decent, thoughtful people, it’s not only possible but required to value national security, the rule of law, the desirability of assimilation and the human dignity of immigrants in dire poverty all at the same time. Given the many facets of immigration policy, one can apply those principles to the complicated facts and come to different conclusions in relative good faith.
But that’s not the debate we’re having. People do not assume basic decency on the part of those who disagree with them, let alone go one more step to recognizing their opponents are standing for worthy principles worth defending.
The more cynical side of me is tempted to think it’s because both sides are actually right about the other, and this really is a battle between racists who hate Mexicans and commies who hate America, with the rest of us caught in the middle. But I don’t really think that’s it.
Part of it is because the stakes are so high, and because so many people on both sides are affected so directly. (Full disclosure: I’m about as insulated from this issue as one could possibly be.)
But at heart I think it’s simply the triumph of bad faith. We don’t have a rational discussion of it because we no longer have the patience to think through complicated things, so we oversimplify. We are so thoroughly polarized that we rarely hear a thoughtful opposing view anyway, but rather get it filtered through a partisan media tailored already to our sympathies. The caricature is formed before we even engage the enemy, assuring yet another delightful battle of talking points. The crowd gathers and shout inflammatory things. The most outrageous are repeated in the opposing press. Then the other side gathers to shout its inflammatory things. Rinse. Repeat.
Illegal immigration is a big problem. But I think the debate itself exposes an even bigger problem.