Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
LAS CRUCES – In the final weeks leading up to the midterm election, divisive views on immigration are on display on the campaign trail, in debates and in the barrage of candidates’ television ads.
“Probably no other issue generates more raw emotion than this particular topic,” said Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit economic development organization in the region that includes southern New Mexico.
Barela was among several speakers at this month’s Domenici Public Policy conference that examined immigration issues.
“It seems to me that today in Washington, D.C., the people who are purported to be the biggest experts on immigration reform, or lack thereof, are people who have never even visited the border,” said Barela. “Or alternatively they will come here for the obligatory photo op in front of the wall or with border enforcement officials,” he said.
The current debate over immigration has its roots in America’s often conflicted feelings about immigrants. “The welcome and the rejection of the foreign born are inseparable companions in the United States,” said another speaker, historian Alan Kraut, a professor at American University.
Kraut said fear of foreigners dates back to the birth of the nation with Benjamin Franklin’s worry about Pennsylvania becoming a “colony of aliens” because of the influx of German immigrants.
Even as the country depended on immigrants to build the railroads, settle territories and work in factories during the industrial revolution, nativist and xenophobic backlashes flared up at times into full-blown racism with various groups including the Klu Klux Klan joining the call to restrict immigration
“All of this is a kind of echo of things past that is coming around again,” Kraut said.
He said the Charlottesville march in Virginia where white supremacists chanted “you will not replace us” is a reflection of new nativist fears.
Though extreme attitudes have grabbed headlines, most Americans have more complex views about immigration and immigrants.
“Most Americans think immigration helps the United States,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, also participating in the conference.
“Most people (are) more concerned about are we letting in the right types of immigrants rather than how many,” Brown said.
Earlier this year, the Bipartisan Policy Center set out to learn about voters’ current perceptions and priorities about immigration with a national survey and series of focus groups.
The vast majority of those voters described the current immigration system as “broken” and said they want “pragmatic” solutions.
According to the survey, 44 percent supported a path to citizenship for those illegally here if they pass a background check, pay their fair share of taxes and pay a monetary penalty; 25 percent supported legal status but not citizenship and less than 25 percent favored deportation.
But a majority said strong immigration enforcement is needed at the border.
“It’s not mass deportation or abolish ICE. It’s not drastically cutting immigration or open borders. It’s not attracting only the best and the brightest or family unification,” Brown said.
“It’s about finding those policies that meet in the middle.”
But that bipartisan effort has become increasingly difficult through the years. Brown is a “veteran” of five failed attempts at immigration reform.
“The focus on immigration this election is hardening those positions and ratcheting up the rhetoric even further,” she said.
The border region is often the target of that rhetoric as candidates perpetuate myths about illegal immigration including the idea that a “flood of Mexicans” is sneaking across the border, Barela said.
“There are more Mexicans moving back to Mexico than there are coming to the United States,” he said, pointing to multiple Pew Research Center studies in the past several years.
Immigrants categorized as OTMs, other than Mexicans, make up the largest share of illegal border crossers, and people who overstay visas are a growing share of undocumented immigration.
“Misperceptions manifest in policies that take direct aim at our region and our region’s business and paralyzes us in making comprehensive immigration reform,” said Barela, a Republican.
“Neither party has clean hands” when it comes to this debate, he added.
President Barack Obama had a “veto proof” majority in Congress during his first two years in office “yet not one single, serious bill was ever presented before either house of Congress,” Barela said.
He’s also critical of President Donald Trump’s signature border enforcement plan of building a wall.
“As a fiscal conservative, ladies and gentlemen, spending $25 (billion) to $30 billion dollars on a wall is the least effective and most antiquated approach we can take to solving a problem,” Barela said.
The fact of the matter is, “we need immigration and we need immigrants,” he said, pointing to the recent Department of Labor statistics showing “a record 6.9 million American jobs are going unfilled as we speak.”
But if history is any lesson, he and the other experts are concerned politicians are more likely to react to problems than try to craft a comprehensive policy for coping with America’s evolving immigration landscape.
“So we kick the can down the road, still debating the issue, still getting angry, using our region and using our culture and Mexico as a political piñata, scoring cheap political points on both sides,” Barela said.