If you asked political pundits coming into the 2016 campaign to define what issue would be the most important in the Republican primary, you would have heard a lot about the need for a Republican Rebrand–an appeal to people of color, to religious immigrants, to a party willing to contend with two lost elections in a row. Policy-wise, you’d anticipate discussion of repealing Obamacare, or fighting regulation, or Constitutional conservatism as the headlining issue. Instead, it has been immigration and its constituent xenophobia and racism, that has become the dominating discussion of the Republican primary. Donald Trump and co. have misled their audiences with factual contortions, which not only require broader condemnation for the racist and often white-supremacist nature of their comments but also need to be rebutted in order to get the facts right–and hopefully, put some of the vitriol to rest.
For instance, it is easy to debunk the oft-repeated argument that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes while they benefit from federal, state or municipal services. Detailed information from the Congressional Budget Office paints a complicated reality, wherein a considerable number of working undocumented immigrants give more in payroll and assorted taxes than they take in social services. Besides, significant studies have shown that the fear that undocumented immigrants cause greater violence and more crime is invalid.
These examples are not free from nuance. According to research done by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2010, there was an increase in the number of employed immigrants while the deep recession caused millions of American-born workers to lose their jobs. There are also honest concerns to be raised about the impact of earned income being transferred back to families in Mexico and Latin America.
We can look at these numbers and talk about what they mean, but it is more ethical and useful to focus the discussion on the livelihood of real people and not statistics, on “us” and not “them” and on a system that fails to adequately provide people with the means to officially and safely integrate into our infrastructure. As a nation that has had a direct and substantive role in undermining the stability of many immigrants’ home countries in South America, we owe at least that consideration.
As the Iowa caucus opens up for both parties, the Republicans should be mindful concerning the facts of their own party. In a 1980 Republican Primary Debate, future presidents George Bush Sr. and Ronald Reagan referred to Mexican immigrants as “really honorable, decent, family-loving people” and dismissed proposals for fences in favor of “open[ing] the borders both ways.” This presents a stark juxtaposition between the conservatives’ attitudes in the past–which involved dog-whistle politics mixed with a wholesome, naive vision of America–and today’s crystallized hatred in which the candidate who proposes immigration bans of a scale not seen since the Chinese Exclusion Act is in the lead.
Nonetheless, under an even wider lens, the current anti-immigration diatribes should be read as part of a longer history of xenophobia through which Americans have struggled. Americans of European descent should be mindful of the histories of their own people before rushing to ban or arrest others. There is an intellectual inconsistency when those who are descendants of the Irish, Italians, Germans or other peoples who came to hostile shores and treaded through decades of cultural shaming, apply the very same misguided and hostile notions to the next generation of newcomers. That sort of short memory and the unwillingness to remind oneself that the same hand that wrote “Irish Need Not Apply” now writes speeches for some of the most prominent characters in our political life, constitute a moral failure. It is a betrayal of the good in our legacy.