Rhetoric fuels immigration debate

July 30, 2010


With the immigration debate heating up — and a federal court case over Arizona’s SB 1070 brewing — you’d think that the U.S. was besieged by growing numbers of illegal immigrants. But you’d be wrong.

Despite the heightened rhetoric and the bloodcurdling vitriol surrounding the issue, illegal immigration has actually declined significantly over the last few years. While journalists like to characterize the anger over immigration as a response to facts on the ground — i.e. people are inundated and incensed — the numbers don’t bear them out.

In fact, the opposite is true. According to a February report by the Department of Homeland Security, the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States actually dropped by a whopping 1 million between 2008 and 2009, which amounts to the sharpest decrease in 30 years. It was the second year of declining numbers.

Likewise, the Border Patrol reports that apprehensions are down by more than 60 percent since 2000, to 550,000 last year, the lowest number in 35 years, even though the border is more tightly controlled than ever. As William Finnegan wrote in last week’s New Yorker, “The southern border, far from being ‘unsecured,’ is in better shape than it has been for years — better managed and less porous.”

And there’s more. Despite the drumbeat about hordes of undocumented Mexicans who have come north to take our jobs, consider this: According to the Pew Hispanic Center, between 2005 and 2008, the number of Mexican migrants arriving in the U.S. actually declined by 40 percent.

It’s not only the number of Mexican illegal immigrants that has dropped. The fact that the U.S. economy is struggling has discouraged high-skilled immigrants from around the globe from looking for jobs in America, and the flow of applicants for H1-B visas, or work permits, has slowed. Before the recession, the entire 85,000 H1-B annual quota would be filled within days of the application date on the first of April. For fiscal year 2010, the quota wasn’t reached until December 2009.

Finally, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey last fall revealed a historic decline in the percentage of U.S. residents who are foreign-born — from 12.6 percent in 2007 to 12.5 percent in 2008. That represents only about 40,000 people numerically, but it is the first time since the 1970 census — 40 years ago — that the foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population has gone down.

So, in the face of all this data showing that legal and illegal immigration is down dramatically, what’s all the fuss about? Why has the debate turned so nasty? Why does it seem worse than it did in 1994, during the debate over Proposition 187, California’s anti-immigrant ballot measure?

The easy answer, of course, is that the economy is tough and historically people have looked for targets to blame for their feelings of impotence.

But today I think there are other contributing factors. The political discourse overall is pretty horrific, and while immigration has always brought out the worst in people, today’s polarized climate only makes matters worse.

Furthermore, the right wing, where much of the anti-immigrant frenzy comes from, no longer has an authoritative voice of reason pressing for decency on the issue. Four years ago, after President George W. Bush unsuccessfully launched his own effort at comprehensive immigration reform, he warned against “harsh, ugly rhetoric.” Today, Bush is hardly heard from and the right has an “open borders” policy on over-the-top rhetoric.

Struggling newspapers seeking to engage readers at any cost are also part of the problem. Whereas racist rants were once confined to marginal websites, today many papers — including my own — have opened their online comments section to, well, complete nut-jobs. Allowing vitriolic racial rhetoric to remain on a mainstream website is to give it a level of acceptability. Just last week, in response to my column on the so-called burka ban in France, a rabid commenter proposed that all those crossing the U.S.- Mexico border without papers should be shot on sight. Nice. Such “dialogue” not only pushes out reasonable people, it emboldens the unreasonable ones.

There may be those who see hatred as a justifiable means to an end. Perhaps they hope that all this harsh rhetoric will keep even more illegal immigrants at home. But they’d be silly to think that such invective only makes life harder for immigrants. Unfortunately, it also actively degrades our culture, our public square and our democracy.

— Gregory Rodriguez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His e-mail address is grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

"Whereas racist rants were once confined to marginal websites, today many papers — including my own — have opened their online comments section to, well, complete nut-jobs."

And no doubt, we'll be seeing our local homegrown nut-jobs chiming in with a chorus of "facts, schmacts."

Flap Doodle 7 years, 10 months ago

Be legal or be gone. Whether you are from Norway or Peru makes no difference.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

"Sorry Mr. Rodreguez, that started when the SCOTUS made their ruling on the 2000 presidential election and reached fever-pitch until November 2008."

And pretty much every legal expert agrees that the ruling in 2000 by the SCOTUS was based strictly on political considerations, not the constitution, laws or legal precedents.

Pete Kennamore 7 years, 10 months ago

"Am I prescient, or what?"

Nope, just an idiot.

avoice 7 years, 10 months ago

Articles like this state facts and make implications regarding those facts, but they don't always spin the facts correctly. For example, H1-B is not the only work visa available for incoming foreign nationals. Certain job categories are eligible for J-1 visas, which have different requirements than H visas. In the past, even those who could come in on a J visa generally opted for the H visa. But two years ago, employers started having to pay the visa fees for H visas, so now even though a worker may prefer an H visa, an employer will opt for the J visa if possible. This, combined with the significant slowing of H visa processing, has likely had a big impact on the number of H visas being processed. It's not that people aren't still trying to come here on H visas; it's that our government is making it increasingly difficult for that to happen.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

That may be, but it doesn't really change the basic point-- the economy has slowed, affecting the number of immigrants coming here.

It was always quite common that companies would pay for the cost of obtaining visas for highly qualified workers. That they are now requiring the workers to cover those costs merely indicates that the demand for those workers has lessened.

jafs 7 years, 10 months ago

The increase may have slowed, but we still have many more illegal immigrants here now than we can absorb.

And, why is it ok to have only 500,000 coming across the border? How about none?

Paul R Getto 7 years, 10 months ago

There is one word that explains much of this mess: Capitalism. Decades-old laws are being ignored because a) employers don't want to pay good wages and benefits and b) Americans don't want to pay higher prices for food, restaurants and hotels. When the CEO of Tyson (for example) is threatened with hard time in a real prison, it may change, but don't hold your breath. Even if corporations were held accountable, would Americans take these jobs and stick with them?

fallingwhilereading 7 years, 10 months ago

If you really want illegals out of the U.S. then you have to consider the U.S. never funded the land trieties with the tribes. Article six of the constitution say trieties are the law of the land. With the failure of the U.S. defualt on payments to the tribes means all who are not native are here illegally. Unless the U.S. would pay the tribes finnally. With a consevative 1.9 % interest it would be around 33.3 trillion. If you believe in the constitution then article six say The U.S. defaulted, and if you defualt 90 days on your home you loose it to the debt holder. which the debt is owed to the tribes. Illegals also picked 27.5 billion in produce that was brought to the market just from California alone. Do you think Americans are going to work in the fields. Working in a job that doesn't have to pay the minimum wage. Could you imagine the cost of produce if the idiot law Arizona was country wide. I say lets have a vote to force Arizona out of the union. What do they offer the rest of the country. Not a whole lot. If Arizona was droped from the Union how long do you think they would last. I would bet they would become part of Mexico again quiklly if that were to happen. If Arizona wants to enforce immigration laws. Then lets pull the boarder patrol out of Arizona, and let the state of Arizona pay for thier own boarder officers. It would reduce the cost the rest of the states pay in taxes to pay for boarder patrol on the Arizona boarder.

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