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Welcoming Immigrants Begins With How You Talk About Them

The post-election soul searching from Republicans has made one thing clear: there is a sea change in the conservative attitude toward immigration. Conservatives were always split on this issue (support for immigrants and immigration reform is certainly nothing new here in the pages of COMMENTARY), but there has been vocal and influential grassroots opposition to immigration reform. So it is most welcome that after a historic drubbing by the growing Hispanic vote, Republicans have “evolved,” to use the president’s term.

Immigration reform and taking a more welcoming attitude toward immigrants makes sense on every level–economically, morally, culturally, etc. But at the risk of being accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I think something needs to be said about the way this argument is taking shape, with particular emphasis on the newfound expression of support for Hispanic immigration on the right. As I said, there are many logical reasons to welcome immigrants and to support immigration reform. But conservatives who have previously opposed it and are now admitting that cynical electoral considerations are driving their evolution are making an understandable, but still devastating, mistake.

The way that conservatives talk about immigration reform must be reformed as well. They must understand that there is now a cultural suspicion of the right on the part of a large segment of the immigrant population, especially Latinos, and for good reason. Immigrants are well aware of the debate over immigration here. And they remember–and will for some time–that when they arrived here with nothing but the clothes on their back, desperate for a chance at a better life for themselves and their children, one party said “come on in” and the other said “turn around and go back.”

Simply supporting immigration reform is not going to do away with this, especially if people describe Latino immigrants as some kind of demographic setback they must alleviate in order to win elections. That’s dehumanizing too. Immigration to the United States creates jobs, and many immigrants–more if the DREAM Act were to pass–are willing to first join the army and risk their lives in defense of this country in order to “earn” citizenship.

Additionally, there is of course the moral problem of punishing children whose parents moved here or of breaking up families. But there is another element to this. The United States doesn’t have nearly the problem with black-market goods that other, more highly regulated countries have, because our government meddles less (though still too much) and therefore does less to distort markets than other, nominally market economies. (Think Europe today, or Yeltsin’s Russia.)

Yet we have one major black market: labor. The free market tells us that we need a certain amount of labor at certain prices. Our current employment and immigration laws preclude this. But you can’t stop the market so easily in a globalized world. So we developed something of a black market in labor, which means a black market in laborers. So in addition to the other challenges faced by new immigrants, there is often a cloud of suspicion and illegality that hangs over their heads. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have laws and enforce them. But it’s important to understand the psychological toll this can take.

It is therefore imperative that a bit of compassion accompanies the cold hard intellectual logic of the right’s transformation on immigration. Cynicism and tokenism will not be much less offensive to immigrants than what came before.