Contrary to the impression I’m about to give you, this post isn’t about immigration.
Many of us who believe that immigrants make our country stronger and who are committed to working for comprehensive immigration reform are struggling with two seeming realities of these difficult times: first, the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, due in part to the economic downturn; and second, the collapse of public support for immigration reform. We get discouraged. We feel like we should just give up. This is true not just for many of us as individuals, but also for some of the principal immigration groups that we rely on for leadership, but which seem to have fallen silent. We think: What’s the point? We can’t win. Public opinion is going in the other direction.
Except it isn’t. At a recent Council on Foreign Relations conference on “The Future of Immigration Policy” in Washington, DC, Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center and one of the nation’s leading experts on public opinion, reminded us of the “real” realities. First, according to recent polling by Pew, there has not been a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in this country, because of the economic downturn or for any other reason. What has happened, Kohut said, is that there is greater stridency by the anti-immigrant segment of the population. Second, U.S. public opinion has consistently said two things, and still does: We want border security, and we think there should be a way for those immigrants who are already here without status to be regularized. These, of course, are two of the pillars of comprehensive immigration reform. Again, it isn’t opinion that has changed, it’s the stridency of the voices on one side—and, one might add, the endless, shameless exploitation and amplification of anti-immigrant and anti-reform sentiment by some who purport to be our political leaders. This is what results in the current sense of overwhelming negative noise. Meanwhile, polls suggest, Americans continue to essentially hold the same opinions about immigration reform that they have for quite some time.
I believe these insights apply far beyond the immigration debate – which is why this post isn’t really about immigration. They apply as well, for example, to the budget debate. I do not believe that there are really fewer people who want the government to fund things with their tax money that benefit them, their children, and their communities. The voices on the other side are just louder, and are amplified in our politics.
It is essential to grasp this. If we give up, we aren’t accommodating to political reality. We’re simply letting the other side continue to be louder. They are not going to stop raising their voices, and we must not either. We can win this debate—if not in the short term, then over the longer term. The loud voices understand that they are playing a long-term game, and so must we.
So when NAFSA asks you to raise your voice on the issues that are important to us as international educators—and then asks again, and then yet again—it is vital to respond.