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NAVARRETTE: Why we have an immigration debate

  • (CHAN LOWE / South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

Journalist-turned-activist Jose Antonio Vargas recently said that “racism and xenophobia have no place in the debate on immigration reform, period.” No place? Racism and xenophobia have a permanent place in the immigration debate.

As I learned from nearly 25 years of writing about the subject at ground zero — in cities such as Phoenix, Dallas and San Diego — without racism and xenophobia, there would be no debate.

Here’s how I divide the pie chart. Of all the anxiety and animosity experienced by Americans over immigration, 10 percent is about concerns over border security, 10 percent about fear of immigrants committing crimes, 10 percent about anger that they use public benefits, 10 percent about the worry that they won’t assimilate, and 10 percent about changing demographics. The other 50 percent is about racism and xenophobia.

Why mince words? Americans almost always look down on immigrants as inferior to those already here.

That’s how it was when Benjamin Franklin, an Englishman, shook his fist at the German immigrants of the mid-18th century, declaring they “will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.” And when it was said on the West Coast in the mid-19th century that Chinese immigrants were not “assimilable.” And when Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts warned, in 1905, that immigrants (read: the Irish) were “diminishing the quality of our citizenship.” And when Italian immigrants in the early 1900s were criticized for allegedly being uneducated and dirty and — no kidding — smelling of garlic. And when, in a 1938 public opinion survey, approximately 60 percent of respondents said they held a low opinion of Jewish immigrants, labeling them “greedy,” “dishonest” and “pushy.”

And it goes on, and on.

Today, the target is often Latino immigrants who — according to white supremacist websites masquerading as intellectual watering holes — diabolically pull off the magic trick of taking jobs from Americans while also staying home and collecting welfare. They want to become U.S. citizens, and have a voice in the political system, and that’s a problem for the supremacists. But they also want nothing to do with citizenship, and that’s a problem, too. Latino immigrants can do just about anything — from raising our kids to washing windows on skyscrapers — but, still, as far as many Americans are concerned, they can’t do anything right.

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