On the issue of immigration, politicians and much of the mainstream media are playing with our minds. By repeating the phrase "illegal immigrants," they're creating a misleading stereotype. It's inaccurate. And, it's distracting us from the real issue -- economic exploitation of all low-wage workers in the United States.
The Republicans did it in their YouTube debate on CNN. In the first 30 minutes, the Republicans repeatedly used the term "illegal immigrant" and spent the time sparring over which of them could treat them more harshly. Were the painters who worked on Romney's house and the low-wage workers in Giuliani's New York City really such a grave threat to America?
CNN's John King used the term, too. And so did CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Campbell Brown in the most recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas. And, some of the Democratic candidates also used it, though Kucinich specifically refused ("There are no illegal human beings"). But he's in the minority. The term is everywhere in the press. You can find it in the Washington Post and in the New York Times, as well as the doubly derogatory term "illegal alien" in the Washington Times. They've all got "illegal" on the brain.
The repeated use of the term "illegal immigrants" is leading to all sorts of policies created to stop them. Many of them were repeated in the debates. More border fences. Prohibiting driver's licenses. Some want to stop their kids from attending neighborhood elementary schools.
But the phrase "illegal immigrant" is misleading. There's a grain of truth, but the emphasis is only selectively applied -- it's misapplied -- we don't call speeders "illegal drivers" or people who jaywalk "illegals." And that selective application to immigrants is harmful. As Lawrence Downes wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
There is no way out of that trap. It's the crime you can't make amends for. Nothing short of deportation will free you from it, such is the mood of the country today. And that is a problem.
There sure is a problem. So much so that the National Association of Hispanic Journalists won't use it. They recommend using "undocumented" instead. That's a start.
Branding people with the Scarlet "I" creates a fearful stigma. The vast majority of immigrants, whatever their legal status, are law-abiding members of society. Yet, the "illegal" description is so pervasive that it has us thinking about punishment and revenge, instead of solutions to the real problem -- the economic exploitation of people, both immigrant and native-born.
How did that happen?
In part, it's all in our heads; it's how our minds work. To understand the world, we unconsciously create categories of things. We understand these categories by, again unconsciously, creating central examples that represent how we envision the basic properties of the group.
Think of a bird, for example. What first pops into your mind? Most likely something akin to a sparrow, maybe a robin. It's unlikely that your unconscious, initial image will be an ostrich or a penguin. Or even a duck or an eagle. These are all birds, but they are not what we instinctively envision as the typical bird. In fact, our unconscious category example need not be the most common bird or even an actual bird at all. Nevertheless, the typical example you have in your mind allows you to organize, understand and apply what you experience about birds.
Our categorizations serve a useful purpose. They allow us to process lots of information very quickly. Much faster than if we were to try and consciously think through a list of characteristics about everything we encounter all day long in the world. We'd be paralyzed, like the computer icon spinning on your screen while the web page loads. So, in many situations, we're very fortunate that our brains work in this manner. Otherwise, we'd never get through the characteristics of the mental category "animals with big teeth." We'd have been eaten.
But it's not so straightforward when our brains create central examples for groups of people. We call them stereotypes. Like the bird category, our minds do this unconsciously, and the people stereotypes don't have to be real or accurate. Nevertheless, they exist in our minds, and they shape how we react and interact with people from these groups, both individually and as a whole. This includes the policies we make.
Since we have been repeatedly bombarded with the term "illegal immigrants," most of us have at least some negative characteristics associated with our unconscious stereotype of low-wage foreign workers. As a result, the policies that many people support are punitive -- more deportations, more border security and fines for employers who knowingly hire them.
This makes a certain logical sense. What policy would go best with these stereotypes of immigrant workers? If they are "illegal immigrants," we think of crime and danger and that leads first to police actions, border walls and roundups. That was certainly the thrust of the Republican YouTube debate on CNN. But it was also the same argument that came from many Democratic candidates when they would not support drivers licenses for the people they also called "illegal immigrants." And if most immigrants were murderers or armed robbers -- if the stereotype currently repeated by candidates and the mainstream media were accurate -- this way of thinking might make some sense and these policies might be warranted. But they aren't.
In fact, it's just the opposite. According to the American Immigration Law Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing public understanding of immigration law and advancing fundamental fairness and due process for immigrants, the vast majority of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are law-abiding people: "A century of research finds that crime rates for immigrants are lower than for the native-born." These conclusions are bolstered by their latest report, published in spring 2007.
And the American Immigration Law Foundation tells us the likely reason why:
The problem of crime in the United States is not 'caused' or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status. This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law. Undocumented immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails.
Sounds more like a good neighbor than a criminal.
Some of these foreign workers are even heroes. The AP just reported on one. On Thanksgiving, Jesus Manuel Cordova Soberanes, a 26-year-old bricklayer from northern Mexico, rescued a nine-year-old boy who had been in a car wreck. Soberanes had snuck across the border to find work to feed his family. While he was walking through the Arizona desert, he came across the boy. The boy's mother had swerved off a cliff and crashed. The mother was severely injured, and the boy had gone in search of help. Soberanes returned with the boy to the car, but he could not save the mother. As night came and temperatures dropped, he gave the boy his sweater and built a fire. Soberanes stayed with the boy through the night, until he was rescued the next morning. The boy was flown to a hospital in Tucson, and Soberanes was turned over to Border Patrol agents, who deported him back to Mexico. According to the local sheriff, Soberanes is "'very, very special and compassionate' and may have saved the boy's life."
Soberanes explained his sacrifice this way:
"I am a father of four children. For that, I stayed," Manuel Jesus Cordova Soberanes said in Spanish from his home in the Mexican state of Sonora. "I never could have left him. Never."
Soberanes made America a better place during his brief stay.
So, the statistics and Soberanes beg the question, what kind of policies might we envision if our stereotype were more accurate? What if we understood Soberanes and others like him as "economic refugees"? Perhaps we might begin to understand their actions as moral and them as good people, maybe even noble ones.
Like Jean Valjean of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. He stole bread when he was desperate to feed himself and his sister's family. He didn't even work for it. Yet he has become an international symbol of conscience, one that's celebrated today in the long-running Broadway play. The bad guy was the relentlessly unjust, even cruel, economic and legal systems of 18th century France -- embodied in police inspector Javert.
What policies might we construct if the issue were economic exploitation? Would we not think first about protecting the human dignity of all who work in the United States? We might then begin to create policies that address the underlying problems that face all workers in America -- the need for jobs that are safe, secure and pay a living wage, combined with healthcare for everyone. We might begin to understand that Americans, too, can be "economic refugees" inside the United States -- our fellow citizens forced to abandon their hometowns due to factory closings, for example, in search of a job wherever they can find it.
At the Rockridge Institute, we have been examining these ideas in The Framing of Immigration and a recent response to a reader's inquiry. Many others are thinking and writing about this too, including bloggers at ImmigrationProf and Immigration, Education, and Globalization. But it's time to push this thinking mainstream so that we hear the truth over and over. If we are going to have effective policies that deal with reality, we can start with changing our language and updating what's in our heads. Let's start being mindful of how we think and talk.
Eric Haas is a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.