If you've watched the news or scrolled through Facebook, you've probably heard about immigration lately. From wanting to institute drone strikes at the border to telling Jorge Ramos to 'get out of my country,' you might say a lot's been happening.
I'm back with writer, advocate, and immigration insider Matt Soerens for Part 2 of our interview. (You can see Part 1 on Birthright Citizenship here.)
Q: Why are we seeing so much conversation about immigration in politics currently?
Matt: I think there is generally an uptick in conversations on immigration during the lead-up to a presidential campaign because it's always a heated political issue. But I think it's fair to say the uniquely heated rhetoric right now is the result of the candidacy of Donald Trump.
He launched his campaign by describing immigrants as “rapists” and “bringing crime." Subsequently, he has proposed policies (mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants, a moratorium on lawful migration of immigrant workers, an end to birthright citizenship, and a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border paid for by Mexico) that were considered fringe policies just a month ago.
Now, several other presidential candidates have endorsed elements of Mr. Trump’s proposal (while several others, both Republicans and Democrats, have strongly pushed back). These moves have kept the topic in the news just about every day.
Q: Much of what I've read over recent years stresses the importance of comprehensive immigration reform to gain political success. Why do you think so many politicians are coming down so hard line on this issue?
Matt: Politicians—especially, frankly, Republican politicians—are in a political quagmire. Polls show quite consistently that the majority of Americans prefer a comprehensive immigration reform that would include an earned legalization process, a chance for undocumented immigrants to pay a fine (which distinguishes it from a pure amnesty), and receive a temporary legal status for a few years.
During that time, they could earn permanent legal status (and - in most versions of this proposal - eventual citizenship) presuming they are paying taxes, staying out of criminal trouble, and meeting other criteria.
Such a policy would also include improvements to border security, better enforcement of temporary visa over-stayers (which account for nearly half of those who are undocumented), and reforms to our antiquated visa system to make it more responsive to the needs of the American economy.
Polls have consistently shown that this sort of a package is popular with somewhere between 60% and 70% of all Americans (depending on precisely how the polling question is worded). LifeWay Research found that about 7 in 10 evangelical Christians would support a proposal that combined increased border security with an earned path to citizenship.
The Pew Research Center found in May that 80% of Democrats, 76% of Independents, and 56% of Republicans support some earned legalization process for undocumented immigrants. However, some prefer they eventually be able to apply for citizenship, while others think they should be limited to permanent legal status.
In a General Election, a candidate’s support for immigration reform is a clear political asset. Support for reform might be a liability, though, in a Republican primary election, particularly in certain parts of the country.
While the majority of Republican voters do support reform, for most it is a secondary issue, not the issue that determines for whom they vote (which might be economic or tax policy, abortion, healthcare policy, religious liberty concerns, etc.).
For many of those who oppose comprehensive reform, though—many of whom I suspect have spent a lot of time listening to scary rhetoric about immigrants, and probably don’t know very many personally—this can be the issue that determines their vote. Particularly when there are 17 candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination, a candidate might win the nomination with just 25% of Republican primary voters.
What we are observing right now, I think, is a “race to the bottom” with Mr. Trump currently winning the race to be the “toughest” on immigrants. He’s repelling at least half of Republican voters and probably three-quarters of all Americans with his rhetoric. But he does not necessarily need them to win the nomination.
(He’s any Democratic candidate’s dream opposition, as General Election voters will not forget his primary statements. Key staffers for Mitt Romney have acknowledged this, noting that Governor Romney’s support for “self-deportation” in the GOP primary was significantly responsible for his loss to President Obama).
The antidote to this is for people—especially, those in “red” parts of the country—to speak up vocally against the sort of rhetoric Mr. Trump is employing. That might mean writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper, sharing positive perspectives on immigration via social media, showing up at presidential campaign events or congressional town halls.
Any opportunity to help elected officials hear that there are passionate people who want immigration reform, and want to support candidates both for President and in the Congress who share their perspective.
Q: When we read about hate crimes inspired by political speeches, what can we do? How can we support our immigrant neighbors?
Matt: Very sadly, there has been at least one situation where a homeless man of Hispanic descent was urinated on and then beaten by two brothers who reportedly cited Donald Trump as their inspiration.
The sort of rhetoric that Mr. Trump has used has the effect of creating or reinforcing false stereotypes. One such example is that immigrants are all criminals. In reality, immigrants commit crimes at rates lower than U.S. citizens. This in turn engenders a lot of fear.
I think that among the best ways we can rebut this is by speaking the truth at every opportunity. Whether that’s on Facebook or Twitter, in conversations at work, in interactions with your children and their friends and their friends’ parents, or around the table with extended family.
For Christians, in particular, we need to challenge our fellow believers, at least a few of whom are “amen”-ing the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Mr. Trump and other politicians, to carefully consider what the Bible says on this topic—which is a lot!
The Evangelical Immigration Table has a great 40-verse Bible-reading plan that folks can download and print out called the “I Was a Stranger Challenge.” I’d also encourage your readers to ask their pastors to sign onto the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform and to consider preaching a sermon on God’s heart for immigrants.
The reality is that, according to a recent LifeWay Research poll, only about one in five evangelical Christians has ever heard a message on immigration at their church that encouraged them to reach out. This stat suggests that many of our churches are (perhaps unintentionally) leaving discipleship on this topic to Mr. Trump and those in the media.
Finally, if you don’t know immigrants personally, get to know some. They will very likely refute all of the negative stereotypes. One particular way to do that is by volunteering with World Relief, the organization where I work, which resettles refugees in a couple dozen locations throughout the U.S. in partnership with local churches.
A huge thanks to Matt for his insight and wisdom on this important topic. If you haven't read his book, you should check it out.