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Government & Politics

The Great Immigration Debate

By Mike Unger

Photo: This photo is one of thousands School of Communication journalist in residence Bill Gentile has given AU's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

This photo was taken by School of Communication journalist in residence Bill Gentile. He has given AU's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies access to thousands of his photos.

They come by the thousands every day, as thousands have for generations before them. Some bear the proper papers; others have nothing but the clothes on their backs. Each harbors a past and hopes and dreams for the future.

Individually, some fade into the dark crevices of our culture, hardly visible. Collectively, they can, do, and will alter the very fabric of our society.

“We’ve always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants, a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s precepts,” President Barack Obama said July 1 during a speech at American University. “ Indeed, it is this constant flow of immigrants that helped to make America what it is.”

It’s a country where 1 million people from around the globe take the oath of citizenship each year. It’s a country where an estimated 11 million undocumented people live illegally, both creating and solving problems. It’s a country where nearly everyone has an opinion on immigration, one of the most multifaceted and politically muddled issues in the United States today.

Following the midterm elections, comprehensive immigration reform may return to the country’s political agenda, so American magazine interviewed five leading campus thinkers for perspective. Each is an expert in his or her field, and brings a unique background to the debate Obama reignited with his speech at the School of International Service.

Christopher Rudolph
School of International Service, author of National Security and Immigration

"National security, if we think about it broadly, has had an influence on how states view immigration and why that changes across time. After 2001 immigration dipped, but by 2005 we were at or beyond pre-9/11 levels, and immigration continues to go up.

Not surprisingly, there has been increased border fortification. It’s interesting to note that while border security on the U.S.-Canadian side increased threefold-plus, it’s threefold from almost nothing. Right before 9/11 there were 300 border agents on the entire northern border.

At the same time, the southern border had around 9,000 agents; that number has also risen. Ironically, there are no verified cases of terrorists crossing from Mexico, while we have verified cases of terrorists coming from Canada.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which researched the cases of foreign terrorists who have infiltrated the nation, found the terrorists have used every avenue of entry, including refugee and asylum claims. Still, we frame immigration and border crossing as a security issue, which casts a pall over all immigrants as security threats.

In this country, discussing immigration policy isn’t appealing to many people. The political lines and support groups don’t line up very nicely. There are overlapping interest groups. It’s become a dangerous tool to try to wield for political advantage.

Perhaps that’s the role academics will play—talking about this in a comprehensive fashion, and at some point, maybe the conversation will infuse itself into the public debate."

Alan Kraut
Department of History, College of Arts and Sciences; chair of the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island History Advisory Committee and consultant to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Mass migration as we know it from Europe really begins in the 1830s and picks up in the 1840s. It’s the period of the Irish famine migration; it’s the period when Scandinavians are coming to escape poverty. Between 1840 and 1860 about 4.5 million come to the United States. That’s an extraordinary number in a 20-year period.

By the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, we again see a massive wave of immigration to the United States. At the same time, we’re also gaining people from Mexico and Canada. We’re constantly replenished and changed by newcomers.

There’s always been tremendous backlash. In the 1840s to 1860s many of the newcomers to this Protestant country were Catholic. So a tremendous wave of anti-Catholicism sweeps across the country. The signs that say, ‘Help wanted, Irish need not apply,’ or the publication of a pulp literature that accuses the Pope of wanting to come to America and establish his kingdom here—it’s pretty vicious.

Quite lately folks talking about Islamaphobia have begun to look back at this period and say it’s not unlike what Catholics faced, when the Know Nothing party, a whole party geared toward anti-Catholicism and anti-immigration, arose.

There is an old immigrant saying we can trace back to the late nineteenth century—‘America beckons, but Americans repel.’ What it means is all the opportunities of life in America attract immigrants, and some Americans want the labor and energy of immigrants, but many more Americans see them as a threat to their jobs, to the culture, to democracy.

We’re seeing that now. These things happen; yet each group has managed to find its place in and adjust to American ways. Though there are some who believe this is not happening for the Mexicans, the historical record says otherwise.   

Assimilation is a highly contested word among scholars. For a time we stopped talking about assimilation and talked about incorporation; sometimes we talk about integration. There are lots of reasons assimilation doesn’t appeal to many [scholars], simply because the notion of people losing their identity doesn’t square with the experience many immigrant groups have had in this country.

But it is true that groups change their relationship to American society. It involves learning the language, sometimes changing one’s name, sometimes even changing one’s appearance or one’s religious practice. It’s a negotiation that occurs on the group level, but also for the individual—deciding exactly what you’re willing to relinquish in exchange for acceptance.   

Some years ago at a conference a young Muslim woman asked me, ‘What do we have to do to integrate into American society?’ I only half facetiously said, ‘Produce a great second baseman.’ What I was trying to address was how Americans tend to embrace those who embrace our ways, our entertainment, our styles.   

The extent to which every group does that indicates their wish to become part of the society, and the society responds, though it’s not always an easy process. It can take generations.  

I believe in the enormous power of American culture to bring people into it.

Every school child knows the best shows on TV are in English, knows the rock ’em sock ’em movies they want to see are in English. Every child knows the baseball stars, or the movie stars, are speaking in English. Do you really mean to tell me that next generation, Born in the USA, as Springsteen would say, is not going to learn English? Especially when they learn to get the best jobs, they need English."

Rita Simon
School of Public Affairs, expert on immigration policies and public opinion

"If public opinion determined the United States’ immigration policies, we would have millions fewer immigrants in this country. 

This basic question, ‘Should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?’ has been asked since 1946. The last data I have is from 2000, but never have more than 13 percent of the American public said immigration should be increased—even during periods in the 1960s when we were admitting only about 300,000 immigrants a year.

How you ask a question is very important. If you ask the question in the abstract you get one answer. If you ask it in a specific personal way you get another.

Should we admit more immigrants? ‘No, no, no, we don’t want that.’

What about that family across the street who just recently came to the United States? ‘Oh, they’re a lovely family, my children play with them.’

We’ve had different attitudes toward immigrants at different times. We’re concerned that immigrants will take jobs, especially if the economy isn’t doing well. We’ve always had groups that we didn’t like. When the Irish started coming there were riots in Boston.

Whenever you ask about attitudes toward immigrants, it’s the ones that are coming now that we have the most negative attitudes toward. In retrospect, the Irish of course, they’ve made such lovely contributions. The Germans, the Polish, the Japanese in this country have made it better.

When the public thinks about immigrants, they think about strangers who will change American customs, traditions. You know, Washington used to be a black/white city, but now with its boutiques, restaurants, and neighborhoods, it’s become a much more interesting city because of immigrants."
Jayesh Rathod
Washington College of Law, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic, former attorney at CASA de Maryland, where he represented low-wage immigrant workers on employment law and
immigration matters

"My parents immigrated to the United States from India in 1970. They were fortunate, in the 1960s the U.S. changed its immigration laws to allow freer immigration from Asia. Individuals with professional degrees were able to get green cards fairly readily. My father applied and came to the U.S. by himself. He lived in a shared apartment in Chicago with some other Indian immigrants. My mom and my sister came a year later.

When I was born, my parents had been in the States for about five years and had been through some of the most difficult years for cultural assimilation. During my childhood I remember difficulties in terms of accent, discrimination. Even though there was a growing Indian community and everyone was familiar with the culture and the dress, I got questions.

While I was at CASA we represented low-wage day laborers and domestic workers. It was fascinating to see the day laborer phenomenon and how prevalent wage theft is in the D.C. area. Many workers expect that they won’t get paid. Employers make excuses to avoid paying workers.

It becomes easy to demonize employers, but a lot of them are just a couple of steps up the immigrant ladder.

It taught me about our assumptions about immigrant workers. They’re doing all kinds of work, and they have a mix of goals. A lot of them don’t want to settle here permanently. They’re here to earn some money and go back home.

Among those who intended to stay here, I observed a desire to learn skills and integrate with the community. CASA of Maryland had extraordinarily long waiting lists for English classes.

[My thoughts on] the Arizona law, which was a local enforcement initiative, are that it’s an effort by the state to control unauthorized immigration within its borders.

Given where it’s situated, I understand the legislature’s motivation. I think it’s unquestionable that unauthorized migration affects Arizona. So the question becomes what’s the best way to control it?

There’s the border theory of build a wall. That’s not going to work, certainly not by itself.

There’s a theory that if we punish employers or make it difficult for them to hire unauthorized workers, we will reduce the flow of migration. In 1986 we had a law premised on that. It was not vigorously enforced and didn’t really work.

Now we see a move to criminalize unlawful status, to impose penalties on being here unlawfully, and to vigorously enforce and deport law breakers to reduce migration.

That’s what’s behind the Arizona law. It remains to be seen whether or not that will be an effective approach.

But, until you address the root causes of why people migrate, enforcement and building a wall are not going to curb the migration. You have to think about the economic reality.

The conventional wisdom is that this issue of local enforcement will make its way up to the Supreme Court.

It may go to the Supreme Court, but I think the broader political question will not be resolved."

Leonard Steinhorn
School of Communication, author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy; his expertise includes American politics, culture and media, and recent American history

"The media are doing what the media tend to do, which is shine a spotlight on the most outraged and angriest parts of our country and give them a megaphone far beyond their numbers or their meaning in our culture. You end up seeing these very agitated and indignant anti-immigrant groups in the news because it makes for good pictures, when in fact there’s a silent majority who have far more complex views on the issue.

Immigration has always led to anxiety among the people who were already in the country. Dial back 100 or so years you see many of the same comments and invectives that are currently applied to Latino immigrants were directed at Poles and Russians and Italians and Jews. The perception was that they’re not learning the language; they can’t be assimilated; they don’t want to be part of America; types of commentary that led to very serious immigration restriction laws.

It was quite common as immigrant families came to this country for only one of them to learn English. Yet their kids all learned English and adapted to the society. I see that as very similar to what’s happening today. Sometimes it’s important to have a longer historical look to realize that the people who are here really want to become American.

There’s always the issue of looks and how that’s associated with some of the nativist impulses in our society. In the long run we have a very diverse country, and at least ideologically, we pride ourselves on that. We have people who look every which way, and they are 100 percent Americans. There are millions upon millions of Latinos who have gone through the process of becoming American citizens. They’re as American as anybody whose ancestors came on the Mayflower. I think the issue here is that the question of illegal immigration, of breaking the laws, gets conflated with a degree of nativism and ethnic hostility, and I think that’s too bad.

As a country we ought to figure out a way to deal with it without raising the temperature, which bleeds into ugly incidents and laws that could ultimately result in racial profiling and Americans feeling less American simply because of the color of their skin.

From a political perspective it’s a two-edged sword for both parties. The Republican perspective might rouse up the Tea Party or Minutemen vote to generate support in parts of the Southwest. But by conflating their concerns about illegal immigration with an overriding nativist message, they risk alienating Latinos for years to come.

Democrats on the other hand want to maintain, celebrate, and respect the diversity and pluralism of America, but they run the risk of angering people who feel undocumented immigrants may take their jobs.

I think each party is thinking about the political calculus, and there’s no question there are some people thinking on the short term and some people thinking on the longer term.

There’s a lot of tightwire walking by each party on this issue."