CHICAGO — The problem bedeviling the forces battling it out over immigration reform is that each promotes an overly simplistic image of unlawful immigrants.
If you listen to the immigrant advocacy organizations, the undocumented are hardworking men and women who do no wrong in their pursuit of a better life. Favorable media coverage of such cases supports this image.
A mid-July article in The New York Times, “Along With Dolls and Stuffed Animals, Making Time for Immigration Activism,” told the story of a teenager in Arizona who became an activist after her parents were dramatically apprehended during a raid at a carwash where they worked.
The article was moving, as it was designed to be, and at the end, after the girl described her many activities for reform, she said, “I wanted there to be justice for my parents and justice for the fathers and mothers whose only crime was to work.”
Gripping. So much so that you almost forget that the opening line of this same story clearly states: “Her parents are criminals, technically speaking, having pleaded guilty to impersonation for falsifying a Social Security number to secure employment, a felony in this state.”
I don’t know about the actual victims of the identity fraud in this case, but I wouldn’t be very happy about having the theft of my identity treated as a non-issue by this well-meaning child and the newspaper that used her family’s plight to illustrate that many immigrants are here only to work.
And that’s just one subtle example. Outrageous tales of activist-driven stereotypes concerning unlawful immigrants abound. Plenty of people were upset over Iowa Rep. Steve King’s recent contention that for every one illegally residing high school valedictorian, there are 100 other unlawful immigrants who have “got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
The outrage wasn’t just because King’s statement was completely ridiculous — there is absolutely no factual basis for comparing DREAM Act-eligible young people to drug smugglers — but because it sneered at the carefully crafted image the DREAM Act students have created for themselves.
A recent NPR blog post, “The Dream 9 Pushes The Envelope (And Their Allies’ Buttons),” describes the phenomenon. In it Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of the immigration-reform advocacy group ImmigrationWorks USA, is quoted as saying, “If you asked your typical soccer mom what she thought of an unauthorized immigrant, she says, ‘Well, I think of Mexicans running across the border on Fox News.’”
“Now, Jacoby says,” the post noted, “many people think of undocumented young people much more sympathetically as hardworking, high-school-valedictorian types who can’t get financial aid for college because of their lack of official status.”
Yes, there have been some high-profile high school valedictorians without legal status who have served as the face of the DREAM Act movement. But the broad characterization — which is sadly untrue, as the high school dropout rate for Hispanic students was 14 percent in 2011, compared to 5 percent for white students — dismisses the majority of young unlawful immigrants who don’t have 4.0 grade-point averages to use as evidence that they’d make great new American citizens.
And so it goes from the perspective of every type of immigrant advocate and detractor.
For every statistic about the portion of job-creating entrepreneurs who are immigrants — the Kauffman Entrepreneurship Foundation estimates it’s 24.3 percent — you’ll hear one that illustrates how cheap labor impacts U.S.-born blue-collar workers. A Harvard study, which calculated that between 1960 and 2000, a 10 percent increase in immigrants in various jobs reduced the wages and employment of African-Americans by about 4 percent, has been making the rounds lately.
For every feel-good story about how an immigrant without legal status saved the life of a kidnapped girl or a lost boy, there will inevitably be someone waiting to point out an unauthorized immigrant drug kingpin, rapist or other violent criminal.
This is human nature: We want to portray our adversaries as villains and our allies as saints. But our unlawful immigrant population is neither wholly one nor the other.
Any real shot at an immigration compromise — one that codifies who gets to stay and who must leave — will depend on accurately separating perception from reality. And neither side helps advance that difficult task when they pretend that 11 million people are all angels or devils.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.