The immigration reform debate is beginning to look like most political debates in our polarized nation. Extremists from small, opposing factions are pushing everyone in the middle to take positions that are far more intense and less practical than they might normally choose.
From the whacko group of vigilante border guards who roam the United States' side of the Mexican border, to corporate farms that claim that they will go out of business without immigrant labor, the issue is fresh meat being tugged at from all sides by our political hyenas.
Despite the political theatrics that the issue is generating, it is important for reasonable observers from the broad center of the American political spectrum to hold their ground and avoid being seduced by the black-and-white simplicity with which interest groups are framing the debate.
When one considers the goals of most of these interest groups, it becomes clear that they are intentionally politicizing a social issue in order to further their narrow agendas. Although few are willing to admit it, immigration is more a social than a political or legal issue.
The illegal immigration vigilante group, the Minutemen, that has sprouted up in most southern border states is a perfect example. The Minutemen, who patrol open borderlands and report illegal immigrants to immigration officers, claim that law enforcement and security are their top priorities.
Yet when one takes into account the composition of the group, their true motivation becomes apparent. The Minutemen are almost exclusively old, white and male. This is either the biggest coincidence in the history of American activism, or the group is less interested in the law enforcement than in race, class, language and nationality.
If the Minutemen were anything other than mostly ignorant, nationalist, old descendants of European peasants, their group would certainly have a broader appeal. The fact that they are not, suggests they are fighting a cultural war under the guise of a legal one.
While the Minutemen battle their personal demons on one side of the immigration issue, the less fanatical but equally self-interested business lobbies define the opposite side. For farms, restaurants and construction firms, the thought of reforming immigration laws is scary, unless reform results in additional immigrants.
Businesses from coast to coast have come to rely on the dependable, cheap and high-quality labor that legal and illegal immigrants provide. In a recent Associated Press report, a California vegetable farmer testified that even though he had offered very high wages of $10 to 12 per-hour, he could only secure half the work force necessary to harvest his crop.
Farmers like him hope desperately for immigration reform to bring them more workers. Even with pay equal to double the minimum wage, the last time this particular farmer had a non-Latino employee was 16 years ago. For him the debate is simple'without immigrants his 800 acres of celery will rot in the field.
Conservative anti-immigrant groups which favor sealing off the borders, and business interests which prefer massive seasonal immigration, do not represent mainstream American feelings about the issue. In a recent Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans agreed that immigration was good for the country and 49 percent thought that immigration held down wages.
Polls show that Americans are indeed divided over immigration, but not in extreme ways. The negative respondents above only said that immigrants can depress wages, not that they are unacceptable law-breakers. The positive respondents were equally ambivalent in their response. They agreed generally that immigration is good, but not that it should be unlimited.
As analysis of the main interest groups on either side of the immigration issue shows, Americans are much more practical about immigration than a polarized political landscape wants them to be.
The questions that reasonable Americans must ask themselves are 'how much immigration is too much for our labor market to uphold'? and 'how accepting of other cultures am I willing to be'? If interest groups allow questions like these to be asked the debate over reform might actually result in improved immigration policy.