Originally Published on April 14, 2008, Updated on March 11, 2014
So much has been made of the illegal immigration problem in our country but it's a hard issue to understand and easy one to demagogue.
There is no question that securing the borders should be a national priority. It is a concern in this day and age of dirty bombs, suitcase bombs and biological weapons. We should know who is coming into our country and for what purpose and when those persons have exceeded the length of time they are supposed to be here, they should go. But if America is going to remain competitive we are going to have to be more open to immigration. I will borrow from former Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) who says that “America needs to be a country of tall fences and wide gates.”
Certain nativists, such as Lou Dobbs and Tom Tancredo, have made names for themselves by espousing a rhetoric that distorts the real motivations of the vast majority of people that come to this country without permission.
Unlike most of the outspoken nativists I come into contact with such immigrants on a regular basis because of my job. I work at an advertising agency that makes Spanish language TV, Radio and Internet ads. It is estimated that there are about 53 million Hispanics living in the U.S. and, as we all know, the estimates are that there about 12-15 million undocumented/illegal foreigners living in our country, the vast majority of them from Latin America.
I believe that beyond border security that there are two principal reasons that the nativists have gained some degree of traction in the nation's discourse. The first is the unfounded fear that American culture will somehow be overrun and destroyed by hordes of mongrel invaders and the second is that such immigrants become an instant audience for liberal ideology and thus the Democrat party. It is my opinion that neither fear is well-founded.
Our country has had to deal with immigrant waves before and always come out of the other end stronger than before. America has had waves of Irish, German, Italian, and other immigrants and the nativists at the time all argued similarly that we risked losing our American identity. One cannot help but wonder what America would be like without a Bratwurst or Polish sausage at the ballgame, or a pizza while watching The Godfather. It would difficult to recognize America without the influence of the waves of European immigrants that came after our nation’s founding.
In a sense, today's nativists ignore the reality that we are a country that has already been influenced by our neighbors south of the border. Florida was a Spanish colony for longer than it has been a U.S. state. Major parts of the American southwest were once Mexico. One cannot drive through those parts of the country with running into people with Spanish surnames that are 5th and 6th generation Americans.
No doubt that one of the biggest barriers to understanding these immigrants is language. Since adult immigrants from Latin America tend to speak only Spanish there is an impression among the nativists that these people do not want to learn English. One need not be a linguist to understand that the younger one attempts to learn a second language the easier that is to accomplish and that the surroundings to which a person is exposed determine the speed at which that second language is learned and mastered.
My grandmother came from Cuba when she was in her 40s. She always worked at home, as a seamstress and raising my sister and I. As a result she never learned English to any degree that would be considered proficient. In contrast, my mother and father came over as much younger adults and settled in Philadelphia. They had to learn English.
Naturally, if you settle in an area where people speak your language there is some disincentive to learning English. Still, most Hispanics I have come into contact with want to learn English and want their kids to be fully bilingual.
Somehow the fallacy that Hispanics do not want to learn English and want to turn the U.S. into a Spanish speaking country has taken root. I offer one fact to refute that notion. For as long as I can remember one of the top spending advertisers in Spanish language media in the U.S. has been Lexicon Marketing. That company is the marketer of an English language course called Ingles sin Barreras (English without Barriers). In 2006 alone Lexicon spent an estimated $175 million on ads in Spanish to sell its English language courses, more than Procter & Gamble, AT&T, General Motors and McDonalds. Needless to say, they spend that money because people buy their product. Hispanic immigrants, both legal and illegal, want to learn English.
It is important to understand that just because some people want to accommodate those folks that only speak Spanish that it is not a surrender of the English language. Today's Spanish dominant immigrant may be fully or at least functionally bilingual tomorrow but there might be a new arrival taking his place that needs a street sign or application to be in Spanish.
I want to address the political implications of giving amnesty to those who are presently living in America illegally. Many of my Republican colleagues take it as a given that Hispanic equals Democrat just like they take for granted that Black equals Democrat. The latter is not necessarily true and the former is certainly not true, at least not yet.
My profession affords me access to syndicated research studies. These are comprehensive surveys of Americans about a wide variety of subjects. We use the results to plan marketing strategies.
I took the liberty of probing one such syndicated study, Experian/Simmons, which is widely used in my industry. I wanted to compare and contrast foreign-born Hispanic registered voters to Non-Hispanic White registered voters. The following is what I discovered in the Fall 2013 release of that study:
In terms of party affiliation 60% of those foreign born Hispanics that answered the question said they were Democrats (down from 65% in 2008, the year I first published this piece) while only 16% said they were Republicans (down from 17%) and 10% said they were independent (holding steady since 2008). Both parties seem to have lost to "other" which is currently at 14%.
These results seem to give credence to the fears I mentioned earlier but when the question was political outlook 44% of those responding said they were conservative (up from 41% in 2008) vs. 32% saying they were "middle of the road" (down from 33%) and only 18% saying they were liberal (down from 22%). It would seem that conservatism is gaining ground at the expense of liberalism among foreign born Hispanics.
There is obviously a dissonance between the party identification statistics and those for political outlook. I chalk this up to a failure of the Republican Party to court Hispanics and articulate the fact that the GOP reflects a lot of the values Hispanics hold dear, like a focus on the family, moral values, and economic freedom.
To put a finer point on it, 63% of foreign born Hispanics agree with the statement "my faith is really important to me" vs. 57% for non-Hispanic whites.
Notably, when asked whether they would like to set up their own business 48% of foreign born Hispanics agreed that they would vs. 28% of non-Hispanic whites.
Another telling response was to whether the respondents agreed with the statement that "on the whole, people generally get what they deserve. 39% Foreign born Hispanics agreed while only 28% of non-Hispanic whites agreed. One would think that a party that stands for personal responsibility instead of victimhood would appeal to such persons.
Some other interesting responses had to do with how American these foreign born Hispanics felt. 67% agreed that they enjoy living the American lifestyle and 79% said they often celebrate U.S. National holidays.
In 1998 George W. Bush carried 49% of the Hispanic vote in the Texas Governor's race. Though it is disputed, some exit polls showed that Bush took 44% of Hispanic votes in his 2004 presidential re-election bid.
The reason it is important for Republicans to understand and court Hispanic voters is simple: the party's future is going to depend on it. It is a clear-cut matter of demographics. The same Simmons study I queried for statistics about political outlook shows that the median age for foreign-born Hispanic adults is 41 while the median age for non-Hispanic white adults is a staggering 50. We are in the midst of a demographic crisis in our country. Our work force is aging, nearing retirement age and has not reproduced enough to replace itself. Is it any wonder that America attracts workers like moths to a flame? This is a good thing. Around the world there are people that want to come to America, be paid a fair wage, and live the American dream.
I understand that it is not all positive. I understand that illegal immigrants create a burden on society. I understand that some of them commit crimes and some of the crimes are heinous. I understand that some will end up on the welfare rolls. But they will be less of burden if we make them legal. They will be less likely to commit crimes if they have a way to make an honest living above the table. Illegal immigrants do not have a monopoly on committing heinous crimes or collecting welfare. In fact the vast majority of criminals and welfare recipients are natural-born American citizens.
I believe that a cogent U.S. policy on illegal immigration must include the following four points:
1. Build the tall fences
2. Obtain for those who came here illegally, and have not committed any serious crimes, a legal path to residency and citizenship.
3. Open the wide gates to allow more legal immigration to meet our economic and demographic needs.
4. Continue establishing free trade agreements with free countries to stop the outward migration pressure at its root.
Our leaders in Washington would be wise to set aside the demagoguery and instead look at this important issue with an open mind. There are many problems in America that seem to have no solution. Illegal immigration does not have to be one of them.
Originally Published on April 14, 2008, Updated on March 11, 2014