Immigration and the sound bite dilemma

Imagine this: you are a candidate for the U.S. Senate or Congress and have to answer a question as follows, “What is your position on illegal immigration?” You look at your 3-by-5 five card and try to come up with a sound-bite answer.In this world, the two sound-bite answers appear to be, “We need a path to citizenship for illegal aliens” and “We need to send all illegal immigrants back where they came from.”Unfortunately, the immigration issue – as are most issues – is much more complex than either of these answers. Think about the factors a candidate really would have to consider if he or she actually had a thoughtful position on immigration and wanted to address America’s problems thoughtfully.First, by definition, the problem with “illegal immigrants” is that they are here illegally. No one is talking about those who are here legally, although the 12 million or so illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States create a situation in which all immigrants, largely Hispanic ones, are tarred with the same brush and suspected of being illegal, whether they have a green card or other appropriate visa, or not.Second, these 12 million people already are here, sometimes employed, participating in communities, part of the economy, and afraid, invisible and not part of the assimilation process that always has been fundamental to the growth of the United States. They have children, they have families, and they have to be handled somehow.Third, the whole illegal immigrant situation presumes that we can stop the flow and deal with those who are here. Obviously, the country has not done a very good job at stopping the flow, and it is ironically encouraging that the United States is still the beacon of hope that draws people to it. We are trying a fence along the border, sending National Guard and other troops, and yet the problem continues.The options appear to be developing an immigration policy that somehow deals with those who are here on a case-by-case basis, gives appropriate people an opportunity to go through some process by which they can stay and work toward a legal status or citizenship. Or we should try to round them up and send them home, which will create practical economic and internationally difficult diplomatic problems.Add to all of this complexity the fact that people are worried about the number and concentrations of illegal immigrants because they threaten, in the eyes of those concerned, to create two societies with two cultures and two languages and break up the country if the immigrants are not assimilated properly.This leads to a whole different issue, not unique to immigrants, that the candidates should address: How to educate the immigrants as well as all of the young people and citizens of the country about the common values we share, the democratic system we have, the nature of our republic, and the reasons civic participation and the cohesion of our country is important.These are legitimate concerns, but the rhetoric sometimes sounds like this: “Do you want to have two Californias, the Republic of Northern Mexico in the south and the rest of California in the north?” Or, “We are going to have two Americas, one Spanish and one English.”Any candidate considering the immigration issue as a whole should recognize that it goes beyond the question of illegal immigration. Throughout our history, new groups coming to the United States with their own languages, customs and cultures have been viewed with suspicion by those already here. The present situation is no exception. What is different, potentially, is the push that often occurs now to allow people to keep their language on a parallel track with English in the United States.While every ethnic group keeps its ethnocentricity and should be proud of its traditions, it is important to make sure that those things that unite us as a country are inculcated. It is important for those already here as it is for those coming, legally or illegally.Candidates considering immigration have to think about all sorts of contradictory and complex matters that lead to the larger problem of how to keep the democracy together. That goes to what we teach about the United States, how we teach it, what we share, and is a larger and more fundamental question than solving the immediate immigration problem that also needs to be addressed.The sound bite answers from either side of the issue will not suffice.Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.