x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Democrats should use immigration to unite Americans

The American story is personal, with each citizen self-defining the nation.

In October 1984, I attended the annual dinner of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) and heard campaign speeches delivered by Ronald Reagan, running for re-election, and former vice-president Walter Mondale, hoping to replace him.

Mr Mondale's speech, a litany of promises, fell flat. The only applause came when he mentioned his running mate Geraldine Ferraro, an Italian-American.

But when it was Reagan's turn, he said, as I recall, something like this: "My grandmother, like yours, came to this country with nothing but her hopes and dreams. She worked hard, driven by the conviction that if she did, in America, her dreams could become a reality. I stand here the beneficiary of her hard work and the fulfilment of her dreams."

There was not a dry eye in the room. I said to myself: "Reagan just won the Italian vote."

As a Democrat, I was peeved, because that immigrant narrative had long been a Democratic Party staple. For decades, the Democratic base has been America's urban ethnic immigrant communities. Surrendering that narrative and that base to Reagan was just wrong.

I recall this story as the US is in the midst of a national debate over immigration reform. A bill has passed the Senate and the matter now moves to the House of Representatives. The media and reformers have framed it as a Latino issue; "Latino" and "immigrant" now being interchangeable terms.

Pointing to the states where the Latino vote looms large, Democrats gloat that if Republicans do not get this issue right, they will not win the presidency. Some Republicans who share this view are urging their party to support at least some reform to cut into the Democrats' advantage with Latino voters.

As CNN has noted, the Latino vote is critical in presidential and some Senate contests, but most Republican lawmakers come to Congress from districts with few Latino voters; these people are immune to direct electoral pressure.

As reform advocates begin pressing the House to act, they are again targeting representatives from districts where the Latino vote is a factor, or that have businesses that use a lot of immigrant (read "Latino") labour.

But they are missing the point. As many, including Maryland state senator Jim Rosapepe (an Italian American) and former congressman Bruce Morrison (an Irish American) often point out, immigration is not just a Latino issue: it is fundamental to the American narrative of who we are.

As Mr Morrison once noted, if the issue is framed as undocumented Latinos knocking on America's door saying "let us in", reform to ease the process becomes politically more difficult. But if this liberalisation is presented as part of the tradition of America the welcoming nation of immigrants, it has much broader appeal.

Some opponents of reform hone in on the word "undocumented" as if this group were exclusively Latino. They speak derisively of "lawbreakers", an unassimilable group that would change the character of the country and be a drain on the economy. This is, of course, an effort to stereotype, marginalise and demonise all immigrants.

This is wrong on several counts. Being "undocumented" is not new in America nor is it limited to one ethnic group. In the last century, there were millions of undocumented Irish, Italian, Polish and other European immigrants. Even today, if you look at the tallies of youngsters who have applied for "deferred action" (President Barack Obama's compassionate attempt to defer deportation for those who were brought to this country as children, by their parents), Europeans are prominent.

Immigrants have always been derided as "lazy", "different" and "unable to fit in". In a study for the Immigration Policy Center, researcher Jeffrey Kaye compares recent bigoted statements by local leaders in Hazelton, Pennsylvania (population 25,000) with statements made about the politicians's own immigrant ancestors a century ago. They too were defamed as "lawbreakers", "a drain on public funds" and "not able to assimilate".

Hazelton achieved national notoriety when its city council passed an ordinance against Hispanic "illegal immigrants". Hazelton had been losing population over the last century, but has experienced a bit of a rebound lately, largely due to an influx of Latinos. Boarded-up stores have reopened and abandoned homes are now occupied with families. In reaction to the ordinance, many immigrants, including some who are US citizens, left town. My brother, brought in by the city's Chamber of Commerce to study the economic effect of the ordinance, noted that he had never before seen a city "commit suicide".

The lesson is clear. Moving forward, advocates for reform need to reframe the immigration debate by recapturing the immigrant narrative and selling white ethnic Americans on the issue.

A majority of people in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin are immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from Europe and Mediterranean countries. For them, immigration is not just a Latino issue; it is their story - our American story. It is, as Reagan reminded that NIAF audience, personal to each of us and it is our self-definition as a nation.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute