Opinion: Why can’t we have rational conversation about immigration?


WASHINGTON — What better way to usher in the hissingly hot dog days of summer, otherwise known as August, than with a high-wire verbal duel between CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta and White House sniper Stephen Miller.

The sniping began during a news conference Wednesday, the same day President Trump endorsed Senate Republicans’ plan to reform legal immigration from family-based to skill-based standards.

Reactions were swift, predictable and hysterical:

“Oh my god, who’s going to harvest the crops? This is so un-American! Trump is a bigot!”

More or less.

Acosta contributed to the latter lament by citing what he called Trump’s three issues: Muslims, Mexicans and media, all of which the president presumably dislikes — except when he’s in Saudi Arabia, Mexico or appearing on Fox “News.”

Passions intensified when Acosta further suggested that Trump only wants immigrants from English-speaking regions, prompting Miller to accuse him of having a “cosmopolitan bias,” which seems like something one would like to have — or drink. Cosmopolitan means worldly, after all, and what’s wrong with that?

As for Acosta, what could explain his apparent extrapolation that prioritizing English proficiency is tantamount to restricting immigration to certain races or ethnicities? One may infer that Trump is a bigot in certain instances, but not necessarily in this one. Are there no other reasons besides bigotry to prefer skilled to unskilled workers?

To Acosta, the president’s bias in favor of English-speaking people is obvious and runs counter to the nation’s purpose as described in the poem on the Statue of Liberty welcoming the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses. Acosta engaged in a recitation, whereupon Miller gleefully retorted that said poem, written in 1883 by one Emma Lazarus, was tacked onto the statue years after it was erected.

In 2017, we can’t welcome skilled workers, too?

Today’s wretched excess, if you will, is the direct consequence of the well-intentioned Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which gave preference to extended family members of people already here. Legal immigration has increased from 296,697 annually in 1965 to more than 1 million today. Of those, 39 percent are from Asia. About one-third emigrate from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Before the law, 70 percent of legal immigrants were from Europe and Canada, compared with just 10 percent today.

If such preferences are tantamount to bigotry, then others have been equally guilty, including Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, as well as civil rights leader Barbara Jordan, who in 1972 became the first African-American woman from the South to be elected to the U.S. House. As head of an immigration special task force, Jordan worried that opening the floodgates to unskilled workers would rob American citizens of jobs. She, too, suggested focusing more on skilled immigrants.

Kennedy, who in 1965 downplayed such concerns and supported the immigration bill, later changed his mind and in 2007 joined Sen. John McCain in a push for skills-based reforms. But then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton opposed the idea because, hold your air horns, they couldn’t bear the thought that families (aka future Democratic voters) might be torn asunder.

Oh, the ironies. The GOP has finally defined exactly which families they value, while Democrats have clarified their need for the needy. It would seem we have a draw. Yet somewhere in all the squabbling is space for the “brain power” Jordan urged Americans to call upon for a rational conversation about immigration reform that best serves the national interest.

Writes for The Washington Post.

Writes for The Washington Post.



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