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Public Agenda President publishes opinion piece on Immigration Issue

Ruth A. Wooden, president of Public Agenda (www.publicagenda.org), a non-partisan public opinion research organization that publishes an online issue guide on immigration, has just published an opinion article on the immigration debate. To read the article, called “What a Civil Discussion of Immigration Would Really Sound Like,” click on the link below.

What a Civil Discussion of Immigration Would Really Sound Like
Ruth A. Wooden

Let’s talk about what it really means to have “civility” in political discourse. And let’s come to agreement on this quickly before things get really ugly on immigration.

We’ve heard calls from leadership many times to have “civil” discussions on all kinds of issues, and no one ever seems to be against it. President Bush has said, “When we discuss this debate, it must be done in a civil way. … It must be done in a way that brings dignity to the process. It must be done in a way that doesn’t pit people against each other.”

And yet, we always seem to end up with the same political discussion that everyone agrees is not civil. But we can dispense with the political posturing and instead engage in public deliberation that actually produces good results – if we agree to some real ground rules.

First, let’s recognize that civil dialogue doesn’t mean having only nice things to say. Politics ought to be filled with passion and opposing views. So when there is a strong statement to be made, critical points that are based on provable facts and well-articulated arguments should not be labeled “uncivil.”

Second, we need to start with a forthright and full accounting of all the legitimate options for addressing the challenges posed by illegal immigration. Too often, politicians say they want a civil discussion, but they really only want to keep their opponents from landing blows to their proposals. Political leaders have to have the courage to allow their own ideas to compete with all the other options available and let consensus build on the best set of solutions.

To be specific on immigration, there are two basic approaches that are getting the most attention at the moment, but there are others that should also be laid out on the table. “Get tough on immigration” supporters are strongly asserting various forms of border control and immigration enforcement as the primary strategy. Business interests and others are touting “guest worker” legislation that would still allow low wage workers into the country, but with a process that is designed to bring more accurate documentation and less criminalization.

But these are not the only possibilities for addressing the challenge of immigration. From the more aggressively anti-immigration side, there are calls for the creation of a fence along our southern border, building of more detention centers to coincide with stepped-up apprehension of undocumented individuals and many other proposals. From the more aggressively pro-immigration side, there are calls to allow all immigrants currently living in the country to become legal and apply for green cards, to lower the income standards necessary to allow U.S. citizens to bring family members to America with family immigration visas, and several other efforts to ease the process toward legal status for workers. Others are pushing to hold businesses more accountable for employment practices that reward workers who enter the country illegally.

Our nation would be the greatest beneficiary if even one courageous leader simply took the time to lay out clearly for the American people what all the various proposed strategies are – in a voice that is as unbiased as possible – and ask the people to consider the pros and cons of each. The public can look past their own fears and wishful thinking, but only if all the options are set out before them and they have sufficient opportunities to consider them.

Third, let’s be honest about who’s backing which proposals and why. Part of being clear about the merits of each proposal is being candid about who benefits and who might be hurt. To leave out the human implications is to obscure and confuse the process. The American people deserve to better understand how various proposals might affect consumer prices, taxes, local services and their neighbors.

Leaders should be forthright about their basic approach on these matters. It is legitimate for a leader to say, “I really believe that we have little to fear from the vast majority of immigrants who come to our country to work hard. We should do what we can to give workers legal status so that business can continue to operate at peak efficiency.” It is also legitimate to say, “I believe that people who break the law to come to the United States are inherently a risk to our security and the fact that it’s so easy for them to do so is a threat to our nation. We should do all that we can to control our borders and remove those people from our country.” Leaders should have the nerve to state publicly the philosophy that will guide their work on this issue.

Fourth, don’t confuse back-room wheeling-and-dealing with legitimate, principled compromise. This is not an either/or, one-solution-fix issue. There will be multiple strategies employed and choices made about how best to direct our limited resources. And so, compromises should and must take place. But let those compromises occur in the light of day and hold them up to the scrutiny of the American public.

We don’t need niceness in our politics as much as we need a process that has integrity. Tough and critical commentary should not be out of bounds if it conveys a truth about the implications of proposed legislation. But just launching attacks without laying out a thoughtful assessment of the best options for addressing the immigration challenge does not constitute real leadership.

Is the immigration debate I’ve outlined the one we’re currently having? Clearly not. But it could be. For this issue and all of the complex challenges our nation faces, let’s hold our leaders accountable to a real standard of civility that is based on honesty, open deliberation and principled compromise.

Amy Lang
Amy Lang is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia. She wrote her dissertation on British Columbia’s groundbreaking Citizens’ Assembly process, and is currently doing follow-up research on the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly.

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