We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating as some 2008 presidential contenders take up the issue with reckless abandon: politicians who exploit public anger about illegal immigration are stoking long-simmering resentments that can ultimately threaten all minorities in this pluralistic land.
This isn’t to say our nation’s leaders should sit idly by while illegal immigrants pour across our borders. Far from it. In this age of terrorism, effective border control is more vital than ever.
But achieving that requires a major investment of national resources and serious debate about how to balance the economic needs of a nation increasingly tied to its neighbors, the demands of national security and law enforcement, and simple compassion for the millions already here.
Instead, mostly what we get from politicians are slogans, accusations and outright demagoguery.
Presidential candidates, some with good records on immigration, now vie with each other to sound the toughest on illegal immigration. Thoughtful responses to the issue are rewarded with vicious rhetorical assaults, not open debate. More and more, candidates indirectly and sometimes directly validate the racist claims of the extremists who say the nation is being overrun, that crime by illegal immigrants is at epidemic levels or that immigration is part of a plan to destroy American sovereignty.
In this early political season the Republicans are playing the most dangerous game by appealing directly to voters’ fear and resentment, but most Democrats, fearful of being labeled soft on immigration, compound the problem with their frightened silence.
Jewish groups are starting to speak out more assertively. This week the Anti-Defamation League wrote to the major presidential candidates objecting to the “deeply polarizing rhetoric of the immigration debate and the routine demonizing of illegal immigrants.” But it will take more than press releases and polite letters.
Politicians are resorting to immigrant demonization precisely because it is a time-tested way of winning elections, especially in times of economic and social uncertainty.
That points to the need for sweeping education efforts to show the American people that xenophobia and nativism can only unravel the fabric of our democratic society while doing nothing to enhance security. We urge Jewish groups to take the lead in designing and implementing such efforts — and in openly challenging the politicians who exploit anti-immigrant sentiment for political gain.