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This week I want to talk about the politics of immigration. Not very often will you hear people in politics speak candidly. That’s because what goes around comes around. Politicians are very sensitive creatures. They only want to hear good news and upbeat comments about their work. They often have a hard time separating things personal from things professional. Sounding critical of an idea or a policy often sounds personally critical to them. Rather than discussing, or even arguing, about differing opinions, many politicians simply get offended, quit talking, and begin the processes of quiet retribution that so often accompany passive-aggressive behavior.

So for me to speak candidly about the politics of immigration right now is kind of taking my professional life in my hands. But, as my mom is fond of saying, “Hey, no brain, no pain.”

Here’s what I think is going on with immigration politics. First, I realize that many state legislators are hearing from their most vocal constituents and most of them happen to be very rabid anti-immigration types. In those circles, there’s no room for disagreement. If you’re not on the side of kicking every undocumented immigrant out of the country, you’re a traitor to the nation.

They are who they are on this issue. But, more disturbing for me, is that anti-immigration thoughts run broader and deeper in mainstream Utah than I suspected. I think regular Utahns have this prejudice about these immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants. I do think, by and large, the average Utahn leans toward objectifying them as something less than human. That’s hard for me to say, let alone admit. But it would explain a lot of the waffling that I hear, and here’s what it sounds like: “Illegal aliens really are criminals, but then there’s that nice family in my ward. I wouldn’t want to see them get deported or have their family split apart.”

Frankly, I think many state legislators fall into this camp. They see the realities of undocumented immigration – realities not unlike their own lives – but then they’re so easily enticed by the horrible stories they hear from the antis. Reality and fiction seem to share center stage in their minds.

I have been surprised, even shocked, by how easily swayed state legislators can be by the arguments of the antis. In a Senate committee hearing regarding the repeal of the very successful driving privilege card used by undocumented immigrants, the five senators present were against its repeal. But when a couple of the witnesses began to make arguments – arguments that any reasonable mind could have taken apart – the four Republican senators voted the bill out of committee favorably. Even the bill sponsor was surprised.

The [Stephen] Sandstrom bill hearing felt the same to me. House legislators I know who oppose that bill voted it out of committee. I have to wonder if they want to believe the antis? I know they want to do the right thing, but I also wonder if they have some sort of parochial view of the lives of undocumented immigrants that allows them to entertain myth and hyperbole.

If an anti says something ridiculous such as, “Illegals are stealing our jobs!” I wonder why a legislator doesn’t challenge that statement. In fact, I wonder why legislators don’t challenge every assertion made by the antis. Is it because legislators don’t know the truth? Again, and I hate to say it, but I have this ugly feeling that many legislators have this preconceived idea of an undocumented immigrant and that idea is something less than the rest of us.

These preconceived ideas complicate the politics of immigration. For an idea guy like me, I love this issue. It’s complex and nuanced. But it’s also very frustrating. I can tackle the lies and misrepresentations. That’s pretty easy to do. Tougher to tackle is how an individual legislator sees another human being. In response, all I can tell them is to see undocumented immigrants as they see themselves. Frankly, my friends, it would be easier to tell a 4-year-old there’s no Santa Claus.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.

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