ABA Journal

Chasing the Dream: Sorting Fact and Myth Is Biggest Obstacle to Immigration Reform


Illustrations by Bryan Christie Design

Consensus doesn’t seem to have a place in policy discussions about the state of the U.S. immigration system. But there is, at least, widespread agreement that the system needs fixing.

“Everyone will tell you the laws aren’t working,” says Brittney Nystrom, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C. But beyond that starting premise, views on immigration laws start to splinter.

“On both sides of this debate, there are deeply held beliefs about what immigration means to America,” says Nystrom. “On one side, you have the idea that we’re a nation of immigrants, and it’s healthy and important to keep that tradition alive. On the other side, you have the argument that immigrants are a burden. Trying to factually discuss immigration becomes almost impossible when people tend to fall into one camp or the other based on what they’re told.”

Such an environment is the perfect incubator for rampant mythmaking. Advocates on different sides of the debate support their positions by insisting that certain beliefs must be true while dismissing evidence that might suggest otherwise.

“These myths are largely standing in the way of understanding what’s wrong with our immigration system and how it can be fixed,” says Crystal L. Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.

This pattern isn’t exclusive to immigration law by any means, but certain factors help to make the debate over immigration policy susceptible to myths.

For one, the topic triggers strong emotions in a nation that professes to cherish its immigrant heritage. Even basic terminology is the subject of intense debate. Advocates of more permissive immigration policies prefer neutral-sounding terms like “immigrant” or “undocumented worker,” while proponents of stricter policies maintain that such terms are missing a crucial adjective.

“Illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” are more accurate terms to describe people who are living in the United States without permission of the law, says Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “These people have violated the law and know they’ve done something wrong,” he says. “Aliens are people here in the United States who aren’t citizens, and it could include tourists here legally. Just calling people ‘aliens’ and ‘immigrants’ isn’t fair to aliens and immigrants here legally.”

It doesn’t help that immigration policy is a hot-button political issue, especially as this presidential election year heats up. “Every politician thinks he can get ahead with an anti-immigration sound bite,” says Karyn S. Schiller, who operates immigration law offices in New York City and White Plains. “There’s nothing to be gained by sounding pro-immigrant. The real loser is the American people because all the positive ways in which the country could benefit from immigration aren’t being explained.”

Complicating the debate is the fact that the immigration system is largely incomprehensible to all but those immersed in it. Americans feel very strongly about immigration, says Michele Waslin, senior policy analyst at the Immigration Policy Center, the research and policy arm of the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C., “but in reality, few people understand how the system works or what’s wrong with it.”

A byproduct of the serious debate over immigration policy is the proliferation of lists seeking to identify “myths” from the point of the beholders. The council, for instance, has posted on its website Top 10 Myths About Immigration, put together by Justice for Immigrants, a D.C. nonprofit under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a pamphlet titled Immigration Myths and Facts.

“There’s an old saying in Washington that anyone can find a study that says anything,” says Randy Johnson, senior vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits at the Washington, D.C.-based chamber. The organization supports targeted legalization of some illegal immigrants and expanded temporary worker programs, along with stricter employer verification procedures and tougher border security.

“We think the weight of the studies is in support of the positions we take,” Johnson says. “Often, when it comes to immigration, those with restrictionist views rely on the minority of the studies on these issues. Also, many studies in this area are done by left-wing groups, and we thought a study by the business community would be given more weight by Republicans in Congress.”

Can the facts about immigration law and policy be easily sorted from the myths? Not necessarily, but in this article the ABA Journal identifies the underlying immigration issues and—relying on documented sources and those with practical and expert knowledge—attempts to pair those issues with factual perspectives.

Click here to read the rest of “Chasing the Dream” from the May issue of the ABA Journal.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.