The Immigration Debate Is Not About Legality, It's About Culture

03/16/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

The Republican Party has tried in every way conceivable to throw a wrench in President Obama's executive order to provide legal status to about five million immigrants who entered or stayed in the country without authorization. Yet everything is failing for the Grand Old Party. And that's because the right-wing animus toward undocumented immigrants is not really about politics or even legality, but instead about the cultural shifts that are remaking America.

The Republicans' grappling with immigration is on two tracks. The first is by suing the president: House Speaker John Boehner is challenging that with a lawsuit that most legal experts judge to be a certain loser, and a number of GOP states filed a suit in Texas where they knew they'd get a sympathetic hearing. An injunction was issued that likely will be overturned, because the president has broad authority to halt deportations as a matter of "prosecutorial discretion."

Similarly, the GOP leaders on Capitol Hill have tried to defund parts of the government dealing with immigration -- namely, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- but that has also failed.

The second track is to prove they can legislate in a more constructive way, and several Republican lawmakers are talking about new bills focusing on border security. Already, border security eats up about $12 billion of funding annually, more than all other federal security agencies, apart from the Pentagon, combined.

What is likely to bedevil Republicans on this issue is not the amount of toughness they bring to the arena -- Democrats have often gone along with many of the harsh measures -- but the mismatch between what the right-wing base demands and what the public more broadly is ready to embrace.

That's because the base is mobilized by cultural issues above all else, but the general public sees immigrants as a net plus economically and are tolerant or welcoming of the diversity they bring. The cultural issues mainly revolve around the use of Spanish and the erroneous idea that Mexicans and other Latinos do not "assimilate" as immigrants of past generations had. In fact, Latinos do adopt English precisely like previous immigrants, gradually adopting English and by the third generation speaking it almost exclusively.

But in a country that now enjoys widespread diversity, including same-sex couples, multicultural influences in the arts, biracial children, women's empowerment, etc., immigrant assimilation does not resemble the rigid conformity of the past. Along with those other cultural revolutions, a Hispanic culture has become rooted in the United States, one in which people with family origins in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Central America can dip into occasionally, usually with their extended family.

Polling in the last few weeks and months show this. Large majorities of the American public favor Obama's executive action, support citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and see them as a net plus for the United States. They are supportive of the Dreamers -- young Latinos mostly who were brought to the U.S. as children, but don't have papers. So the overall picture is about a 2-to-1 majority on all these issues that favor legal status for these immigrants. They see the immigrants as contributing to the economy and becoming good Americans.

But conservatives simply can't wrap their heads around this steady shift away from their "deport them all" mentality. Right-wing entertainers like Laura Ingraham and Michelle Malkin, talk show hosts Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, and practically the entire Republican caucus in Congress regard Mexicans and Central Americans as embodying exactly the kinds of qualities that weaken America -- multiculturalism (rather than the "American Way"), welfare dependency, slothful work habits, job stealing, and lack of respect for the law. "Among immigrants today, it is increasingly fashionable to reject American exceptionalism in favor of multiculturalism," Ingraham wrote a year ago. "To pretend that this isn't happening isn't optimism; it's sheer fantasy."

The specter of America becoming a bilingual nation is probably the most hot button issue of all. A group of scholars wrote 25 years ago that "English proficiency is a highly resonant symbol of American nationality. The evidence strongly suggests that an important reason for the popularity of 'official English' is the pervasive public desire to reaffirm an attachment to a traditional image of Americanism that now seems vulnerable." That observation is as true as ever. Yet we know that not only is English the preferred language of third-generation Latinos, and by a wide margin, but the notion of "Americaness" follows: by that third generation, a sizable majority consider themselves Americans only.

Another shibboleth of the right has to do with hard work, yet more Hispanic kids graduated from high schools in America than did whites, as a percentage, and there's an increasing appreciation for the hard work ethic of many immigrants.

And of course there are the tendentious assertions about legality itself -- e.g., "what part of illegal don't you understand?" But coming into the country without authorization is comparable to getting a ticket for jay walking. It is not criminal, and it is not handled as a criminal offense. It is a civil infraction -- technically, "entry without inspection." That's why pro-immigrant activists are so appalled at the draconian detention and deportation system, because it is grossly out of proportion to the infraction. President Obama recognizes that, which likely is at the root of his executive order.

The immigrant myth that many of us learned as children -- the stories of perilous journeys from the repressive, old country; the joyous embrace of America upon landing; the eager assimilation into being an American, and so on -- is probably weaker than ever, thanks to the endless harping about "illegals." To be sure, the acceptance of immigrants has always been shaky.

It's all the more remarkable, then, that Mexicans and other Latinos (53 million now in the U.S., 11 million unauthorized) are accepted so widely in American society. This will only grow. The cultural resistance to immigration is not only cultural but generational, with opponents much older than those who welcome diversity. The numbers and trends show how out-of-touch the GOP base is -- not exactly surprising -- as Latinos take their place firmly in American culture.

John Tirman is author, most recently, of Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash(MIT Press).