Business leaders, law enforcement officials, and evangelical Christians -- key constituencies that are typically part of the Republican base -- have been at the forefront of immigration reform. Given the obvious benefits of, and broad public support for, immigration reform, why are many arch-conservatives in the House of Representatives refusing to address the issue in a serious way? The answer may point to an issue that we still hesitate to talk about directly: race.
Fixing our broken immigration system would grow our economy and reduce the deficit. It would establish a workable visa system that ensures enough workers with "status" to meet employers' demands. It would end the painful practice of tearing families and communities apart through deportations and bring parents and children out of the shadows of danger and exploitation. And it would allow undocumented immigrants -- some of whom even have children serving in the U.S. military -- to have not "amnesty," but a rigorous pathway toward earned citizenship that starts at the end of the line of applicants. Again, why is there such strident opposition when the vast majority of the country is now in favor of reform?
When I asked a Republican senator this question, he was surprisingly honest: "Fear," he said. Fear of an American future that looks different from the present.
One of the most important facts of American politics today is something nobody wants to talk about. By 2050, a majority of Americans will be of African, Latin-American, or Asian descent. So by mid-century white Americans will be in the minority, and many white Americans are not ready for that profound demographic change to their country.
Whenever this topic emerges in public discourse, allegations of playing "the race card" end the conversation. Most African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, and Latino leaders know they will be accused of that if they raise the reality of race. But stopping the conversation doesn't change this basic truth: Race is at the center of too many of the political divisions and policy debates paralyzing our democracy. Race is an ongoing issue that requires continued conversation.
So as a white man and an evangelical Christian, I want to speak to the issues of race that prevent us from moving forward as a nation. America will look substantially different in the near future, and we will be a majority "minority" country. At the same time, increasing financial insecurity is disrupting the lives of many white Americans and, acknowledged or not, these anxieties can manifest as anger toward minorities and immigrants.
The debate over immigration reform has unfortunately brought racial fears and slurs into the political discussion. One of the worst examples of that is the behavior of Rep. Steve King of Iowa. King is notorious for his relentless and unsubstantiated attacks on immigrants, including ugly comparisons to dogs and the absurd claim that children eligible for the DREAM Act are drug runners with "calves the size of cantaloupes."
Such episodes should shock us. Instead they are largely dismissed as the antics of a lunatic fringe, even though some in that fringe hold seats in Congress. But this racially motivated fear runs much deeper and wider than most people realize, or are willing to admit.
Sojourners is running this myth-busting ad in Rep. King's district.
Much of this angst has been directed at our first African-American president, who recently endured the waving of Confederate flags and the sounds of rebel yells outside the White House. Disagreeing with President Obama is not racist. But the language being used about the president is much uglier than genuine political opposition. The hatred goes beyond Obama's policies, to his being the "wrong" kind of American. And part of the intense opposition to immigration reform is that it could be a "win" for Obama. Obama reminds many angry and insecure white voters that they are losing elections, and they fear that means losing "their" country.
Pragmatic business leaders don't want a future based on racial divides. Ethical law-enforcement officials are committed to systems and practices that treat people equally under the law and thus consider current immigration laws broken and unjust. Morally concerned evangelical and Catholic leaders are experiencing the growth of more diverse churches.
Smart and principled Republican voices are calling for a more inclusive party that reaches out to Hispanic voters, promises opportunity for low-income families across racial lines, and wrests back its agenda from the ideological fights picked by Tea Party legislators, especially when those battles have underlying racial codes.
Issues of race will not disappear if we ignore them. Along with our business and law-enforcement allies we call upon Republicans who want an inclusive party to stand up to those who don't. Progress will only come through honest acknowledgment of the racial divides that affect us all. And we Christians must also add that racism is a sin against God.
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Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE . Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.