04/28/2006 03:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Conflicting Values and the Battle Over Immigration

Like other great issues that defined earlier generations, Americans today are conflicted over illegal immigration. It is not surprising, because not only is this a complicated issue, it also represents another serious clash of competing values that many of us hold dear.

This conflict over competing values, which will play out in cities across the nation over the next week and beyond, is the trademark of great struggles in our society. For example, a majority of Americans will say that abortion represents manslaughter because destroying a fetus is killing a human life, yet majorities support the competing values of a woman's right to choose an abortion, and the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research to cure dread diseases. In this case, as in the case of illegal immigration, our recent polling shows many people embrace conflicting values.

Americans firmly believe that we are a nation of immigrants and that immigration is good for the economy and the soul of the nation. At the same time, we also firmly believe that all immigration should be restricted and that most illegal immigrants should not be allowed to stay.

In our most recent poll on the subject, a majority of Americans said that the recent massive protests by immigrants and their supporters in cities all over the country have made them less sympathetic toward the demonstrators and the cause. This finding reminded me of the early civil rights movement when key actors like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were viewed at first as objects of scorn among Americans nationwide. But, as we found decades ago, public opinion moved in stages on civil rights. In the beginning, Americans all over the country were confronted with an uncomfortable image of an issue, and the people it represented, becoming suddenly visible. The visibility alone was enough to cause discomfort as the early boycotts and demonstrations revealed African Americans in a role that was counter to the stereotype that was defined for them: invisible, compliant, subservient. As those demonstrations, boycotts, and sit-ins grew in size and number, white Americans, then celebrities, joined in. The images changed. More Americans became aware of the ravages of discrimination and segregation and their impact not only on African Americans but also on the very soul and image of the nation itself. In the middle of the cold war with the Soviet Union abroad, Americans were exposed to a hypocrisy and injustice at home that they could no longer allow to continue.

We have the same sensibilities and conflicting values today. Immigrants have always revitalized our freedom and democracy because they cherish it so much. Their gratitude for a fresh start and for hope makes them, in many ways, America's greatest ambassadors. Like converts to a new religion, they are often the most ardent patriots. At the same time, we must also be aware that if illegal immigration were suddenly stopped or severely limited, it could grind this nation's economy to a halt because illegal immigrants represent so much of the service industry and agricultural sector in several states.

But we have become so accustomed to their invisibility and subservience that we have failed to recognize their humanity. Like the civil rights demonstrators half a century ago, the images of farm laborers, chambermaids, and hourly gardeners out on the streets of Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, and Lincoln is a very uncomfortable vision for Americans who are accustomed to not seeing them at all. It may have been startling to see a group acting out of stereotype, and for a majority of the rest of us to be confronted with the reality that millions of fellow workers across America currently do not have equal rights or many middle-class amenities.

This new conflict comes at an important time for America. Instead of a cold war lurking as in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States finds itself today as a lone superpower. We are resented by much of the planet for launching an unsuccessful war which most people in the world opposed and for trying to impose democracy on our terms instead of waiting for the people of Iraq to establish their own style of government. Isolated in the world, what we do not need, but what we now face, is an additional blow to our self-image that the immigration issue threatens. The hypocrisy is clear: how can we export democracy when we cannot come to terms with an entire class of people living within our own borders?

One thing a solid majority of Americans do agree on: we do not believe the President or Congress will be able to resolve the problems stemming from illegal immigration. This complex issue has revealed a simple truth -- that, at least in this one case, our political institutions do indeed reflect the American people. We are a conflicted people. So, too, are our leaders.