08/19/2011 05:18 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2011

Hispanics and Illegal Immigration - Where the Conversation Stops

Hispanics and immigration reached its apex of visibility during the 2006 street protests, where a coordinated, national series of street marches occurred with Hispanic participants estimated in the millions. These events were facilitated and amplified by Spanish-language media outlets, in particular Univision, Telemundo, Azteca America and various Spanish-language radio stations across the country and demonstrated to the American populace for the first time that Hispanic voices could coalesce in a powerful chorus.

So, it wouldn't be farfetched to believe that there is a broad consensus on the issue of illegal immigration among Hispanics, right? Wrong.

"Hispanics are also divided about the impact of illegal immigration on Hispanics already living in the U.S. Roughly equal shares say the impact has been positive (29%), negative (31%) or made no difference (30%)".- Pew Hispanic Center 2010

What is happening here? I believe that many casual observers of this topic ascribe Hispanic motives on illegal immigrations primarily, if not exclusively toward ethnic solidarity. More simply put - "Hispanics stick together because they are Hispanics". This belief, by the way, is held by those who are more sympathetic towards illegal immigrants and by those who are not. The argument, in its extreme goes like this:

Sympathetic - "We must not be oppressed on the basis of our race/ethnicity/cultural heritage. A blow to one is a blow to all."

Unsympathetic - "They are not true 'Americans'. Those foreigners don't belong here".

At the core of this argument is the notion of ethnic identity, and what it supposedly means. My view is that most of the public dialogue on illegal immigration and Hispanics centers on this ethnic identity core, which blurs the reality of the nuance of the issue, and leads to the loudest voices crowding out the possibility for solutions. By looking at Hispanic opinions on illegal immigration, we can see better where the nuance lies.

I believe there are several filters at work that impact people's views on illegal immigration that include, but go beyond, ethnic identity. Specifically, and in my order of priority:

1. Security Filter - Since 9/11, public consciousness has been raised on the need to control our borders. Lapsed visas, shoe and underwear bombers, under-monitored incoming cargo are almost daily reminders that we are not an island fortress. The notion that porous borders exist, and the daily evidence of human traffic passing through these borders, is generally disconcerting to Americans, including Hispanics, who overwhelmingly want a path to citizenship that includes background checks.

2.Economic Filter - the interpretation here is less clear. Harvard's George Borjas has asserted that the average American's wealth is incrementally increased because of illegal immigration, due largely to lower prices on various items like food, services, et al. Others argue that illegal immigrants suppress wages at the lower end of the wage scale, with a disproportionately negative impact on lower skilled job seekers. Some claim that illegal immigrants consume social services (e.g. schools, medical services) in greater amounts than they contribute in taxes, while others argue the exact opposite. In the end, Hispanics are similarly divided. In fact, the shift in Hispanic attitudes on this issue as measured by Pew between 2007 and 2010 may coincide with the diminishing prospects of the economy, meaning Hispanics' affinity for education may be significantly impacted by this filter.

3."Fairness" Filter - this is the notion that we all have to "wait our turn in line". It is core to the American identity with its origins of egalitarianism and rule of law. There are many who take deep offense at the idea that some are skirting unfairly, including Hispanics who have personally gone through the legal immigration process.

4. Ethnic Identity Filter - this is where we started, with the notion that people are either being persecuted or are seeking strength through numbers on the basis of their ethnicity. This is where most of the action is, and where I believe the most vocal constituencies drown out the potential for moving forward. When those I loosely called 'sympathetic' focus exclusively or primarily on ethnic identity as the dividing line, their opponents are basically being labeled bigots. Despite legitimate concerns in Security, the Economy and Fairness, the cry of bigotry polarizes and shuts down debate.

On the other side, we need to recognize that there are overt and perhaps unconscious perceptions of ethnic inferiority that make this issue more emotionally charged. Perhaps best illustrated by the writings of now deceased Harvard social scientist Samuel Huntington:
"In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives....This reality poses a fundamental question: Will the United States remain a country with a single national language and a core Anglo-Protestant culture?."

This view, of course, is deeply offensive to Hispanics when perceived as cultural determinism, or worse, some form of genetic determinism. This is the place where conversation becomes recrimination.

My hope and belief is that the vast majority of Americans do not filter this issue primarily through Filter 4. In the end, Hispanic opinions on illegal immigration have what I believe is a reasoned, and reasonable perspective on comprehensive illegal immigration reform.

"For example, fully 86% of Latinos support providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants if they pass background checks, pay a fine and have jobs, a level of support far greater than among the general public (68%). Among Latinos, about eight-in-ten (82%) of the native born and nine-in-ten (90%) of the foreign born say they support providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants." - Pew Hispanic Center 2010 Study