Mythbusters: Beyond the Shadow of Race-Baiting and Partial Truths

By Yvette Schock 10-19-2010

[Editor's Note: Myths and misinformation abound when it comes to the topic of immigration reform. Sojourners and Church World Service have partnered to present a joint blog series, "Mythbusters." Each day, we'll explore myths and facts about the current immigration system and reflect on how people of faith can respond.]

In a recent campaign ad, several Latino men creep stealthily along a chain-link fence at night while a voice-over describes how the candidate's opponent has aided "illegal immigrants." The men skulking along the fence-line move in the classic style of a cartoon villain sneaking around to do mischief -- crouched down, treading softly, glancing around to make sure they're not seen. The actors in the ad are performing a scenario that likely plays in the minds of many Americans when they think of illegal immigration -- a flood of shadowy figures with nefarious aims sneaking across the border under cover of darkness.

It is true that some immigrants who have no option for entering the United States with legal authorization cross the U.S.-Mexico border without permission -- though it's not a simple matter of sneaking through a hole in a fence. It often involves a dangerous desert crossing, and hundreds of people die every year attempting it.

But the majority of immigrants currently living in the United States are documented. Undocumented immigrants make up 30 percent of the nation's foreign-born population. It's simply untrue that most immigrants are in the U.S. illegally.

There's also a deeper dishonesty in the way we often speak about immigration and immigrants that troubles me. As many as 45% of all immigrants who are currently undocumented entered the country through a legal port of entry and with the proper documentation. They may have overstayed a visa -- a civil, not criminal infraction -- but they were never part of that shadowy scene featured in the campaign ad. Paying actors to portray immigrants as cartoonish villains is an obvious effort to throw a pall of criminality over every immigrant mother, worker or child we meet -- but it's only a more visible, egregious example of what happens every day in casual conversation and email exchanges when talk turns to "illegals" and "illegal immigration."

Looking at immigration through a lens of illegality provides only a narrow, distorted view of reality. It encourages us to see immigrants as people who are not like us, who are morally suspect and dangerous. It blinds us to people who live in our neighborhoods, own small businesses, work in vital industries, pay taxes and, like us, are doing the best they can to care for their families. It makes no mention of our appetite for cheap vegetables, of corporations that fail to pay fair wages, or of cheap U.S. corn driving Mexican farmers even further into poverty, off their land, and on a journey toward the border.

As people of faith, we are called to speak honestly. But that isn't just having the right facts to share -- it's also rejecting stereotypes, simple categories and narrow perspectives, and opening the conversation to include the whole, complicated truth about immigration.

Rev. Yvette Schock is the National Grassroots Coordinator for the Interfaith Immigration Coalition.

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