President Obama’s recent executive action, which grants a qualified amnesty to illegal immigrants, has thrown the country into a moment of intense and focused political disagreement that is leaving little room for negotiation between the two American parties. The constitutionality of the executive action is disputable, and the decades-long trend toward presidential overreaching is disconcerting, but executive behavior and constitutional theory are not the concerns of this essay. Neither is this a paean to the Democratic Party’s policy on immigration or their treatment of minorities more generally. Rather, I have another pressing issue to bring forward: the tone of Republican responses to illegal immigration.

Tone is not a merely cosmetic concern in the political arena. It is essential to good political practice for two reasons. First, words possess the power to alienate or persuade. Second, what comes out of our mouths is often the product of what is lurking in our hearts, and what is lurking in our hearts affects our judgment.

It has become increasingly clear that the Republican Party has little control over the rhetoric of some of its members. This problem must be addressed—not only for the purposes of political expediency, but also for the sake of good statesmanship.

Questionable rhetoric leaves a bad taste in the mouth of Hispanic citizens, of legal immigrants from all countries, and of well-meaning Americans sensitive to the specter of racism still haunting our country because of its unfortunate past. The wisest Republican policymakers will realize that there are several prudent ways of solving the problem of immigration. By purifying their party of the passion fueling imprudent rhetoric, Republicans will be better able to identify adequate policies and form a reasonable response to the president. The more they distance themselves from rhetoric that spurs accusations of racism, the more likely Republicans are to win over Latino voters—a demographic that will continue to grow over the next few decades, even without amnesty.

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Immigrants are Human Beings—Not Animals, Dirtbags, or Subhuman Idiots

Let us consider a few examples of intemperate Republican language. In 2013, when discussing a policy about wildlife, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli equated the breaking up of the families of rats protected by the law to the breaking up of families of illegal Latino immigrants, claiming that environmental policy was worse than “our immigration policy.” Representative Steve King likened them to dogs, using an extended metaphor to compare a proper immigration process to selecting puppies from a litter. And, according to Rush Limbaugh, illegal aliens are just another “invasive species, like mollusks and spermatozoa.”

Are these characterizations harmless means of communicating the best political policies? Or are they reflective of an interior disposition to view Latin Americans as subhuman?  Whatever the case, they are surely not the most prudent words that could have been chosen. Comparing human beings to animals is never a good way to create or defend political positions.

Glenn Beck has continued the tradition of conservative misspeaking, calling Mexico a “dirtbag country” in a speech meant to exonerate him from accusations of racism in 2013. Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Bachmann have used the words “illiterate” and “stupid” when describing the Hispanic immigrant population. The phrase “anchor baby,” which has developed an increasingly pejorative character, was used in the recent, nearly incoherent statement of a GOP staffer that the children of immigrants “were anchor babies yesterday and they’ll be anchor babies tomorrow.”

Academic and Personal Prejudice

In a significantly more sophisticated instance of problematic rhetoric, Phyllis Schlafly criticized the social mores of Latino immigrants and questioned the culture’s lack of “experience with limited government and the types of rights we have in the Bill of Rights.” In doing so, she resurrected barbs similar to those once aimed at Italian and Irish Catholics in 1800s America, who were seen as a threat to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture and accused of irresponsible fertility and the habituated or innate incapacity for self-rule.

I was once present for an academic lecture that argued for a similar thesis: Mexican culture is a passive culture, lazy and accustomed to and desirous of monetary handouts. It was also depicted as a culture of hardworking and driven people, willing to put in long hours of backbreaking labor for extremely little pay. I never quite worked out how a population could be lazy and passive, on the one hand, and also be the hardworking and driven thieves of low-wage American jobs, on the other.

These attitudes exist in private life, as well, a fact that I have witnessed personally as a Mexican-American woman. A family member found herself meeting the parents of a young man she had been on a date with the weekend before, because they had driven hours from one Texas city to another to meet her after they heard she was Hispanic. Religious, well-educated, and conservative in their politics, they told their son they wanted to make sure she was of good character because of her race, culture, and class.

More disturbing is the conversation my mother overheard between another teacher and a DARE officer in the teacher’s lounge of our small town in Texas—a town that has many virtues, but also struggles with a legacy of racism. Our school district has a growing Latino population, mostly comprised of citizens, although some children are illegal. My mother heard the teacher remark to the officer that her class was now filled with so many Hispanics that all he would have to do was teach them how to be read their rights after an arrest. The officer responded by laughing and agreeing.

It is certain that some residents of Latin American countries are criminal, dishonest, lazy, or unintelligent, but these characteristics are more attributes of human beings in general than they are the special vices of Latinos. Even if the culture were not beautiful, even if it had not produced great contributions to art, literature, music and to the living out of the theological virtues, it is still a human culture that commands our attention first and foremost under the auspices of our common humanity.

The Lessons of History

History is our best teacher. Many contemporary American immigration reform opponents are descended from Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants. These past immigrants were called dirty, stupid, disease-ridden, prone to criminality, and uneducated, and they were told to go back home where they belonged. Indeed, many of them committed crimes and brought organized crime into the country. Some exhibited vices such as alcoholism or wife-beating, and possessed little knowledge of or capacity for the English language. These immigrants bore children at rates higher than the American citizen population, and they often lived in slum-like areas that were eyesores and safety hazards. Yet the majority of them were of goodwill. They worked the most menial jobs that other Americans would not work, and through their hard work and discipline they became increasingly stable over several generations.

Now, Latino immigrants are victims of the same accusations, and they do the same sort of labor, which is still mistakenly looked down upon. They clean toilets, handle trash, and work ten-hour days or longer in one-hundred-degree weather, picking produce or building American homes, offices, and roads. In other words, they do all the menial labor most Americans do not desire to do, and they are not well paid for it. This is the typical position of an immigrant. Latino immigrants are not different from the immigrants in the nineteenth century, from whom many Americans are descended.

Why We Need Immigration Reform

“But this is different,” many protest. “The immigrants Obama is concerned with have broken the law. The people who came through Ellis Island came here with the blessing of American law.” Point taken. However, this brings us to another serious problem.

The current legal immigration policy is extremely onerous. When the ancestors of many contemporary American citizens fled bad situations and extreme poverty in their countries, the standards for legal immigration were not nearly as onerous, nor were the immigrants subjected to the type of selection for demonstrable intelligence and economic productivity encouraged by Representative Steve King. Now, it costs at least $1,500 dollars to begin the citizenship process (excluding legal fees and whatever someone has paid to come here; oftentimes, Latin Americans have spent their life savings for passage to the States). To continue the process of citizenship after receiving a green card can cost at least another $800 per person. Imagine having to undertake such onerous fees for an entire family. Would our ancestors who came through Ellis Island have been able to become citizens under these kinds of conditions?

My point is this: many of us are here because of a time in our regime when the law was different and, I would say, more just. Now the law is much more strict, and some people whose families have benefited from a much more lax standard earlier in history are angry that others want to do the same. Judging by the contrast between earlier immigration experiences and the stringent standards of contemporary legal immigration, reform has been needed for a long time. This is clear, whether or not one agrees with Obama’s executive action. In fact, the delay in the reform has led directly to a rationale the president can offer for his executive action. Indeed, some argue that the problem has been ignored for too long and grown so big that it actually requires unilaterally wielded power.

The issue of immigration is complex and deeply embedded in the contemporary American political landscape. It is not going away any time soon. A reform combining the virtues of justice and mercy is needed. It is incumbent on conservative thought, a tradition that still understands itself as inspired by Judeo-Christian values, to work in Washington to come to such a conclusion. By freeing themselves of harmful rhetoric, Republicans will be able to help guide the country in a time of political difficulty and disagreement.