The Topic: Why is immigration such a hot-button issue?

As our legislators grapple with the daunting task of immigration reform, one of the few things they agree on is that a fix is long overdue. However, discussion stalls in the heated ideological differences that are part of the American psyche: the rightness of welcoming the huddled masses longing for freedom and a chance at the american dream; and the notion that immigrants deprive native citizens of resources and jobs and weaken the economy. We are a nation of immigrants. Why is immigration such a hot-button issue?

Alfredo Quinones-HinojosaAlfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa

Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon

Developed countries will always welcome the Einsteins of this world—those individuals whose talents are already recognized and deemed to have value. This welcome doesn't usually extend to the poor and uneducated people seeking to enter the country. But the truth, supported by the facts of history and the richness of immigrant contribution to America's distinction in the world, is that the most entrepreneurial, innovative, motivated citizen is the one who has been given an opportunity and wants to repay the debt.

Carl GuarneriCarl Guarneri

SMC professor of history

From the beginning, Americans have defined themselves as a nation of immigrants, while, at the same time, veering between two definitions of nationhood. Civic nationalism opens admission and citizenship impartially to all individuals who pledge allegiance to our political system; ethnic nationalism favors certain ethnoracial groups over others. Americans today forget that national origins immigration quotas were in effect until 1965, and most nonwhite immigrants were not allowed to become U.S. citizens until the 1950s. Fortunately, our laws have become more welcoming. Still, in times of perceived national crisis such as foreign wars or economic downturns, immigration tends to resurface as a hot-button issue, especially if the targeted group is perceived as "different" from fictional "middle Americans."

Manuel VasquezManuel Vásquez

Associate professor of sociology and religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville

The term "illegal" is factually correct, insofar as it accurately describes the fact that many immigrants have violated U.S. immigrations laws, either by crossing the border unauthorized or overstaying their visas. However, the word "illegal" has become so emotionally charged that it dehumanizes not only the unauthorized immigrant, who is objectified as nothing more than a faceless criminal, but those who use it uncritically. When we use the term unthinkingly, we lose the capacity to feel the moral dilemmas and the sometimes tragic predicaments behind much immigration. Further, the term "illegal" stymies all public debate, impeding the search for rational, pragmatic and long-term solutions to our broken immigration system.

Statue of LibertyStatue of Liberty

Emma Lazarus, 19th century poet

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Jan BrewerJan Brewer

Governor of Arizona

Well, I'm sorry but I believe that if you break the law, and you’re an illegal immigrant, and you're in this country illegally, that you are an illegal immigrant. We know they're human beings; we know they’re our brothers and our sisters, but we believe in the rule of law, and we can't afford it, and we certainly can't afford the criminal element, with Arizona having to deal with the drug cartels.

Lyndon B. JohnsonLyndon B. Johnson

36th President of the United States (1963-1969)
At signing of 1965 immigration bill on Liberty Island

This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here. … Those who can contribute most to this country—to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit—will be the first that are admitted to this land. The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied. Yet the fact is that for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and...distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.

Ann CoulterAnn Coulter

Political commentator

Teddy Kennedy's 1965 immigration act so dramatically altered the kinds of immigrants America admits that, since 1969, about 85% of legal immigrants have come from the Third World. They bring Third World levels of poverty, fertility, illegitimacy and domestic violence with them. When they can't make it in America, they simply go on welfare and sometimes strike out at Americans.

Ted TsukaharaTed Tsukahara

Professor in SMC Integral Program

If citizens are fearful about their economic future, political pressure increases to reduce the flow of voluntary immigration. This fear causes us to forget our own histories since the vast majority of us either are related to or can be counted among "the huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Given the opportunity, generations upon generations of new migrants have supplied the physical and moral energy that sustains our economic and political freedoms. The key to our future is to find ways to sharpen our national vision and renew our commitment to be the locus of opportunity for all people.

Sandra MattarSandra Mattar

Associate dean, SMC Kalmanovitz School of Education

Historically, immigration debates intensify during difficult economic times. Immigrants are perceived as taking resources from the host country and threatening the integrity of the American fabric. As a country, we have episodic amnesia when it comes to the treatment of immigrants. People forget that we became who we are today as a country because of the pluralism of ideas and the synergy created by a very diverse group of people. We forget that most of us can trace back to an immigrant in our background.

Tim FarleyTim Farley

Saint Mary's director of community and government relations

Ever since our founding, the U.S. has struggled with several reoccurring issues; immigration is but one of them. When any new wave of immigrants arrived, we have looked at them with suspicion. Whether it was the Irish in the mid-19th century, the Italians at the turn of the last century or Mexicans today, some fear the new arrivals. Add a bad economy and it's a textbook formula for fear of the new. After two generations, the group will assimilate and be replaced by the next wave of arrivals.