Film Club: ‘Things Fall Apart: How the Middle Ground on Immigration Collapsed’

We’re kind of obsessed with this graph. It shows the percentage of Americans who say immigrants strengthen the United States. We’re all familiar with this end. Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on anything. But what was happening down at this end? How did we start so close and get to: “Build that wall. Build that wall.” Well, that’s what this video is about: the path to political polarization. This dramatic split has left the American immigration system in disarray. And understanding how we got into this mess might just help us find a way out. To start, let’s go back to a moment that might seem totally unimaginable today. “Y2K.” “Hello.” “These are good people, strong people.” It’s 1980, and the two Republican front-runners are having a debate. “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?” “We’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people.” Wait. What? Yeah. The top two Republicans are basically having an empathy competition — empathy for immigrants, that is. “I think the time has come that the United States and our neighbors should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we’ve ever had.” And this was pretty normal at the time. Many Republicans welcomed immigration, especially the legal kind, and viewed immigrants as a source of cheap labor. And on the left: “Illegal aliens don’t have the right to be here. They broke the law to get here. They never intended to become a part of our social community, and they are not entitled to benefits.” Might be hard to believe, but that was a former Democratic congresswoman. Democrats often said things that might sound totally bizarre today. “They have no intention to integrate.” “The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service they use impose burdens on our taxpayers.” “Who compete for housing, who compete for classroom space.” Sure, there were some sharp divisions within each party. But time and again, the winner was bipartisanship. “This bill says simply, those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills.” “This bill is the most comprehensive.” “It is the most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws in 66 years.” So for the last part of the 20th century, both parties and their voters were largely in lock step. It helped that immigration wasn’t such a big deal yet. But then look what happened. So what caused this split? Yeah, 9/11 was a factor. But more important was the fast-changing nature of immigration itself. “The number of foreign-born people in America has quadrupled since the 1960s.” The immigrant population was booming, and it was looking less like this and more like this. But it wasn’t just who was coming. It was where they went. For years, immigrants were concentrated in just a handful of states. But from the 1990s through the 2000s, immigration went from being a regional issue to a national issue. In these states, the immigrant population at least doubled. Americans were walking into their grocery stores and, for the first time, hearing Spanish, Hindi, Cantonese, Tagalog. Some felt under siege. “I am tired of people coming across with impunity. We don’t know who’s here. We don’t know what diseases they have.” “There’s 360 million Americans that need to start standing up for their country before we give it away.” Republican politicians increasingly played on those fears. “Some aggravated felons who have sexually abused a minor are eligible for amnesty under this bill.” And they were rewarded with a larger share of the white vote, propelling the party further away from the center. Voters found themselves at a fork in the road. For Republicans, immigration was increasingly a law enforcement and national security issue. And for Democrats, it became more of a humanitarian and human rights issue. “Equal rights for everybody, an opportunity for them to be able to be here legally.” Immigration was becoming a hyperpolarizing issue. “We have a comprehensive strategy to reform our immigration system.” President George W. Bush spent years trying to forge bipartisan consensus. “And we’ve got to continue to work together to get that done, and I’m optimistic that Congress will rise to the occasion.” But he was stymied by members of his own party who opposed giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal status. “The motion is not agreed to.” “The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes to our immigration laws. A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find common ground, and it didn’t work.” This was a big turning point for the immigration debate. The moderate middle was becoming a very lonely place. It’s not that politicians didn’t keep trying to meet in the center and fix things. This guy certainly did. “What I can guarantee is that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly —” But he failed, too. And we’re all familiar with what happened next. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. We have become a dumping ground for the entire world. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. Build that wall. Build that wall.” Trump inspired a wave of copycats. “It’s time to militarize this border.” Once fringe ideas were now certifiably mainstream. “Finish President Trump’s wall, blow up the cartel’s drug tunnels and surveillance drones and deploy the Arizona National Guard to stop illegals from entering.” But guess what? It’s not just conservatives. Democrats have aggressively moved away from the center even more than Republicans. “Immigrants and refugees are an enormous blessing.” “Talking about deporting 11 million people is so outrageous.” “If you’d be so kind, raise your hand if you think it should be a civil offense rather than a crime to cross the border without documentation?” “Top officials in the Biden administration have gone to absurd lengths to avoid calling a spade a spade.” “Is there a crisis at our southern border? Senator?” “There is a very —” “That’s a yes or no question. Is there a crisis?” “There is a very significant challenge that we are facing.” “Yes or no? Is there a crisis?” “I believe I’ve addressed that question.” “So you’re refusing to answer?” Not to give Ted Cruz too much credit here, but it’s a fair question. The answer, of course, is, yes, it’s a crisis. Here’s our opinion. Immigrants bring energy and new ideas. America faces a population slowdown, and immigration can help maintain a robust labor force. “We build new buildings. We do your roofing. We clean your ditches.” But we also need to strengthen the border, in part, by overhauling an asylum system on the verge of collapse. The immigration system is broken. But we can fix it if there was only the political will. “Why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit?” “And nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans, liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal.” “We love America. We love our people. And we love people coming here legally.” Most Americans support the key elements of sensible immigration reform, including a stronger border and providing undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship. But as long as politics and emotion continue to eclipse reason, bipartisanship, sadly, will remain a thing of the past. “Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall.”

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