What the right-wing extremists won’t tell you about immigrants

The case for immigration and immigrants is clearer than ever. We know it can appeal to both hearts and minds, and change the narrative .

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Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), Rabbi Seth Limmer (right) and other faith leaders sit behind a sign that reads, “Refugees and immigrants welcome here. No Muslim ban. No border wall,” during a press conference at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in June.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez, Rabbi Seth Limmer (right) and other faith leaders sit behind a sign that reads, “Refugees and immigrants welcome here. No Muslim ban. No border wall,” at a press conference at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Housing shortages, a ready supply of drugs leading to more overdose deaths and a lack of jobs are tough issues that impact tens of millions of Americans. Solving these and other problems will require focused efforts to adjust public policy and turn the tide.

But extremists, including some of those bidding for top leadership positions in our country, all too often blame immigrant “invaders” coming to “replace us.”

Scapegoating is a tried and true formula for shifting blame and attention. Riling up anger against immigrants, even when the facts tell a very different story, weaponizes Americans’ deep-seated fears and feeds zero-sum nativism. Scapegoating immigrants also distracts from the need to work together to solve these very serious issues — and causes deep harm to the more than 45 million immigrants who call this country home.

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Yet, attacks on immigrants are coming fast and furious. We can’t simply make them go away. More importantly, championing immigrants can be a winning issue for leaders looking to gain public trust and support.

Immigration is part of America’s story

What many more of us need to do is contest the anti-immigrant rhetoric with our own strong, confident and resonant pro-immigrant narratives that connect to a larger aspirational story of our country’s pluralism and diversity.

The good news is that the case for immigration and immigrants is clearer than ever. We know that it can appeal to both hearts and minds — and that the public is supportive, since a 2023 Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans say immigration levels should either stay the same or increase.

First, a string of economic arguments make a resounding bottom-line case for immigrants and immigration.

Immigrants fill open jobs at every skill level, driving innovation and fueling economic gain. Study after study indicates that low levels of immigration hurt us economically, and regions that welcome immigrants do better.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 23 million people deemed “essential workers” were immigrants, including more than 5 million undocumented people. They kept our economy and health care system running.

Today, we have almost 10 million open jobs, including many that Americans won’t or can’t take, and a tight labor market. Low immigration driven by Trump policies has exacerbated this situation. More immigrants can help ease these shortages and in smaller communities, they can also revive business and bring growth. Ironically, Germany, Canada, Japan and South Korea, among other countries, are now competing to expand pathways for immigrants in a bid to reverse aging demographics.

Second, contrary to allegations, the costs to support immigrant inclusion are dwarfed by gains to our economy. Undocumented immigrants alone contribute over $10 billion in taxes each year, though they cannot access Social Security and many other services. And despite not benefiting from the public services that their tax dollars sustain, immigrants are repeatedly treated as scapegoats.

Third, changing hearts is critical — and culture is an important ally in reaching people in a joyful, connective way. Immigrants play an outsized role in the arts, music, sports and food sector. Yet a 2022 USC Norman Lear Center TV research study with the nonprofit Define American showed that harmful narratives of fear dominate immigrant storylines on TV and in film: Some 40% of immigrant characters are associated with crime, even though immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to be involved in crime.

Native-born and immigrant Americans are becoming more intertwined, working and living together and building myriad real-life connections. We need to shine a mirror on that reality and celebrate it — along with the larger message that our diversity is our greatest strength.

Define American has also conducted research to understand how hate-based misinformation and disinformation takes root. We learned that these narratives talk in the language of facts, but play to the emotions of fear, and that they are intentionally seeded across platforms.

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In collaboration with American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) and the production company Jigsaw, we created “inoculation” videos in an effort to combat the “Great Replacement” theory; data from preliminary testing are promising.

The nation is heading into a contentious election season in 2024. Immigrants and their families will likely be wielded as a cudgel to divide Americans and to turn them away from supporting the pluralist ideals that have been the pride of this country.

Let’s commit to catalyzing a very different story and refuse to ignore each other.

Jose Antonio Vargas, founder and president of Define American, is a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Tony-nominated theatrical producer. Rebecca Neuwirth, executive director at Define American, was previously executive vice president at Upwardly Global, an immigrant and refugee workforce organization.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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