Race Is at the Root of the Divide Over Immigration Reform

Almost all the talk around immigration reform skirts the real issues: race and your vision of America. There are now nearly 51 million Latinos living in the United States and their population has grown astronomically. As their population has grown, so has their political strength.

The New York Times recently estimated that the number of Latino voters is growing annually by 3 percent while the number of white voters is increasing by a far smaller 0.5 percent. In fact, white Americans are becoming an increasingly smaller share of the nation's voters.

According to the Times' Nate Silver, a man known for offering the most accurate predictions of the 2012 presidential election, whites were 72 percent of the voters in 2012 -- down from 74 percent in 2008 and 81 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, in 2012 black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout for the first time in history. Although the Obama administration thought black voter performance in 2012 would not match performance of 2008, when a black man was elected for the first time, blacks turned out in even higher percentages.

What does this have to do with immigration? Well, if you're worried about the growing political strength of people of color, which is happening in large part because of a rapidly growing Latino population, then you might be motivated to do what you can to stop immigration reform that could put 11 million on the pathway to citizenship with the eventual power to vote.

For groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) -- which advocates against all immigration -- there is a real fear of the nation's increasing racial diversity and the perceived loss of European dominance of America.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights organization that fights bigotry, FAIR's leaders have ties to many white supremacist organizations. According to SPLC, FAIR's founder John Tanton has issued warnings about the loss of white power. In 1986, he said: "As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?" In a letter in 1993, Tanton said that European-American society and culture could only persist if the nation maintains a clear European-American majority.

These statements might seem like the ramblings of some fringe group. But FAIR lobbies for harsh immigration policies and its studies are cited by influential members of Congress like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) who shares extreme anti-immigrant views.

Sessions supports the policy of self-deportation, an approach that seeks to make the United States so inhospitable to undocumented immigrants that they would leave to avoid harsh treatment. Sessions has also supported Alabama's HB56, a law that leads to racial profiling by giving police the ability to stop and investigate an individual's legal status based on their appearance. In fact, HB56 was drafted in part by FAIR's former legal counsel Kris Kobach.

Session's views on immigration come as no surprise, as he has been criticized for attempting to deny full equality to African Americans. In 1986, Sessions' nomination to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan was rejected in the Senate Judiciary Committee after it was revealed that he had called the Voting Rights Act a "piece of intrusive legislation" and once referred to the NAACP as "un-American." A former African-American federal prosecutor testified that Sessions had called him "boy" and made jokes about the Ku Klux Klan.

Clearly, Sessions' seeming distaste for black people is not far removed from his distaste of Latinos. In his view, it seems, only white people are deserving of voting rights and full inclusion in America.

Fear, resentment and rejection of people of color has motivated a lot of the anti-immigrant laws and rhetoric in recent years as well as amendments submitted by Sessions in the markup phase of the Senate Judiciary Committee's review of the bipartisan immigration reform bill.

One of the amendments Sessions offered sought to reduce legal immigration to the United States. Another would prevent immigrants from receiving public benefits. A third would allow federal law enforcement officers to profile individuals based on their race or ethnicity.

The majority of Americans support immigration reform with a path to citizenship. They reject the politics of fear and exclusion. They understand that immigrants come here -- whether documented or not -- for greater economic opportunities than are available in their countries of birth. They believe there is room to allow immigrants to participate fully in American civic life and that immigrants contribute to America as well as the understanding of what it means to be American.

As the immigration reform debate moves to the Senate floor and then to the House of Representatives, these views of America will continue competing for public support. The expansive view of what it means to be an American will contend with that narrow, xenophobic and Nativist perspective that seeks to maintain America as a bastion of white privilege. Members of Congress will have to decide which view they support.

I hope that they, like me, will agree that there is more that unites us than divides us and that they will support comprehensive immigration reform so that millions, whether documented or not, can become full participants in this country's democracy and culture.