A calm center for the immigration debate

Emotions are running high in Europe and the US about migrants or refugees. There is a way to keep a civil discourse.

AP Photo
Parliament members holds posters while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers his State of the Union address at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Sept. 9.

In any debate about refugees or migrants, it is all too easy to get swept up in emotion. In Europe, for example, the image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy found drowned on a beach has quickly changed the attitudes of many. In the US, the popularity of Donald Trump jumped when he accused Mexican officials (falsely) of “forcing their most unwanted people into the United States ....” 

The many feelings that surround mass migration, whether they be reactions of sorrow or fear, can often help drive a solution to the problem. Yet they can also derail the civil discourse needed to arrive at a rational consensus. 

Even thoughtful leaders try hard to balance their sentiments about migration. “I find the rhetoric of concern attractive at first but not all the time,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. Like so many European leaders, Mr. Juncker is trying to “manage” the flow of people into the continent while also resettling them equitably.

In a speech last week, Juncker provided a useful reminder: “We are talking about human beings, we are not talking about numbers.” He said refugees should not be divvied up by religion or race but treated as individuals coming from specific circumstances.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also shown the difficulty of keeping emotions in proper perspective when deciding policy. When confronted recently by a Palestinian girl seeking asylum, Ms. Merkel comforted the girl while also telling her that not every asylum seeker can be accepted in Germany. She was both criticized and praised.

The accuracy of terms about these issues, and the rhetoric employed, can influence the final outcome. In July, British Prime Minister David Cameron used an insect metaphor to refer to migrants as a “swarm of people.” Merkel, on the other hand, gave a stark ultimatum to Europe that its reputation on civil rights “will be destroyed” if its does not accept more refugees.

In the US, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the first candidate to drop out of the 2016 presidential race, offered some helpful comments about immigration during his parting speech this week. He warned fellow Republicans not to “divide the nation further” by catering to nativism. “We can secure the border of this country and reform our immigration system without inflammatory rhetoric, without that base appeal that will try to divide us by race, by culture or creed.”

He went on: “Our brothers and sisters are those who are made in the image of God. And our obligation, after loving God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul is to love our neighbors as ourselves, regardless of where they come from. Demeaning people of Hispanic heritage is not just ignorant, it betrays the example of Christ. We can enforce our laws and borders and we can love all who live within our borders without betraying our values. It is time for us to elevate this debate from divisive name-calling....”

The tone of this debate does matter. It is possible to express concern about certain individual immigrants as being a security or economic threat without also resorting to derogatory feelings about race or religion. It is also possible to show compassion when migrants perish in their dangerous journeys while also insisting on border controls. Head and heart need not be in conflict.

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