The GOP Divide Over Illegal Immigrants: Are They People or Abstractions?

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Newt Gingrich thought he was stating the obvious when he said it would be inhumane to deport longtime residents. He was wrong.

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Is it inhumane to deport an illegal immigrant who came to the United States 25 years ago, established roots, obeyed the law, raised his children here, and now has American grandchildren? Yes, emphatically so. But I suspect that when Newt Gingrich made that assertion during Tuesday evening's GOP debate, he upset a lot of conservative Republican voters.

Short of calling immigration restrictionists "racist," the quickest way to upset them is to say that they're "heartless," as Rick Perry once put it, or that they suffer from a lack empathy or compassion. That's the sort of thing liberals are always saying when they attack immigration restrictionists, who resent the accusation even more when it is made by their fellow conservatives. I can imagine how they feel. For the most part, these immigration restrictionists are just as humane as anyone. They give to charity, do volunteer work, help out people in need.

They see themselves as compassionate people.

What they haven't done is ponder mass deportations in anything but the comfortably abstract. What would it be like in reality? Shocking, even to them. If America started aggressively rounding up all the illegal immigrants, support for that course of action would fall precipitously from its current level. Some folks would change their minds after seeing the screaming, tearful families on the news; others when they realized that their dry cleaner or gardener or neighbor or co-worker was secretly undocumented. There would literally be millions of heart-wrenching stories.

America would also feel a lot more like a police state.

Gingrich is a smart enough operator to have thought through the political consequences of any measure he might've proposed back in the 1990s, so he understands all that intuitively by now.

The most savvy restrictionists know it too. It's why they favor handling the illegal immigrants already here through attrition, and go so far as to claim that mass deportations are a straw-man. Perhaps it was these restrictionist wonks Gingrich was thinking of when he thought he could get away with, "I don't see how the party that calls itself the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy that destroys families who have been here for a quarter century."

In reality, partisans have a tremendous capacity for cognitive dissonance, and many Republican partisans are powerfully attached to the idea that the rule of law demands the deportation of everyone who came here illegally. Those who have spent time reporting on the issue know what the grassroots would say to Gingrich: "What part of illegal don't you understand?" This is, after all, the same crowd that cheers when Herman Cain jokes about an electrified fence on the Mexican border, another policy proposal that they haven't thought through.

The ugliness is mostly rooted in failing to see that illegal immigrants aren't abstractions. They're people. Before damning the restrictionists who don't grasp this, a failure for which they ought to be faulted, remember that most of us are guilty of the same behavior, whether we're brooding about the vehicle ahead of us on the freeway, or cheering the drone strike that killed a terrorist and three unidentified persons, or insulting someone in an online comments section, or doing nothing for decades as prison inmates are raped and assaulted in state run institutions.

It's very hard, or perhaps impossible, to never think of any fellow human beings as an abstraction. But once you're fully conscious that other motorists or celebrities or participants in Internet comment sections are in fact human beings -- once you've worked as a waiter, and grasped how they're treated -- the thoughtlessness and seeming cruelty of the uninitiated is staggering (though only in the narrow area of life where you've become more conscious yourself).

For obvious reasons, telling "deport 'em all" voters that they're thoughtless or cruel is counterproductive. They can't see it. They don't feel as though they're being cruel. Better to somehow convey, "It's people we're talking about!" and hope you get through. But doing so without offending is hard.  

Gingrich would be a terrible president, but he deserves credit for trying, for saying what he knows to be true on this issue, even as Mitt Romney treats illegal immigrants as abstractions in order to compensate for his perceived squishyness on other issues. He is exploiting the abstractness.

It's ugly to watch. 

Whatever happens, the issue will continue to divide the GOP so long as "illegal immigrant" is processed as a lawbreaking abstraction by some of its partisans, while for others it evokes Ricardo, the friendly guy who tosses the newspaper on the driveway. The hardliners can never win: if they started to get their way, more people would suddenly be confronted by the humanity of illegal immigrants, and support for hardline measures would crater. Moderates can't win because so long as deportations are background noise in immigrant enclaves they're easily ignored. 

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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