By JOHN T. WARD
The political conflicts that rage over immigration will eventually be settled by today’s young people, who overwhelmingly believe immigrants are good for America, a guest speaker at Red Bank Regional High said Thursday.
Until then, however, the fears of immigration opponents must be met with data that demonstrates the economic benefits of immigration, he and others said.
Americans are “screaming at each other,” and the federal government is three weeks into a partial shutdown, over immigration issues, Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the New American Economy, told several dozen people gathered in the RBR auditorium.
New American Economy, founded nine years ago by then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, works to influence public opinion and encourage immigration reform through the use of data, he said.
The aim of the event, RBR Superintendent Lou Moore told the audience, was to “move beyond emotion and falsehoods and have an open and honest discussion” about immigration. Moore introduced Robbins as one of the country’s “most knowledgeable and dispassionate” experts on the topic.
Robbins said that for many years, discussions about immigration centered on humanitarian and family concerns that today “are not resonating” for many Americans.
That failure has created a climate of “extreme” xenophobia in which Republicans gin up support through political campaigns that equate immigration with “men with face tattoos, and voice-overs talking about how MS-13 is coming to rape children,” he said, while liberals are now talking about disbanding the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
But “it’s crazy to have a discussion about immigration that’s ‘abolish ICE’ on one side and ‘MS-13’ on the other,” Robbins said. Immigration is “our economic lifeline,” and the discussion needs to center on that, he said.
Immigrants or their children have started 44 percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies, and 48 percent of businesses in New York City are owned by immigrants, he said. Without low-skilled immigrant labor, America’s agricultural industry would collapse, and without young immigrants to replace the native-born Baby Boomers now dying off, the country could find itself in an economic “free fall” like Japan’s, he said.
“Immigration is not a panacea,” Robbins said, but “we should embrace it, and say, look, when people vote with their feet in the world, they come here, and we should be proud of that and we should encourage that.”
By a margin of 2-1, “Americans believe that immigrants strengthen our country,” Robbins said, citing a poll, “and when you look at young voters, it’s not even a question: 80 percent think Americans strengthen the country.” Gallup polls, he said, have never in their history found support for immigrants higher than it is now.
“So why are we losing? Why is it so bad?,” Robbins asked. “It’s so bad because the people who believe immigrants strengthen this country are not on the front lines raising their voice, and the people who see immigration as an existential, cultural threat — that is the issue that they vote on, and they are very loud, and they are very organized.”
Joining Robbins on a panel taking questions from the audience were two RBR graduates who now advocate from undocumented residents; an immigration lawyer; an RBR counselor; and a student whose father was deported. In their comments, all touched on the importance of immigrants finding a voice, whether through friendship with citizens, through legal representation or by voting.
Though detentions by ICE have become harder to fight in the Trump era, “people who have representation, they’re more likely to find their way to a stable solution,” said Red Bank attorney Michele Alcade.
In response to a request for advice to students who are themselves undocumented immigrants or the children of them, Brenda Codallos, a 2015 RBR graduate now studying social work at Rutgers, said they should “continue being the voice for your parents and anyone who is afraid” to speak up.
“So many of our communities feel forced to hide,” said another RBR alum, Itzel Perez, who now works as an organizer for the American Friends Service Committee. “Don’t hide. Reach out and make a friend with at least one American.”
“It’s going to be a very optimistic future when you’re all in charge,” Robbins said.
Red Bank Councilwoman Kate Triggiano, who was named police commissioner at her swearing-in on January 1, told the audience that the borough’s police department is in the process of setting up a volunteer translation program to assist in its dealings with the community.
The event was organized by RBR’s The Source program, which provides school-based services to students; the RBR BUC Backer Foundation; and the Student Advisory Board.