Academic journal article International Journal of Economic Development

Engaging the Community in Productive Public Conversations about Immigration

Academic journal article International Journal of Economic Development

Engaging the Community in Productive Public Conversations about Immigration

Article excerpt

Abstract

Immigration is a difficult subject to talk about in public settings because it arouses strong feelings. This article reports on four case studies from the United States and Canada which involve democratic organizing efforts to bring citizens together for deliberative dialogue on this difficult subject in a way that builds mutual understanding and trust and involves participants in weighing options and making choices. The authors identify common themes from the cases and draw conclusions.

INTRODUCTION

Americans have been debating costs and benefits of immigration since the Nation's birth. In 1753, 23 years before he signed the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin wrote at length about costs and benefits of German immigration. On one hand, he wrote "few of their children in the country know English." But Franklin also recognized the benefits of immigration, writing that "German immigrants are excellent husbandmen and contribute greatly to the improvement of a country." He concluded that benefits could outweigh costs, under appropriate conditions (Weaver, 1957).

American history is replete with cost-benefit calculations about immigration. In some epochs, calculation has led the country to adopt an open door immigration policy, as was the case until 1924. In others, calculations encouraged the country to close its doors and admit few immigrants, as occurred from 1924 through 1965. The 20th Century began with the country in the midst of the greatest wave of immigration in its history. The Century ended in the midst of another period of high immigration. The issues raised at the beginning of the 21st Century parallel the earlier wave: Can the country accommodate numbers of immigrants? Who benefits from the arrival of immigrants? Who is harmed? Can immigrants be absorbed and integrated or are they simply too "different" from the rest of the country?

One reason that any discussion of the costs and benefits associated with immigration policy is difficult is that it taps into fundamental American values and often brings those values into conflict with one another. Perhaps the most obvious value at stake is standard of living. Any changes in the volume of immigration are likely to create gains in standard of living for some sectors of the indigenous population and losses for others. A discussion of immigration may also tap into values regarding equity which make us sympathetic toward the plight of people who are politically persecuted. History of conflicts over immigration policy also shows the importance to many people of the perceived effect of immigration on the preservation or modification of American culture.

When deeply held values are in conflict and citizens are not in agreement on what goals or outcomes they want to achieve on an important issue, such as immigration policy, policy makers often find themselves gridlocked and unable to define the public interest. On such issues, public officials need a way to hear more than the polarized debate of interest groups. They need a public dialogue in which people look for common ground on which to base action.

Another way of thinking about the costs and benefits related to immigration is to consider the ways in which American citizens, organizations, and communities have helped immigrants over the years to become productive citizens. Jane Addams' Hull House in 19th Century Chicago is just one example of such initiatives. Involving community members directly in addressing immigrant needs represents another way of thinking about the cost benefit analysis of immigration. By contributing their toil to the cause and providing immigrants with support and assistance, some communities believe that they can contribute to increasing the benefits that immigrants bring.

DELIBERATIVE DIALOGUE

When community values are in conflict and when many individuals and groups must work together to solve a public problem, our standard strategies for informing and involving the public--workshops, public hearings, or distributing brochures--don't work very well. …

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