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What do they really think about immigration? Don't ask

July 8, 2010 | 10:18 am

Whatever the outcome of the Obama administration's lawsuit against Arizona, immigration is likely to loom large in the national conversation (or shouting match) through the midterm elections. Politicians, pundits and polling subjects will say what they think about the subject  -- or will they?

Mad magazine used to have a feature called (I think; it's been a while) "What They Say/What They Mean." For example, what they say: "It's not the money, it's the principle." What they mean: "It's the money."

This is difficult to document, but there's a "What They See/What They Mean" dynamic on both sides of the debate over illegal immigration. I'm talking now about mainstream opinions on both sides, not talk-show rants ("Send them all home!") or the rallying cries of demonstrators ("We didn't cross the border; the border crossed us").

What (some) mainstream supporters of comprehensive immigration reform say: "We believe that illegal immigrants should pay a penalty and go to the back of the line of citizenship seekers." What they mean: "We don't really want to punish 'undocumented citizens' (as one activist put it in a Freudian slip), but we have to throw the yahoos a bone to in order to enact what we won't call amnesty."

On the other side is the mainstream anti-illegal-immigration mantra.  What they say: "I have nothing against legal immigrants. America is a melting pot and rightly so." What they mean: "Why do I have to choose 'English' when I call my bank or make a deposit at the ATM? What has happened to my country?"

Don't expect people (or politicians) to fess up to these covert positions. But don't discount them.

-- Michael McGough
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