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Commentary: Immigration debate harbors plenty of misconceptions

Last week, I wrote that we have nothing to fear from immigration and many readers responded as if in the same voice: They said I don't get it.

They don't have a problem with immigration, they said. They have a problem with illegal immigration.

Fair enough. But as Samuel L. Jackson said in "Pulp Fiction": "Well, allow me to retort."

The issue of illegal immigration has been wildly distorted to the point where public perception and reality are two different things. Decades of wedge politics have made the illegal immigration issue a larger indictment of people from Mexico.

I run up against this all the time. Last week, a gentleman sent me an email that said: "One of the reasons I ceased reading your column was your continual reference to your parents as 'Mexicans' and your family, culture and you as 'Mexican American' as opposed to simply American."

I do consider myself an American first, but why would anyone care how I identify myself and what does it have to do with illegal immigration?

This is what I'm saying: The illegal-immigrant rant invariably becomes a rant about "those people," whether those people are legal or illegal.

For example, why would anyone think to tell the mayor of America's second largest city to "go back to Mexico."

It happened in downtown Sacramento this past March to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. My colleague Dan Morain witnessed it and wrote about it:

Villaraigosa laughed it off, just as I laugh it off every time I get that line.

But the mayor is not illegal, and I'm not illegal. So what's the problem?

In the minds of some, it's that I'm a "racist" for delving into these issues at all.

OK, but there is no such thing as a Mexican race or Latino race. Check your U.S. census forms for any of the labels you would associate with me as a race. You won't find them.

By definition of the U.S. government, there is no way this could be a racial argument. I'm not calling you a racist, so if this argument makes you edgy, maybe you need to examine your own feelings?

Let's just call this what it is – an argument about the politics linked to the largest ethnic group in California.

This issue has created its own myths divorced from reality. For example, the most compassionate U.S. president in terms of policy on immigration was Ronald Reagan, the conservative icon. How some people can spit when they say the word "amnesty" while extolling Reagan in the same breath is beyond me.

Meanwhile, the president who has been the toughest on immigrants by far in terms of mass deportations is none other than Barack Obama.

But the biggest disconnect of all is related to the term "illegal immigrant." In the minds of many, it is a heinous crime and a felony.

But our government doesn't enforce it that way.

"It is not a crime to be in the United States without authorization," said Gabriel Chin, a UC Davis law professor and immigration expert in an online chat for

"It is a crime to cross the border without authorization, but Congress decided to make it a petty offense, on the same level as having a campfire in a national park without a permit. Reusing a stamp that has been through the mail is a much more serious crime in terms of penalty."

Some people simply don't want to accept this. And when you try to argue the gray areas of our immigration laws, you get black and white accusations hurled in your face: "You support illegal immigration!"

I don't support illegal immigration. But I don't support treating it like a felony when the act of being here without documentation is a civil offense in the eyes of our government.

I support proposals bottled up in Congress that would legalize immigrant agricultural workers and service trade workers based on our labor needs.

You want to strike a blow against the underground economy? Get real on the amount of labor we need and confer legal status on the workers.

There are young people in this country who were brought here without papers by their families – kids who are A students or want to serve in our military. In their hearts and minds, they are Americans.

But the federal DREAM Act to put them on a path to citizenship can't get off the ground because of politics. People scream about fortifying the border when the Border Patrol has doubled in size in recent years. They rue the invasion of immigrants from Mexico when demographers agree that the 40-year migration from Mexico is over. They cite the social costs of undocumented immigrants while omitting the economic benefits created by all immigrants.

Instead of supporting laws that would reduce the number of illegal immigrants, we support laws that punish the immigrants – laws that don't address the core issues and are almost always ruled unconstitutional.

Perception. Reality. We never reconcile the two in the immigration issue because we're so bothered by the people themselves – whether they are legal or not.

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