Economy and security aren't why Americans fear immigrants

When talking about immigration, Americans need to get their stories straight.

The debate is about to start up after Labor Day, when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, says he will introduce legislation calling for comprehensive immigration reform. He has an ally in Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who is working to rustle up support from his side of the aisle.

Recently, while guest hosting a radio show I fielded two calls in particular that showed the disingenuousness of the debate.

The first caller claimed: "No one is opposed to immigration ... this is a country of immigrants ... it's just illegal immigration that people are upset about." The second insisted: "The United States needs a moratorium on future immigration so we can sort out the people who are already here."

I'm glad we cleared that up: No one is opposed to immigration. We just want to stop it.

It sounds noble to think we care so much about the rule of law that we hold a grudge against anyone who enters the United States illegally — or, as with almost half the illegal population here, overstays a visa.

But if you buy into the idea behind the second call — a wholesale ban on all immigration — then you're obviously concerned with more than just illegal immigration. You can tell yourself that an immigration freeze is just a practical way to try to get a grip on the system or allow newcomers to assimilate. One restrictionist group, the Center for Immigration Studies, even argues that the U.S. needs an almost total ban on new immigrants so that those who are lucky enough to squeak in might get a warmer welcome.

So keeping out immigrants is for their own good? What nonsense. The only thing that legal, high-skilled immigrants from China, Pakistan or Russia have in common with illegal, low-skilled immigrants from Mexico, Brazil or El Salvador is that they're all foreigners.

So if you like the idea of keeping them all out of the United States, then it's hard to see how you're not simply anti-foreigner. And yet, even if you are, cheer up. You have company.

A recent Gallup poll found Americans to be less supportive of legal immigration than they were a year ago. Half of respondents say immigration should be decreased, up from 39 percent last year. Another 32 percent say levels should be kept the same, down from 39 percent. Only 14 percent say they should be increased, down from 18 percent. On the question of whether immigration is good or bad for the country, only 58 percent answered in the affirmative.

Pollsters haven't seen this kind of anti-immigrant attitude since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Back then, the concern was national security. This time, with unemployment high and the economy struggling, pundits say it's all about economic security.

They're wrong. First, it's a myth that Americans are aching to do the jobs that immigrants take. Besides, the same Gallup poll found the anxiety level about immigration was highest in regions where there are relatively few immigrants — 54 percent of people in the South want immigration decreased, while only 44 percent of people in the West feel that way.

So what's the real reason so many Americans are increasingly anxious about immigration?

It's all about changing demographics. Folks in the South have experienced in the last 10 years what those of us in the West experienced a generation or two ago. They see immigrants changing their surroundings and the culture and it scares the daylights out of them. That many of those immigrants came to this country legally doesn't do much to calm those fears.

Why not be honest and just admit what frightens us?

Navarrette's e-mail address is