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Navarrette: Why we have an immigration debate

Children participate in a U.S. citizenship ceremony at

Children participate in a U.S. citizenship ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services district office in Manhattan. Some 118,000 immigrants applied for U.S. citizenship and 2,500 children received citizenship certificates in the New York City in 2012. (Jan. 29, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

SAN DIEGO - Journalist-turned-activist Jose Antonio Vargas recently said that "racism and xenophobia have no place in the debate on immigration reform, period."

No place? Racism and xenophobia have a permanent place in the immigration debate.

As I learned from nearly 25 years of writing about the subject at ground zero -- in cities such as Phoenix, Dallas and San Diego -- without racism and xenophobia, there would be no debate.

Here's how I divide the pie chart. Of all the anxiety and animosity experienced by Americans over immigration, 10 percent is about concerns over border security, 10 percent about fear of immigrants committing crimes, 10 percent about anger that they use public benefits, 10 percent about the worry that they won't assimilate, and 10 percent about changing demographics. The other 50 percent is about racism and xenophobia.

Why mince words? Americans almost always look down on immigrants as inferior to those already here.

That's how it was when Benjamin Franklin, an Englishman, shook his fist at the German immigrants of the mid-18th century, declaring they "will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion." And when it was said on the West Coast in the mid-19th century that Chinese immigrants were not "assimilable." And when Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts warned, in 1905, that immigrants (read: the Irish) were "diminishing the quality of our citizenship." And when Italian immigrants in the early 1900s were criticized for allegedly being uneducated and dirty and -- no kidding -- smelling of garlic. And when, in a 1938 public opinion survey, approximately 60 percent of respondents said they held a low opinion of Jewish immigrants, labeling them "greedy," "dishonest" and "pushy." And it goes on, and on. 

Today, the target is often Latino immigrants who -- according to white supremacist websites masquerading as intellectual watering holes -- diabolically pull off the magic trick of taking jobs from Americans while also staying home and collecting welfare. They want to become U.S. citizens, and have a voice in the political system, and that's a problem for the supremacists. But they also want nothing to do with citizenship, and that's a problem, too. Latino immigrants can do just about anything -- from raising our kids to washing windows on skyscrapers -- but, still, as far as many Americans are concerned, they can't do anything right.

We're a nation of immigrants that has never liked immigrants. Our national motto isn't really "E pluribus unum." It's more like "There goes the neighborhood."

Still, you would think that a researcher holding a doctorate from Harvard would be smart enough to camouflage his racism and xenophobia.

This was not the case with Jason Richwine, who until recently was a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. With the intent of torpedoing a bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill that would confer legal status onto millions of illegal immigrants, Richwine co-authored a roundly debunked study that said the legislation would cost U.S. taxpayers roughly $6.3 trillion over the next 50 years.

There was no mention of what would surely be the offsetting of trillions of dollars generated, over the same time period, in new taxes from both immigrants and the businesses that employ them -- as well as the expansion, increased productivity and additional hires of those businesses due to the availability of immigrant labor.

What got Richwine in hot water was the revelation that, in his 2009 Harvard dissertation, he argued that Hispanics were less intelligent than whites -- across the board, and in perpetuity. Richwine didn't just claim that Hispanic immigrants were intellectually inferior to white Americans, which would have been bad enough. He went after their descendants. He wrote: "Immigrants living in the U.S. today do not have the same level of cognitive ability as natives. No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against."

Ugh. At least Benjamin Franklin did it with more pizazz.

Shortly after Richwine's thesis came to light, he resigned his position. Nevertheless, after the initial news reports, the Heritage Foundation handled the episode badly.

And what about that dissertation? In recognition of its brilliance, my alma mater -- the John F. Kennedy School of Government -- awarded Richwine a Ph.D. But don't worry. According to a statement from Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood, these racist rants were reviewed by a "committee of scholars."

Cambridge, we have a problem. America, you too.