Suarez calls for more intelligent debate on immigration


JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
Ray Suarez, host of “Inside Story” on Al Jazeera America, delivers Wednesday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

An uninformed debate, more than anything, is entropic noise. To Ray Suarez, contemporary discourse on immigration is both uninformed and dishonest, and until this changes, he said., the argument isn’t going anywhere.

Suarez is the host of Al Jazeera America’s “Inside Story,” and he spoke Wednesday from the Hall of Philosophy to share his view of the state of immigration in the United States. To Suarez, voices of ignorance and debate dominate the conversation, although they don’t take it anywhere productive.

“If you want to, say, send those 11.5 million people home, OK. You tell me how,” Suarez said, referring to the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. today. “There aren’t enough buses in the western hemisphere to send all those people home, nor are there enough planes on the planet to break up families, to destroy profitable business, to hollow out the lives of established communities.”

Equally upsetting to Suarez is how frequently debaters bring God into the conversation, but most of those who do mention God argue for ideas that are patently “ungodish.”

“I get a little nervous anytime a politician wants to talk to me about God,” Suarez said. “Not because I don’t want them to talk about God, but if a centerfielder wanted to do my root canal, I might have the same misgivings.”

To Suarez, part of the reason the debate isn’t making progress is because of the stark contradictions of those who want to see illegal immigrants deported. There is no feasible way to handle it, he said, and to do so would ravage the American economy from the bottom up. Regardless, many still treat immigrants with disdain and push politicians to deport them.

Accompanying the lack of basic religious morality, Suarez said, there is a basic level of ignorance among those who treat immigrants with hostility. He said too many forget the difficulty of packing up and leaving home to be strangers in a foreign land.

“We underplay in our 21st-century conversation about modern immigration, just how hard it is to leave the place where you’re from — permanently — and make a life somewhere else among strangers, to be in a place where you know you’re going to be regarded as a stranger,” Suarez said.

It isn’t just forgetfulness, however, that Suarez thinks is part of the reason some people are so cruel to immigrants. Some of it is just raw error in perception. He said that, although there is an attitude that those who enter the country are “takers” or “moochers,” they often work arduous, hard-to-fill jobs for low pay.

In fact, he said, they contribute more to the economy than they are recognized for. All undocumented workers still pay billions of dollars in Social Security, income, real estate and transfer taxes, which are never returned to the workers themselves, but only to documented Americans.

Continuing, he pointed out the irony and inaccuracy of referring to full-time labor workers as takers.

“If you followed a cabbage truck in the Central Valley of California, I don’t think those guys are taking anything except a bad day’s wage for a horrible job,” Suarez said. “If we want to live up by what we say we’re about, then we have to be honest with each other about the system that creates that kind of exploitation.”

On top of all the folly of the discourse is just a simple meanness from some politicians’ public remarks, he said. While he did not explicitly mention Donald Trump’s recent controversial remarks on Mexican immigrants or his follow-up comments, their aura hung behind Suarez’s words.

“There’s a meanness and a snarkiness and a willingness to be in your face [from politicians] that is not only unkind, but probably doesn’t result in great public policy either,” Suarez said.

Closing the lecture, Suarez said in order to move the debate forward, there needs to be more honesty about both costs and benefits that undocumented workers bring to the U.S. and more empathy for what it’s like to emigrate from one’s homeland.

“If we can at least be honest with ourselves about that much, then maybe we can have a more honest conversation, a more ethically based conversation about what to do now,” Suarez said.