Boiling point

Immigration forum finds people too angry to listen

An audience member asks a rare civil question of speaker Steven Camarota at a forum on immigration. The audience member was then heckled by others in the audience.

An audience member asks a rare civil question of speaker Steven Camarota at a forum on immigration. The audience member was then heckled by others in the audience.

Photo By dennis myers

It was a nice try.

Pat Hickey, who served a term as a state legislator in the 1990s and then retired, is now seeking to return to the Nevada Assembly. With immigration an issue facing state legislatures around the nation as a result of Arizona’s actions, Hickey decided to hold a public forum on the issue. It took place last week in the auditorium of McKinley Arts and Culture Center, and more than 80 people attended.

Hickey brought Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies to Nevada to argue the anti-immigrant view and invited Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada director Bob Fulkerson to take the pro-immigrant position. After the two men spoke, the floor would be thrown open to questions. Or at least, that was the plan.

There was clearly a certain tension in the crowd before the program began. One person brought along a poster that had a swastika with a line through it.

Before the event began, Hickey said, “This event to me … is just about educating myself, first and foremost. And then, hopefully beginning a discussion about how are we are going to deal with the costs in particular of the effects of illegal immigrants in our society, and the social benefits especially that they are accessing—how we’re going to bridge the gulfs between the various ideologies and camps. I don’t suppose I have an answer for that.”

Though the context of the event was not entirely neutral—it was titled “Can Nevada afford illegal immigration any longer?”—Fulkerson praised Hickey for setting it up, particularly because many people angry over the issue are often not very involved in politics. “The people who are very detached from the system are probably not going to vote, anyway. So it’s important to educate them, but whether or not they really matter, you know, in the final sense—politicians aren’t going to listen to them—so this is how we reach them, forums like this. And I really commend Pat Hickey for doing this.”

Ross Mitchell, who served as moderator, gave an opening statement that tried to frame the issue as a national security concern, but that was about the last time that aspect of the debate was heard. It mainly focused on economics, jobs and legalities.

Camarota got only a few minutes into his presentation when the heckling started. He plowed ahead, citing facts and figures. He was interrupted with shouted comments (“Next!”) and questions. He occasionally stopped and tried to respond to questions, which sometimes calmed things down. Finally, he finished up, and Fulkerson came on. Now another group began the heckling and the shouting. No one attempted to control the situation by telling the audience that a question period would follow the two opening statements, so audience members kept interrupting to make comments or heckle.

The noise and crosstalk became so clamorous at times that it was difficult to follow the discussion. Some people gave up and left the building.

When the question period finally came, temperatures were so high that few people asked questions, instead simply venting into the microphones. They sometimes engaged with each other rather than with the speakers. RN&R columnist John Barrette brought relative quiet to the event at one point by asking Hickey to describe legislation he might introduce on the subject if he is elected. Hickey’s recital of formal and relatively unexciting proposals then calmed things down for a time.

But there was not even agreement on the terms for the discussion. One young Latino who was born in the United States after his parents arrived as illegal immigrants stood and asked Camarota not to use the term illegal immigrants but to use the milder undocumented immigrants. That brought loud protests from the other side, who insisted on the term illegal alien. Camarota said his experience has been that one side wants undocumented immigrant and the other side wants illegal alien, and so he always used a combination of the two—illegal immigrant. “I don’t think we ought to get hung up on that,” he said.

The young Latino pointed out that he was born in the United States to illegal parents. “I don’t want to break the law,” he said. “I was made to break the law.”

At some point people gave up even the pretense of asking questions, and the forum became a series of speeches. “I don’t have a question,” said one. “I have a statement.”

What does it mean when, even at such a staid event, anger overcomes willingness to listen and learn? Political scientist Fred Lokken, a Republican, said he saw some news coverage of the event and was taken aback.

“We follow cycles,” he said. “There are times when we seem to be raw in our feelings and times when we seem to be more civil. And it’s clearly the nature of the topic. I was really quite shocked at the level of the behavior that was reported there. I mean, it was just highly inappropriate. No one seemingly went there to learn anything. They basically went there to kind of poke each other with a sharp stick.”

He said feelings are so strong on the issue that politicians steer clear of it.

“I think people are angry, and the anger has to come out somewhere. Illegal immigration, the whole topic of immigration seems to be now like abortion. People have very, very pronounced feelings. They don’t want to hear the facts. Rumor is driving both sides of the discussion of immigration. We have political leaders who want to avoid the topic during an election year. I’m surprised Hickey was willing to raise it, because most people don’t even want it on their radar screens.”

Lokken said political discussions in the United States are becoming as “brutal and disrespectful” as they often are in Europe. “It may be that our democracy is starting to go down that road.”

Why is there that level of anger right now?

“This pre-dates the economic collapse. Certainly the economic collapse salted the wound because we have seen in America for the first time in most everyone’s memory a decline in our quality of living. For the first time in recent memory, a lot of Americans are worried about the future. They’re not sure that we have political leadership, that we have a society that seems to wants to move in the same direction. We are in a time when things seem to be pulling apart, not coming together. But, as I say, the seeds for that pretty much begin with the election of Ronald Reagan. That forever seemingly changed the Republican Party away from a mainstream moderate party.”

Today, he said, “Republicans don’t seem to know what they’re for, but they know what they’re against.”

He said it’s not as though the nation’s leaders set a good example. “You see them shouting at one another, you see them grandstanding and pontificating, but no one seems to want to roll up—we don’t have doers anymore. …

“Someone else was asking me on Saturday why voter registrations are just plummeting in the state of Nevada. You know, polarizing doesn’t bring more people to the polls. It drives people away. You see how dirty and, frankly, shameful the process can be. We have nothing but fallen idols. There’s no elected official anymore that we can respect or look up to. And this is just not a good time for the republic. We have a crisis of quality in the candidates that come forward. We have a tainted political system that seems to be bought and paid for. We have a polarizing of the issues. What happened at McKinley is sort of indicative of the greater turmoil.”