CHICAGO — It never ceases to amaze me how two opposing sides can see the same thing so differently.
Take the headlines coming off of President Obama‘s inauguration speech. While NBC Latino said Obama’s speech was “forceful” and “invokes immigration,” one of my hometown papers, the Chicago Sun-Times, called it “progressive” but lamented in an editorial that “the president said little about immigration reform.”
This illustrates a very normal, human way of processing our complex world: Many times we see only what we want to see.
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, in a wistful essay about how divisive the president’s speech was, lamented the country’s polarization, noting: “Parties, communities and regions have sorted themselves by ideology, producing citizens who operate in separate partisan worlds.”
Just as with other culture war topics, this same tableau of mortal enemies trying to crush the ideological opposition plays itself out in the fight over immigration. Missing is any understanding of where each side is coming from — a necessity if we’re ever going to make any headway on the matter.
In a thought-provoking 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt attempts to use academic and scientific research to uncover why it is that liberals and conservatives are the political equivalent of cats and dogs.
Haidt demonstrates how those who are very liberal rely on the moral foundations of care and fairness, which are related to the ability to empathize with the pain of others and the belief in reciprocal altruism and equality. He finds that those who are very conservative put more stock in the moral foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity — aka patriotism, hierarchies, traditionalism and religion.
Those values jump out at me as I watch the post-election flagellation of both ends of the immigration reform spectrum — those for whom “reform” means an immediate amnesty and path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants and those who’d like the word to mean that we end nearly all immigration, legal and otherwise, and drive 11 million people out of the country.
We know that the dialogue is driven primarily by the radical ends of each viewpoint. What then are conservatives to make of liberal Latino backlash against the tech industry’s push for immigration reforms that favor highly skilled and well-educated immigrant entrepreneurs from abroad, typically India and other Asian countries?
Clearly, proponents of meritocracy would be irked to learn that descendants of poor, typically Latin American immigrants believe, as does Dustin Mendus of the Mas Wired blog, that placing value on individual immigrants based on their education is “(whether knowingly or not) racist.”
Even thornier is the conflicting patriotic argument. Conservative Americans hold their founding myths as sacred, and what could be more sacred than our nation’s promise to welcome “tired … poor … huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?
Similarly, when liberal pro-immigrant activists try to hold up the best and brightest undocumented immigrants as examples of why massive legalization can be a net-positive for this country, it often falls flat.
There are two legal fights — in Florida and California — involving immigrants who live here illegally but possess law degrees. They and their supporters want unauthorized immigrants to be able to obtain licenses to practice law in those states.
In the case of California’s Sergio Garcia, who earned his law degree and passed the California bar exam, his license has been denied with few hopes for a change in the near future.
Jose Godinez of Florida is on stronger legal footing to press for the credential. In addition to his law degree, he also has a Social Security card, a driver’s license and a work permit thanks to President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Yet even to the most ardent, conservative advocates of special passes for highly-educated immigrants, it would be an affront to the sanctity of our country’s legal system to consider letting undocumented immigrants become officers of the court.
The list of situations where it’s almost impossible to imagine common ground on immigration is nearly endless because we’re geared to see only what we want to see.
Until both camps in this battle make a concerted effort to understand — and even respect — the other, immigration is an issue that’s going nowhere fast.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.