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Immigration is polarizing. What’s missing is empathy, experts say

Unauthorized immigrants in rural areas who seek legal representation can often face roadblocks when trying to find credible lawyers.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio

When Adriano Udani teaches immigration and global migration to a new class at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, he notices a certain reaction.

“I think the first feeling I get in the room is confusion. There's just so many different factors. I think immigration itself intersects with so many different things.”

Spanning global travel, commerce, culture and law, immigration is certainly complex. And with the November election a few months away, it’s also highly politicized. Both sides of the political aisle have strong opinions about immigration but agree that something needs to be done. They often disagree, however, on what a solution would look like and what it takes to get there.

In a Pew Research Center survey conducted ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address in March, 57% of Americans said immigration should be a top priority for the president and Congress. That's a 39-point increase since the beginning of Biden’s term and is primarily due to the increased concern of Republicans.

While immigration has been a political talking point in elections past, inflammatory rhetoric has skewed the narrative.

“I think President Trump's rhetoric has certainly increased the fear of foreign-born people,” said Uma Segal, Founders professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “The reality is that the literature has shown that the crime committed by the foreign born is very low compared to the U.S. born. And among those who are unauthorized, it's even lower, because they're afraid of being found and sent back.”

Uma Segal (left) and Adriano Udani (right) believe that empathy is necessary when having multi-faceted conversations about immigration.
Roshae Hemmings
Uma Segal, left, and Adriano Udani believe that empathy is necessary when having multifaceted conversations about immigration.

For St. Louis, immigration is seen as a means to bolster the city’s decreasing population. This need, however, is impacted by concerted efforts to ward off immigration, such as those by Missouri state Sen. Denny Hoskins. Hoskins filed a bill in February that would prohibit non-U.S. citizens from entering the state. Offenders would be fined $10,000 and deported.

“I think that type of resolution or political act can be found in a lot of places where a lot of communities are feeling that their way of life is threatened, and immigration has always been a tool to draw on those fears,” said Udani, associate professor of political science and director of the Public Policy Administration Program.

While immigration debates are boiled down to talking points and capitalize on fear, it’s easy to lose track of the humanity at the center of the issue. Udani said empathy has to be the first step.

“Empathy can move us in the right direction, in the sense of understanding the difference between an asylum seeker and an undocumented immigrant, understanding that the way in which immigrants are categorized gives them a certain set of choices that they can make and not make, understanding that they have many different identities that are stripped before they reach the United States,” said Udani. “Many of them are filmmakers, photographers, teachers, poets, and there's so many different stories that are taken away from them. But to understand that they want to have those here is the step in the right direction.”

To hear more of Udani's and Segal’s thoughts on the current state of the immigration debate, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Immigration is polarizing. What’s missing is empathy, experts say

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Roshae Hemmings is a production assistant for St. Louis on the Air.