To debate or not to debate? Sorry to be so trite, but that really is the first question. Especially in the immigrant rights movement, where all of us feel (justifiably, I think) that the anti-immigrant side gets way more attention and credibility than it deserves, there is a lot of controversy about whether we’re doing our cause any favors when we engage in debate with those voices. Are we unwittingly legitimizing them by sharing a stage? Or is it a part of our obligation as advocates to ensure that their views do not go unchallenged? Uncharacteristically, I remain a bit ambivalent on this question. For the most part, I refused debates with anti-immigrant organizations/individuals when doing so meant that the event would not be held (because they couldn’t/wouldn’t do the debate one-sided and could find no one else appropriate for our side) and agreed when it was clear that the alternative was uncensored time for the anti-immigrant perspective. My one clear absolute rule was that would not debate Minutemen. When asked for names of people to represent ‘the other side’ I always suggested someone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services since, as bureaucrats, they tend not to be zealots but rather to represent the government’s position.
Most of the time, because he was the most presentable figure they had and because he (like me, I’ll admit) likes to debate, I debated Kris Kobach. I debated him when he was a congressional candidate, after he lost his bid, when he was representing FAIR in court, after that case was dismissed, and even once after he became Chair of the Republican Party in Kansas. I debated him on television (live and recorded), on radio, and in front of live audiences. I debated him indirectly, in legislative hearings (see the post on testimony), but this post refers to direct debates, where, sometimes alone and sometimes joined by 1-2 other people (or, on one occasion, an entire panel), we engaged in a debate of sorts around questions of immigration policy.
Until I can figure out how to get VHS tape of one of those videos into digital format so that I can upload some snippets here (can anyone walk me through that?), I’ve tried to go through my notes and the coverage from those debates to come up with some thoughts to share. I know that debates are more common on very hot-button topics such as immigration, but I have worked with some students and advocate colleagues who have also been called upon to debate, and it is my hope that this can be helpful in the future.
Note: I remember in one debate when Kobach actually said, “what we need is to reform the immigration system so that people are coming here legally.” I knew that wasn’t exactly what he meant, but he had said it, so I was able to smile broadly and say, “Kris, that’s wonderful that we’ve come to an agreement on such a critical issue. I hope that Congress can move forward on such an agenda with your blessing.” He got very flustered, the moderator and the audience actually laughed, and a journalist told me later that it was a really good moment, because I was able break across the adversarial stance and humanize myself.
Note: This, too, reminds me of a moment in another debate. Kobach had referenced several studies that (supposedly–they don’t fit my frame, so I discount them!) claim that immigrants are a huge drain on the economy. There are several others that make the opposite claim, but rather than pull them out, I said, “Kris, we both know that for every study you cite, I could cite another one that says exactly the opposite. People don’t want to hear us throw numbers at each other. They know that immigration has built this country–they and their ancestors lived that story. What they want now is an immigration system that ensures that immigration can continue to work for the U.S. as it has throughout its history.” He set his stack of economic analyses aside, because that argument was now neutralized.
If you have footage of debates that you’ve done, I’d love to see them! If you’re preparing for a debate, as an advocate, what concerns or questions do you have? What are your core messages, and what is your audience? I’d even love to practice with someone who’s getting ready to debate on a key policy issue. We know that we’re on the right side, when we’re standing up for vulnerable people and battling entrenched social problems, and, with a little skill, we can use debates to convince others of that too!