Immigrants tend bring “disease, crime, vice. They didn’t speak English and they didn’t want to become citizens. They (also) didn’t raise their kids properly.” These words weren’t directed at anyone. Columbia University Professor Mae Ngai only used these words to describe the influx of southern and western European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ngai doesn’t actually believe these words; she just uttered them as a way of saying nothing new is under the sun when it comes to immigrant opposition.

And that’s the unfortunate situation America finds itself in.

Last Thursday night, an event titled “The U.S. Immigration Debate: A Historical and Global Perspective” was held at the James Room in Barnard Hall at Barnard College. The goal of the discussion is not necessarily to debate the issue at hand, but to center the debate, create a central focus and, with assistance of statistics, put the issue in perspective.

Included with Ngai on the panel were Universidad Complutense (Madrid) Professor Joaquin Arango, Professor Jose C. Moya, of Barnard College and Frances Negron-Muntaner, of Columbia University, who moderated the program.

“Tonight’s panel was the product of several conversations about the sorry state of public debate regarding U.S. immigration; particularly as there’s increasing talk in the public sphere about legislative action with immigration,” said Negron-Muntaner. She levied a possible reason for the state of the debate. “Despite the huge role played by immigration is U.S. history and the trend of mass migration throughout the world, the U.S. immigration public debate continues to be founded on what some say are problematic assumptions.”

According to Negron-Muntaner, the problematic assumptions center around four things. One: that the United States is unique with its contemporary immigration problem. Two: that the immigration debate is solely the province of “undesirable” Latinos who Negron-Muntaner sarcastically said “insist on migrating to the U.S. in search of the American Dream.” Three: That the concept on immigration is an inherent threat to the political, economic and cultural well being of the United States. And Four: that the only two way to deal with immigration center around detentions, deportations and walls or reluctant advocacy for those already here with a reinforcement of borders.

Ngai spent much of her speaking time making many comparisons to the immigration fears and debate in the early 20th century. With immigrants doing the jobs that Americans wouldn’t normally do, but having issues with there presents regardless.

“Immigration was very wound up with the social change that was going on (at the time),” said Ngai. “The transformation in late 19th century American society was industrialization, urbanization and immigration all went together. So who are the people who worked in the sewing factories, dug the ditches for subways and sewer lines and built the roads? They were immigrants.”

Ngai ended the comparison by making a statement that any immigrant of color (black, brown, etc.) knows first hand. “They were needed for their labor and yet because they were seen as being racially different and culturally different and religiously different, there was a lot of opposition and nervousness about them.”

But despite the great points made by Ngai and Negron-Muntaner, the highlight of the night featured a passionate Moya running off facts from studies conducted by the Pew Research Center and drawing conclusions from hard facts.

“It is true that the U.S. is the most important receiving of immigrants in the world by far,” said Moya. “We have in the United States 40 million immigrants. But to a degree this is a function of our size. We are a big country. There are 40 countries in the world that have a higher proportion of immigrants in the population than the U.S.” Among those 40 countries are Canada, Australia and Singapore. According to Moya, of the 10 cities with the highest proportion of immigrants in the world, only one resides in the United States (Miami). While the America has 40 million immigrants, according tor Moya, Northwestern Europe alone holds close to 43 million.

Moya also showed, through statistics, that while the discussion of immigration in America hasn’t been good, the Pew Research Center studies conclude that the U.S. is average when it comes to one question: should there be more restrictions with immigration policy?

“There are other countries that are more welcoming than the United States,” said Moya. “Canada tends to be less anti-immigrant even though they have the highest rate if immigration in the world. They seem to be more tolerant.” Other countries that are less anti-immigrant include Peru, Japan, Sweden and Scandinavia.

According to Moya, anti-immigrant attitudes, with the exception of Italy, tend to reside in poor countries where jobs are scarce and competition for any labor is fierce. African nations like Senegal and Ghana are amongst the highest in anti-immigration sentiment.

While the criticisms of immigrants continue to be far-fetched (i.e. Abuse of social services, refusal to assimilate, are all unskilled), the debate doesn’t show signs of slowing down. But Ngai doesn’t feel that it’s her job to convince the illogical.

“It’s not my job to convince people and I don’t think those people are going to be convinced because it’s not a rational position among a lot of those people,” said Ngai when speaking of anti-immigration arguments laced with cultural and racial overtones. If these professors can’t convince them that immigration is good for America, how about this. According to the Pew Research Center, the crime rate among immigrants in the United States is lower than the native population. You probably won’t hear about that on the History Channel’s “Gangland” series.