The real conversation on immigration is not always what presidential candidates would have us believe.

In this, the most drawn out campaign cycle in history, too many presidential hopefuls are addressing immigrants and immigration with proclamations designed to grab headlines and fire up the base. They’re succeeding on both counts, and climbing poll numbers, whether by coincidence or correlation, provide them no disincentive.

But in the long run, that kind of rhetoric does not bring us to the consensus we need to reach bipartisan solutions on immigration.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Wednesday evening in Davenport, Iowa, a panel of seven faith, law enforcement and business leaders from across the political spectrum pleaded for a more constructive conversation, just a day before the GOP debate in Des Moines and five days before the Iowa Caucuses.

The panelists led by example, engaging one another, and an audience that packed the house at St. Ambrose University, in respectful dialogue that focused on people over politics. They talked about the value of immigrants and immigration and how immigrants are improving Iowa’s churches, communities and economy.

The Bible is not silent on immigration, noted the outreach pastor from Harvest Bible Chapel. “I’m thankful there’s nothing in the law that says as a pastor or as a church we can’t love an undocumented immigrant,” the pastor, Doug Rowland, added.

We must have the trust of everyone in the community in order to keep everyone safe, reasoned the Story County sheriff, Paul Fitzgerald: “We’re dealing with human beings here. And we must be in a position where we enforce the law, but we also have to be compassionate.”

Immigration brings in talent that helps fill our nation’s critical skills gaps and creates jobs, said Greg Aguilar, director of talent attraction and retention at the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce. “A talented and educated workforce is the most important resource to a growing economy.”

In the dialogue onstage and in questions from the audience, frustration emerged that our political leaders can’t seem to come together to address an immigration system that is so clearly broken.

Candidates on both sides of the spectrum may try to use immigrants and immigration for political gain, but among these panelists from different sectors, there was consensus that we need a better conversation — and real policy change.

Listen to voters and not just to candidates and you’ll see that consensus emerge more and more.

Ken Vinson, an Iowa Republican, told the Los Angeles Times last week, “I don’t care how they got here, they got here, and they have a family. Now all of a sudden you want to rip those people out and send them back? I wouldn’t want my family torn apart like that.”
And, on the same day as the panel in Davenport, 32 Iowa and five national evangelical leaders sent a letter to all of the presidential campaigns, Democrat and Republican. “Scripture guides us toward a just and compassionate response to immigrants in our country,” they wrote. “We encourage you to heed its words and get to know our communities. Come meet us and our immigrant neighbors, friends and fellow church members.”

The conservative movement’s immigration debate will continue beyond Iowa and beyond primary season. Forums such as Wednesday’s should light the path forward.

Will candidates listen to the vocal few who would choose mass deportation, at enormous cost to our churches and our businesses, not to mention our government’s balance sheet — and our values? Or will they listen to voters in Iowa who demand security, yes, but seek a more compassionate option that respects the human dignity of each person, brings people out of the shadows, and helps our nation thrive economically and morally?

In Davenport Wednesday night, voices rang out clean and clear for the compassionate approach. The Republican police chief on the panel received applause when he said, “We need to bring this discussion back to the middle."

Although the chief is not running for president (yet), he certainly has a better grasp on reality than some of the candidates.

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Ali Noorani is Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund.  

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