Unofficial Gag Rules on Immigration Reform

In the wake of Arizona’s attempt to localize immigration enforcement, I think it’s time for Congress and the Obama administration to return to immigration reform.

If anything can justify American exceptionalism, it’s the waves of immigration that have repeatedly demonstrated that we can offer a better life to foreigners without losing our own identity. As we close and militarize the borders, we are at risk of losing the very thing that made it worth coming here. The US is by far the most cosmopolitan and pluralistic nation in the world, and we owe it to ourselves to preserve this communal identity in the face of those who would have us stand-pat on some 1950s-era self-conception. Moreover, more open borders would allow us to regain the levels of economic growth that characterized the American Dream.

Here’s what I’d like to see:

  • A path to citizenship: all current undocumented inhabitants of the US deserve a share of their adopted country’s governance and welfare-state. Many have been contributing to Social Security under a fake SSN# for years without any promise of remuneration. Let’s give them a realistic path to citizenship.
  • Decriminalization: shift enforcement to employers and treat undocumented workers as victims who can collect damages for substandard wages or violations of workplace safety regulations.
  • A major public relations push in favor of immigration: these are hardworking folks who will help us in our time of need, and we ought not demonize them for being willing to work.
  • End the administrative detention of undocumented workers which strips them of many due process rights.
  • Refocus border controls on products, not people. Catch cocaine, not construction workers.
  • Recognize that the US has a rich Latin@ history and culture. Recognize Spanish as an official language and make the next generation of Americans a bilingual one.

Now, I doubt we’ll see most of this, but I really don’t think there’s any publicly-justifiable reasons to reject these measures. Each and every one of these prescriptions seems rooted in the claims of justice, and the rejections seem to extend from xenophobia, racism, and a false sense of the moral entitlements due to Americans by an accident of birth.

So the question is: what’s keeping us from having this debate on the principles? Why do we only hear a few dog-whistle sound bites? It seems like immigration is precisely the kind of discussion that deliberation could help to solve, since it’s significantly less technical than health care reform and there are easily-recognized human rights being abused on a daily basis. So why the silence?

4 thoughts on “Unofficial Gag Rules on Immigration Reform”

  1. 'The US is by far the most cosmopolitan and pluralistic nation in the world'

    Could you expand on this? Other countries (Canada, Australia, even Germany and Sweden) often believe the same thing, so I wonder whether it's another case of a shared delusion in each of these countries. I guess it depends on what your metrics are: immigration acceptance rate, naturalization rate, etc? Which are you using?

    1. My primary metric is raw immigration numbers, as naturalization is the legal hurdle we're currently arguing over. We have the longest history of the most immigration, and we currently have the most diverse population. To my mind, the absolute tallies matter more than the ratio of foreign-born to native, however, and I suppose Australia or Canada could rejoin on the grounds of per-capita immigration based on their much lower total population.

      It's notable that Europe is having what amounts to an "existential crisis" regarding the influx of Muslims on the basis of really miniscule inflows. We just incorporate newbies better than anywhere else, at least historically. The nativist streak in contemporary politics is sort of troubling in this regard, and that's why I'm pushing back.

  2. By the raw immigration numbers, per-capita, Canada wins. I would argue that like for most country statistics, per-capita is the way to go since when you're discussing social upheaval and cohesion as well as acceptance of immigrants, the magnitude of the numbers is less relevant compared to the ratio of immigrants per person. For instance, if there are only 3 immigrants in the world on a given year, if 2 get immigrate to the US, and 1 to the Pitcairn Islands, they will likely have vastly different impacts.

    I also don't see how you extrapolate 'the most diverse population' from your wikipedia link. By definition, everyone who isn't a 'Native American' is going to have foreign ancestry. Are you saying the distribution is more diverse? Those numbers don't necessarily show that, though. I'm not sure that an agreed upon diversity metric exists, allowing citizens of any country to claim that their country is the most diverse, and be proud of that 'fact'.

  3. I understand the reasons for adopting per-capita metrics, but I don't think they hold when it comes to immigration. This is akin to arguments I sometimes hear that "roller derby is the fastest growing sport in America." Well, yeah: but it's easy to double in size when you're starting so small. I think we should be interested in sustainable long-term growth. It may be harder for Canada to maintain social cohesion in the face of its relatively small inflows, and thus more of a sacrifice, but the US can do it better, for more people, and we should. I don't have access to these numbers, but I'd guess that far more Americans per-capita are first, second, or third generation immigrants than are Canadians: if the Canadians are beating us, it's a relatively recent thing.

    In the end, the superlatives and international comparisons are less important to me than the hope that we accept that "Most Cosmopolitan" is a contest worth winning. I'm happy to take a lesson from Canada in this regard.

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