Thoughts on Immigration
by Gabriel Conroy
1. There’s something wrong about a law that forbids or curtails people’s mobility.
2. I was born on one side of a line, and that fact has granted me access to privileges and resources that people born on the other side of the line don’t have access to. I must remember that before I judge people for violating laws that forbid crossing that line.
3. I’m skeptical of some of the claims made for the benefits of “voting with your feet,” but having the option to vote with one’s feet can be a boon. It gives local political leaders, employers, and others a strong incentive to compete for residents and treat existing residents better.
4. People immigrate generally to work. While I’m sure there are exceptions, people generally move if they see the possibility of jobs. Social services might attract people, too. So I can’t discount the argument that people come to the US because there is better health care and better schools. But that motivation mingles with the availability of jobs.
5. Because of point #4, immigration will make jobs competition tighter. Some people will feel the brunt more than others, at least in the short term. While I believe no one has a “right” to their specific job and while I believe that in the long run, immigration usually helps rather than hurts the economy, those who face the brunt of this tighter jobs competition and who speak out about the difficulties they face from it deserve a hearing. That doesn’t mean immigration policy should ultimately be restricted, but it does mean that opposition to immigration is not necessarily and always reducible to racism or bigotry.
6. The fact that opposition to immigration is not necessarily reducible to racism or bigotry doesn’t mean that racism and bigotry play no part in such opposition. The truth is probably very messy, with a difficult-to-untangle mixture of bigotry and sincere arguments.
7. People who immigrate in contravention of the host country’s immigration laws probably know that they are violating the law. But remember my points #1 and #2.
8. The situation in which “Dreamers” find themselves is unfair to them. They probably had little or no part in the decision-making process that brought them over. The resulting situation, in which they have few prospects in their home country and restricted prospects in the US, is a tragic result of our immigration policy. What is not often acknowledged by people trying to help them is that the “Dreamers'” situation is also the outcome that those who brought them over probably should have taken into account before bringing them over. But that’s easy to say in retrospect, and again, remember my points #1 and #2.
9. The narrative of the “Dreamer” is tragically inflected with another narrative, that of the “model immigrant.” Mr. Obama’s recent speech mentioned a particularly bright young lady who enrolled in a magnet program and continued on to college. That’s good for her, but what about all those who don’t meet the exceptional standards, or who may have made one or two mistakes in life, as young people are wont to do? Let’s not get too caught up in these stories of “great kids who never do any wrong.” Doing so robs them of their humanity and reinforces unrealistic expectations.
10. The US may be a “nation of immigrants,” but it’s not uniquely so. It’s just as true to say the US is a “nation of conquerors.” Peoples move a lot. They immigrate and they conquer and they set up borders and try to keep people out. The mechanism may change. Four hundred years ago, the idea of a “nation-state” with its own immigration policies was not as salient as today (but still, see Louis XIV’s expulsion of the Huguenots from France in 1685). Still, I suggest that a study of any locality would demonstrate some efforts at controlling population, by encouraging either its increase or decrease. Those efforts sometimes track with controlling who can enter and become a full member of that locality.
11. Again, #10 is an “is” statement, and too often we inflect that with “ought” statements. Neither the legacy of conquest, nor the recentness of residence, really says much about who has the “right” to a given land if we push the issue far back enough. The fact that my ancestors at one point lived somewhere that was not controlled by the present-day US and then moved to land that is now controlled by the present-day US by itself gives me no special obligation to ensure others may do the same. Neither does that fact give me any special right to be in the US. Even the 14th amendment gives me no special moral right to be here. Even though it gives me a legal claim, that claim, if pushed back far enough, rests on the fact that many people, some of my ancestors included, took over the land because they were stronger. They did so for the most part because they were stronger and for little other reason.
12. Immigration policy will never be solved. One may be for “open borders” or for “closed borders” or somewhere in between, but we should get used to the idea that the policy will be constantly and repeatedly contested and revised. Some policies will be more fair than others. Some will be more cruel than others. Some will tip toward “just policy” and others will tip toward “unjust policy.” And we can and should argue which is which. But there is no magic bullet. This can actually be a good thing. It can allow us to consider and try new approaches without believing we need create a master plan that must survive us all.
13. If I take all of the above, and especially #1 and #2 above, I should finally keep in mind that I am discussing the situation of real people, with their own hopes and dreams. I may claim no special right to be here and I may claim no special obligation to be here. But I do have the obligation to empathize with immigrants and with those who, as Will Truman has said, bear the cost of the invitation. I must be a decent human being. I must treat them as ends in themselves. And as I look to any policy, from the comfort of the privileges I now enjoy, I need to keep in mind how my preferences and my everyday actions will affect others. I fail at my own self-admonition to empathy all the time, but it’s a goal I aspire to.
[Image: The S.S. Patrick, an Atlantic liner, filled with immigrants to the US; public domain photo.]
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