Saturday, May 8, 2010

Wrestling with the Immigration Debate

The recently enacted anti-illegal immigration law in Arizona, which for the first time empowers law enforcement authorities to investigate an individual's citizenship status based on the "reasonable suspicion" standard, has been a lightning rod in the immigration debate.  For two weeks now, this law has attracted the support of a majority of Americans but triggered large-scale protests by vocal opponents in major cities nationwide.

It would be tempting to think of this intense debate as something unique to the travails of 21st century America, but the truth is that we have a long tradition in our public discourse of being conflicted as a people when it comes to how we manage immigration.  There may be no better metaphor for this conflict than to review the writings on this subject from the most brilliant American political thinker of all time, who just so happened to be the author of our founding document.

President Thomas Jefferson, in his 1801 annual message to the nation, wrote: "Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe? The Constitution, indeed, has wisely provided that for admission to certain offices of important trust a residence shall be required sufficient to develop character and design. But might not the general character and capabilities of a citizen be safely communicated to every one manifesting a bona fide purpose of embarking his life and fortunes permanently with us?"

So clearly, Jefferson was a supporter of open borders and welcoming arms for any and all foreigners who would like to find their way to the U.S. and start a new life here, correct?  Well, not so fast . . .

The same year, Jefferson wrote to his friend Hugh White: "Born in other countries, yet believing you could be happy in this, our laws acknowledge, as they should do, your right to join us in society, conforming, as I doubt not you will do, to our established rules. That these rules shall be as equal as prudential considerations will admit, will certainly be the aim of our legislatures, general and particular."

Ah, I see, so Jefferson was a supporter of liberal immigration laws, just as long as foreigners abided by our rules and conformed to our social norms?  Hmm, not even that is so clear . . .

In his seminal 1782 collection, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote: "[Is] rapid population [growth] by as great importations of foreigners as possible... founded in good policy?... They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their number, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass... If they come of themselves, they are entitled to all the rights of citizenship: but I doubt the expediency of inviting them by extraordinary encouragements."

Yikes, so maybe immigrants are welcome here if they follow our rules, but let's not exactly suggest it to them ourselves?

The point is that even the great Thomas Jefferson was conflicted on the matter of immigration.  He felt great compassion for those who would want to make a better life for themselves and their families, and had a vision of America as a beacon of liberty to welcome those weary souls.  At the same time, he thought it was only right that these weary souls be required to follow some basic rules of social assimilation, rather than just rush the borders.  And in his most honest moments, he even felt a little concerned that runaway immigration would strain the very social foundation and cultural norms of the nation that was, after all, formed by European immigrants.

It turns out that this is a pretty good description of the mood of the American public on this same issue in 2010.  Consider these interesting findings from a May 2010 Gallup poll:

*  68% of Americans think it is very or extremely important that the U.S. government takes action this year on "controlling U.S. borders to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S."

*  64% of Americans say they are very or extremely sympathetic "toward illegal immigrants currently in the U.S."

*  84% of Americans are very or somewhat concerned that "illegal immigrants might be putting an unfair burden on U.S. schools, hospitals and government services."

*  74% of Americans are very or somewhat concerned that a result of stricter immigration laws would be that "Hispanics living in the U.S. would be harassed by authorities accusing them of being illegal immigrants."

The picture is clear: the vast majority of Americans do not want their fellow citizens of non-European descent to be unfairly targeted by law enforcement and indeed they have great compassion for illegal immigrants living in the U.S. now, but they are serious about the need for tightening our borders and stemming the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

Does that summation resemble much of what you've heard from right-wing politicians ranting about those illegals who rush the border so they can commit grizzly crimes and steal those highly sought after farm labor jobs from unemployed American citizens?  Or does it sound like anything you've heard lately from a left-wing open border advocate who has labeled the Arizona legislature a body of bigots who want all of their dark-skinned neighbors to be strip searched for no apparent reason?

We're better than this.  America is an idea and it has thrived for more than two centuries because we have learned as a people to wrestle with difficult social challenges such as the immigration debate.  We can find a way to show compassion on people who have risked everything -- including, typically, their very lives -- in order to come here, work hard and achieve something better for themselves.  At the same time, we can deal with the costly public policy implications of too many of these brave people coming here in an unlawful way without demonizing them.  In other words, there is nothing contradictory about tightening our borders in order to stem the tide of runaway illegal immigration and treating those illegal immigrants who are here now with the kind of respect and decency that would make our founding fathers proud.

The irony to all of this public angst fueled by the signing of the new immigration law in Arizona is that the law itself isn't likely to accomplish a whole lot in either direction.  On a practical level, I think it's highly unlikely that Arizona law enforcement officials are suddenly going to suspend their sense of moral decency and begin looking for excuses to interrogate Hispanic men and women who are innocently strolling the streets of Phoenix.  On a philosophical level, I think it's quite likely that the law will not withstand legal challenges and will probably be overturned as unconstitutional, as have other state laws that attempted to enforce matters of national citizenship (just ask backers of California's Proposition 187, which was passed in 1994 and overturned a few years later).

But the larger issue of how we deal with securing our borders, policing our borders and managing the flow of immigrants into this country is one that we as a people have been confronting since the very founding of the republic.  The big difference for us now is that the steady influx of illegal immigrants who have come here in the post-war period in rising numbers has created a new reality that makes a solution more elusive -- we want to confront the unstainability of porous borders, but we also want to do right by the hard-working folks here now who mow our lawns, wash our restaraunt dishes and get our produce to market.
My wish for my country is that we would ignore the shrill voices on the right and the left when it comes to how we resolve this important public policy issue.  Let's start by seeing our own forefathers in the faces of the illegal immigrants in our midst now, treating them with the respect to which they are entitled as children of God, and then work together to find common sense ways to better secure our borders from runaway illegal immigration in the future.  Along the way, let's avoid the temptation to label each other and see other Americans with whom we disagree on immigration policy as either racist radicals or clueless commies.

If Thomas Jefferson wrestled with his own conflicted feelings about immigration, there must be nothing more American than to do the same thing ourselves.

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