Is It Possible to Rationally Discuss Immigration?
Immigration has always been one of the most emotional issues in American politics, dating back to colonial days and continuing into the eras of mass legal migration from Europe at the start of the 20th century and from Asia a half-century ago. In a nation where racial tensions and economic resentments are easily exploitable, populists have emphasized the issue for their own gain.
That has perhaps never been truer than now, with the most nativist president in U.S. history in office. It’s almost too on the nose to say that Donald Trump is a “know-nothing”, but the label fits in more ways than one. Trump was in the low single digits among Republicans when he entered the presidential race, but hit a nerve with his talk about Mexican rapists – which he returned to earlier this month in a West Virginia speech — and his call for a total ban on Muslim immigration.
Trump reiterated this fearmongering on Monday, tweeting with his characteristic random capitalization, “Mexico, whose laws on immigration are very tough, must stop people from going through Mexico and into the U.S. We may make this a condition of the new NAFTA Agreement. Our Country cannot accept what is happening! Also, we must get Wall funding fast.” He later added, “Despite the Democrat inspired laws on Sanctuary Cities and the Border being so bad and one sided, I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country. It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL”. Also Monday, his press secretary Sarah Sanders sidestepped a reporter’s question about Trump’s recent invoking of a “breeding concept” among Latino immigrants in California.
Immigrant rights supporters are hardening their stance on the other side, blurring the line between those who have entered the U.S. legally and those who have migrated without approval. Caught in the middle are the nearly four million “Dreamers” brought to the U.S. as children, and the more than 300,000 Temporary Protected Status recipients who had been promised accommodation by the U.S., only to have it revoked.
In such an environment, is it possible to have a reasonable discussion about immigration policy? Perhaps not, but the issue is too important not to try.
A nation has the right to set rules on who may migrate. Every nation in the world has such rules. In an ideal world — one that may one day come, with the emergence of global economic organizations and electronic media that are rendering borders irrelevant — people would be free to move anywhere, at any time. But that is not yet the case. The United States has a liberal immigration policy, compared even to the liberal democracies of Europe. And those who choose to migrate in defiance of it are breaking the law.
Trump and likeminded know-nothings would have us believe that they are bad people. A few are; most are not. Crime rates are lower among immigrants than among the native-born. I know that if I were faced with the violence of Honduras or the poverty of El Salvador, I might try to sneak my family into the U.S. as well. Those who come here illegally are often embarking on an act of desperation. They often leave behind their families to make the arduous journey into the U.S., a journey that is fatal for some. They may be carted across the border in a poorly ventilated truck, or scramble through a desert where water is scarce. Once here, they take the least desirable jobs at the lowest pay, and must constantly fear detection. But it remains the case that they are violating U.S. law.
But we live in a world of realities. Some 13 million people live in the U.S. “illegally”, whether they made the choice themselves or were brought as children. They pay more than $11.6 billion per year in sales, excise, and property taxes. If they were able to become citizens, they would be less vulnerable to exploitation, and would also pay income taxes as well. That would be beneficial to the nation. Unauthorized immigrants make up more than five percent of the U.S. labor force; deportations since Trump took office have already caused labor shortages in the hospitality, service, and agricultural sectors in some regions.
There is no simple answer to the complex question of immigration, but we need to be able to discuss it dispassionately. Another factor makes that hard: race. Facts of geography and economics mean that most of those most visibly entering the U.S. without authorization are Latina or Latino. I would hope that if it was Canada that was poor and violent, and that the northern border was frequently crossed, that Trump would be just as vocal about stopping “illegals” and building a wall.
But from the man who wondered why we can’t get more folks from places like Norway, I doubt it.