With thousands of migrants massed at our southern border, many whom suffered through the Christmas cold snap, it becomes clearer than ever how difficult our immigration issue is.
One reason for the problem’s intractability is simple and overwhelming: many, many Latin Americans see going to the US as the best way to pursue a better life. Whether any given migrant wants to make better money, to escape gang violence, or to find freedom and democracy, those are unlikely at home and sem much more likely here.
Another reason, though, and the obstacle to crafting a credible fix, lies in our politics. No policies or political charges, and no party, addresses any underlying questions.
We have many needs – control of our border, humanity in our treatment of people, workers, less strain on our public welfare systems, order in our social fabric. All of these have been cited by Democrats and Republicans to signal the virtues of their partisan orientation, or the sins of the other. None will be met until we have a coherent consensus about immigration. Otherwise any proposal will be a short term political ploy – a wall, an amnesty, a public health pretext – for one party or the other
The one measure that aimed to reduce migration at its source was NAFTA, in its goal of promoting jobs in Mexico. And by and large, the migrants at the Mexican border are not Mexican, which attests to a certain success. But we cannot expect the same success through all the nations of Central America and northern South America – or beyond, whence more and more migrants have come to this border.
Immigration as an issue has always been a political afterthought. Early in our history, we essentially had no restrictions on immigration or entry. The Constitution names no formal qualifications for a foreigner to apply for citizenship. Its only hint is that the President must have been born a U.S. citizen.
Mass voluntary immigration started in the 19th Century. We celebrate those people seeking a better life, as validation of our freedom and evidence that our free society offered opportunity – and thrives as a result. This lore actually gives some substance to an idea of who should be allowed entry: “Give us your tired, your poor …” But its glosses over complex motives and hardships at play, and ignores the importation of slaves. As guidance for rules and laws today, it is also incomplete. It names no generic concept of eligibility to enter the country.
Current policy stems from the 1924 Immigration Act, which aimed simply to end unrestricted entry. As anyone who has adjudicated visa applications at a US embassy or consulate abroad knows, the rules focus on reasons to deny entry. The system is set up to adjudicate applicants’ fit into specific categories, mostly based on prior physical presence in the U.S.: relatives of people already here, or those who come under work or student visas and develop ties. Along the way, certain other categories were sanctioned, such as investors in businesses or refugees from political or religious persecution. These categories were added incrementally, some reflecting deep sentiments, but without articulating any principle of eligibility.
So – what qualifies a non-American to become an American? Underlying that question is another: What makes an American American?
We conceived ourselves as a “People” in the Declaration of Independence, as “We” who hold certain truths, of unalienable rights and government that exists to secure them for the governed. That “We” is the same “People of the United States” who adopted the current U.S. Constitution. It all comes back to holding the same self-evident truths. But how do you know if someone sincerely holds them? Does that mean that anyone who comes seeking a better job is not appropriate to admit in? Could the millions who came from Europe and the thousands from China in the 19th Century recite the unalienable rights? Should anyone who can be verified to hold those truths automatically bee designated as an American?
No good answer exists. The best we can hope for is an overarching expression that will last, and that carries the essence of our basic values in some way, shape, or form. This is hard. Many proposals focus on admitting entrants with skills that will help our economy – but this appears to use people as means to material ends. We would have to find some political consensus, and a moral rationale, to justify such using of human beings. We might focus on entrants fleeing political oppression – but the question of those fleeing economic disaster, or disastrous economic normality, would have to be accounted for. And so on. The blind spots and inconsistencies will never be smoothly reconciled with any principle. But without some consensus around some principle there will only be inconsistency. All the finagling with rules and administrative practices will amount only to political posturing. In 2006, a number of legislators on both sides of the aisle agreed to a complex balance of measures regularizing illegal immigrants, adding restrictions including walls at the border, and devising a work visa system. It collapsed so easily under political pressure that no one even remembers today.
The one thing that might allow for a consensus will be if people somehow start their thinking with the core, common essence of America’s own nationality. It will not be easy to garner enough attention among the public to push an effort in Washington. And even then the politics of any legislation will be very messy. But taking this “long way around” is the only way to craft any regime of rules, resources, and practice that can control the chaos and won’t discredit us.