Friday, April 14, 2006

Immigration Roulette

My blogfather, Joe Gandelman, points me to a great blog post on the growing immigration controversy by Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young. Young and I have clashed swords (and compliments) in the past, but she's a smart gal and a blogger I respect immensely. I kind of vaguely knew she was an immigrant, but for some reason I never really made the link between her and this debate. I say "some reason", but I think I know at least part of the reason: Cathy is White. As Michael Sean Winters reminds us, the one thing the GOP has done successfully in this debate is change the imagery of "immigrant" from "Ellis Island" to "Mexican climbing over a fence." I think that most Americans lack the imagination to conceptualize a desperate Belarussian climbing over a barrier to get into America, so those people are mentally separated out from "actual" immigrants (the bad kind).

But I digress. A key argument in this whole flap is how we deal with legal immigrants. Conservatives say that any path toward citizenship for those who entered the country illegally amounts to a "slap in the face" to those who entered legally. I think the participation of legal immigrants in the marches belies that sentiment pretty decisively. But Cathy offers moral backing to the argument:
I am a legal immigrant myself. As many of you know, I came here with my family in 1980 from the Soviet Union; at the time, we automatically received refugee status on the grounds that we feared persecution in our native country. (Which, actually, was not even technically accurate: the Soviet Jews coming here at the time had to fear persecution only if they wanted to openly practice Judaism -- which, for my non-religious family, was not an issue -- or if they were political dissidents.) And that is something I tremendously appreciate, but I am also aware of the fact that I got a special break due to Cold War politics, and that a lot of people around the world who had as good a claim to fleeing oppression or persecution did not get the same break. So my reaction is not "but I came here legally!" but more like, "There but for the grace of God..."

She then goes on to compare the immigration system to a lottery system--there really is no rhyme or reason to who gets a visa and who doesn't. This essential arbitrariness is what distinguishes illegal immigration from other types of crimes: unlike murder or robbery, its only illegal for some.

I have serious moral qualms about declaring a person illegal for the "crime" of living somewhere. This seems like a rather radical expansion of the concept of criminal culpability. The only comparable offense I can think of is trespassing, and I personally don't think that the proper analogy for the land built by huddled masses is to a private country club. The trespassing analogy also treats the nation as a whole--not just individual homes or businesses--as private property. The idea of a completely privatized public should scare us all. As Ambrose Bierce wrote exactly one century ago:
The right to property implies the right to exclusive use, and therefore the right to expel trespassers. Therefore, if A B and C own all the land, D E and F have no place to be born, or born as trespassers, to exist.

This may seem like a rather stretched analogy, until we remember those who want to expel the children of immigrants, born in the USA. Under this paradigm, these people would be "born as trespassers," and that label seems immoral in a very visceral sense.

The point is that, when debating this topic, the first and foremost concern has to be respect for human dignity. I remarked to a friend earlier tonight that one of the reasons I love the immigration protests is that they are finally putting human dignity back on the political table--we're finally discussing it again. I should have added that this is only a benefit if human dignity wins, and as Cathy reminds us, "anti-immigrant panic has been, again and again, responsible for ungenerous and sometimes downright inhumane policies unworthy of America." Hopefully, narratives like hers can help us break the cycle.


Anonymous said...

OK, let's discuss human dignity when it comes to legal immigrants vs. illegal immigrants. Let's also look at what is just and fair.

Legal immigrants spend years and a lot of money trying to get here legally. Once they are here legally, supporting our economy and paying taxes, they are still subject to what is termed the "visa lottery". Basically, you have to pay for the CHANCE to continue to stay here legally. After they pay to enter this lottery, they still risk the chance of having to return to their home countries. Illegal immigrants live outside the law and are, in our current climate, essentially given a free pass to stay here for free as long as they like. If proposals that are floating around now are enacted, they will again be given a free pass and be able to live with less fear of having to leave the country than those who followed our laws in the first place.

We keep on hearing about the children of illegal immigrants. Those who were born here are American citizens. Why should we deport their parents, which basically amounts to deporting American citizens? OK, consider this. A coworker of mine and his wife are both here on work visas. They had a son. They still have to go through the visa lottery and risk being deported. Their son is an American citizen through being born here, they are here legally, but they and their son could be deported if either one of them doesn't get their visa renewed. Go ahead and deport children of legal immigrants but let's protect the children of illegal immigrants? Seriously?

Finally, if we want to talk about human dignity and what is just and fair, how about the person who is living in poverty and possibly facing persecution but decides to come to this country through legal channels. This person may take decades to get the right to come here legally and, in the meantime, continues to live in poverty in his or her home country. Meanwhile, an illegal immigrant walks/runs/is smuggled across the border and is able to establish a better life for him or herself. Fast forward to the future, when a guest worker program is enacted. The person who broke our laws now gets to stay and what happens to that person who followed our laws? Even if that person is allowed to enter the country now, he or she is years behind the one who broke our law in terms of establishing a better life here. The one who came here illegally is being rewarded by already having established a better life while the one who tried to come here legally is being punished by having to live that much more time in poverty and only now getting a chance to start over.

I'd like to hear the human dignity or fairness/justness angle of any of those scenarios, all of which I personally know people who fit the legal side. These people, all legal immigrants, will tell you that it is in fact a slap in the face that proposals out there would have people who have broken our laws being treated better than they have been treated while following our laws.

My wife's family is a family of legal immigrants, I live in a neighborhood with a strong Hispanic presence, mostly made up of first generation legal immigrants, and I work with several legal immigrants. After talking with many of these people, I can tell you that the large majority of legal immigrants I know do in fact want to see illegal immigrants punished for breaking our laws and, at the same time, want to see our laws streamlined so more people can enter the country legally. Almost without exception, they say the most important thing, though, is that those who are here legally should not be rewarded for breaking our laws while everyone who has followed our laws gets punished. To them, it's a matter of respecting the law of the land, whether you agree with it or not, and trying to get it changed through the proper channels instead of just violating it because you don't like it.

Stentor said...

I want to go to Ryan's strange world where illegal immigrants don't have to live in constant fear of being picked up by ICE and deported. That strikes me as being a lot worse than a periodic visa lottery. I also don't see why our choices are either to send illegals back to square one, or to give them a better deal than legals. The system needs to be improved for *all* imimgrants.