Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Perm, Do Both

New Balloon Juice co-blogger Michael offers up his immigration plan. Put simply, it replaces the "family unification" objective with a merit-based system. So basically, instead of admitting immigrants primarily on the basis of whether they have relatives here, we admit them primarily on whether they are highly skilled and educated.

I have no problem with expanding the number of merit-based visas we give out. I'm proud that America continues to be the destination of choice for the world's best and brightest, and we'd be are fools not to tap into that resource. But I'm confused why this is in any way mutually exclusive with continuing to let in family unification immigrants -- an objective that Michael admits serves important humanitarian goals.

I will give Michael credit for taking his proposal seriously. He acknowledges that any meaningful effort at stemming familial immigration would have to involve repealing Section I of the 14th Amendment, which grants birthright citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Michael
would change it to say that at least one parent must be a citizen of the United States. The only intent of foreign-born parents who give birth here (with few exceptions) is to ensure their child has U.S. citizenship. It’s their ticket in.

But this, I feel, misstates the motivation. The "anchor baby" motif has always struck me as a wildly uncharitable frame for why people choose to bear children in here. American citizenship isn't a ticket in, it's a ticket out: out of poverty, out of illiberal regimes, out of dead-end lives. Latino immigrants, just like the waves of immigrants who came before them, are seeking a better life for their children. And they know that US citizenship is part of that dream. Michael talks about giving a "hand up, not a hand out", but the folks with Ph.Ds aren't the one's who need a helping hand at all.

What Michael claims to be worried about is the creation of a perpetual underclass. Uneducated immigrants arrive on our shores, take menial jobs, get Green Cards, and bring their similarly uneducated family members with them to take similar jobs. But that's not necessarily a recipe for endless poverty. A perpetual underclass is only created if we withhold opportunities for people to rise above their standing, or prevent them from participating fully and equally in public life. Historically, most immigrants came to America with little education or money. But their children -- born here and thus with the citizenship that nobody can take from them -- learn (and constitute -- it's a two-way street) American cultural norms, take part in our school system, get educated, get jobs, and ultimately succeed. There is no reason we can't follow that route again, as long as we resist them temptation to be selfish with our riches. It is a perverse definition of "hand up" that restricts itself to those who already are at the top rungs. If we're serious about giving people a chance, then we have to take a chance of our own by believing in the pluck, mettle, grit, and determination of the poorest and least among us.

And at the end of the day, I don't think giving people a shot at the American Dream will result in the creation of an impoverished underclass. A guest-worker program creates a permanent underclass. Refusing to pass the DREAM act creates a permanent underclass. Excluding the immigrant community from the political conversation (as subjects, not just objects) creates a permanent underclass.

Giving people opportunity never does.

1 comment:

PG said...

I'd been feeling a bit unsympathetic toward illegal immigrants lately, particularly because I think the phenomenon of a massive number of illegal immigrants is part of why increasing the number of work visas to a realistic level that would fill American labor is not politically tenable. Too many Americans see the number of illegal immigrants and figure, why welcome even more immigrants, don't we have enough anyway? It becomes a Catch-22: if people treat immigration as a right and are unwilling to wait for a visa, we're unlikely to have enough sense to expand the number of visas so they can get one soon.

However, Michael's proposal to limit birth citizenship to the children of citizens reminded me that despite being uneducated, undocumented and a different kind of brown, illegal immigrants have a lot in common with my family's story.

My parents were exactly the high skilled, educated, legal immigrants that Michael says he wants. Yet because they had my sister and me a couple of years after immigrating here (while my dad was completing his cardiology fellowship and simultaneously moonlighting at area ERs, working literally 100 hours a week), under Michael's proposal she and I would be ineligible for birthright citizenship. Not because my parents violated any law -- just because they hadn't been here for the 7 years necessary to naturalization, and thus hadn't yet achieved citizenship themselves. So that means my sister and I wouldn't have been citizens at birth, and if anything had happened to my parents before each of us turned 7 and could become citizens, we would have been subject to being ripped out of our American lives and shipped back to a country we'd never lived in.

There's nothing like hearing some people's proposals for dealing with illegal immigration to make me feel solidarity with those immigrants.