The Politics Of Immigration Policy


The pundits and pollsters are glad to continually hash over that which divides us politically. Race, religion, gender, region, income, education, and sexual orientation: The list of all that fragments our nation is seemingly without end. Whenever an issue arises or an election is upon us, we are bombarded with carefully parsed percentages describing the depths of our disagreements.

Given that we are now constantly encouraged by the media and academics to view every matter that affects our lives and our world through the lens of identity politics, it is unsurprising that our Pavlovian reaction to controversy is to focus on the superficial. This problem is exacerbated by the plain fact that analyzing an opinion survey is a seductively lazy way to explain our nation and its people. It saves the slothful journalist or professor from the bother of having to go out into the world to talk to actual people and—despite well-documented problems with the reliability and validity of poll data—still carries with it a whiff of scientific credibility that captures the interest of those inclined to believe one way or another anyway. Nothing makes our morning cup of coffee taste quite so sweet as a heaping spoonful of confirmation bias to start the day.

The Trumpian policy changes regarding illegal immigrants and refugees, which have sparked a good deal of protest and debate, do not fit very neatly into the poll-driven narratives that dominate so many of our discussions. We are, except for the descendants of Native Americans, a nation full of foreign DNA, and our viewpoints about who should or should not be allowed to enter or reside here are typically informed by the narratives of our own families.

My father, for example, spent most of World War II as forced labor under the Nazis, was liberated by American troops, and was desperate to come to the United States to avoid returning to a Poland under Soviet domination. My life obviously would have been very different if someone had decided he was a security risk and denied him a visa, and my own notions about the need to admit people fleeing political persecution are obviously affected by my own family’s history. My beliefs transcend any facile explanations based on my race, age, gender, religion—or any other characteristic that is supposed to predict my behavior. It is the same for most Americans. We are far more than the sum of our labels, and basic common sense and goodness inform the beliefs of the vast majority of us.

The estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the United States conjure up a range of emotions that don’t fall into nice little boxes based on our identities. Some who are here illegally are fleeing the horrors of war zones; some simply overstayed their tourist visas. Therefore, waving signs and demanding that all be allowed to remain does not account for the merits—or lack thereof—associated with each individual case.

In addition, simplistic sloganeering and hashtag hosannas fail to respect the grim necessity of deporting those who engage in or support criminal activity. Sad to say, not everyone who crosses our borders is a dewy-eyed innocent seeking a better life, and those who are concerned with the rights of immigrants—whether legal or illegal—and refugees undercut their own credibility when they insist upon open borders, blanket amnesties, or endlessly deferred deportation actions. Perhaps this is just the ex-New Yorker in me speaking, but it is worth remembering that terrorism is not something that only happens somewhere else.

One obvious wildcard in the debates now raging about the problem of illegal/undocumented immigrants in the United States is the status of those who were brought here as children. Although there are those who believe they should be deported with the rest, most people are sensible enough to recognize that these cases merit special consideration. If you are an adult whose parents, for example, snuck you in with them when you were two years old and your only memories are of living in America, forcing you to return to a country that you do not even know is heartless. Whether this accommodation will feature a path to citizenship for some who qualify is a matter for discussion, but reasonable people will eventually help us arrive at a solution—if we can just stop screaming and start talking.

Illegal immigration is a problem, and it is not a sign of inherent hatred or bigotry to want to assert control over our borders. There is, of course, a loud cohort of immigration advocates who view national boundaries as atavistic throwbacks to our tribal heritages, but their views are certainly in the minority. Most Americans want to know who is coming in, why they are here, where they are staying, and when they are leaving.

If someone desires to remain in the United States for humanitarian or political reasons, set procedures should be in place to evaluate their requests, and the decision should be made expeditiously based on established regulations and law. Most Americans are willing to provide the short-term financial, medical, and housing support needed by those seeking a bridge to a new life in America, but those who take advantage of our good will likely will find the going a bit rougher under Trump administration policies that will certainly be less inclined to open-ended assistance compared to past administrations.

Having lost functional control of our borders many decades ago, we now have quite a problem—or rather 11 million of them—on our hands. Some will need to return to their countries; some will be allowed to stay. However messy and upsetting this process will be for many—and problems are certain to occur—the alternative is to continue on as we have, which is the mistake that put us in the spot where we are today.

Few discussions are well-served by an insistent focus on insular identity politics, but resolving our immigration crisis is certainly one where we need to consider the needs and safety of our country as a whole without the privileging the needs of one group over another. Given that not everyone who wants to reside in the United States can be allowed to do so, a number of people will be dissatisfied with any fix to our current broken immigration system. However, if we can resist the blandishments of those who, for reasons both fair and foul, want to use this issue as yet one more excuse to drag us into the disheartening and destructive muck of identity politics, we might be able to finally create a sensible system with a fair balance between providing access to our great nation while ensuring our security in a hostile world.

On a closing note, I want to share a purely political observation about President Trump’s immigration orders and make a troubling prediction.

However one feels about the legality and morality of his actions, it seems to me that President Trump is now prodding Democrats toward their own hanging—and he’s even suckering them into purchasing the rope. His immigration orders (all temporary or easily modified, by the way) have encouraged a great many Democrats to loudly and unequivocally support unrestricted immigration from nations known to support or harbor terrorists—any helpful nuance has already been lost in the media echo chamber.

Unfortunately, it is certain that someone is going to once again shoot up a shopping mall, bomb a public event, or otherwise slaughter innocents after declaring themselves a jihadi on social media. The stinging public statements by many pro-immigration Democrats already pushing against the headwinds of a challenging 2018 Midterm election cycle will soon be prominently and tirelessly repeated in campaign ads and Trump stump speeches in order to tag them as naive terrorist enablers—just watch it happen and don’t be surprised. The flustered denials of Democrats trying to win elections in the broad middle swath of the nation will be swept away in the Trump Tweetstorms that follow—along with more seats in state legislatures, state houses, the Senate, and the Congress.

I hope that I may be forgiven a bold and perhaps unpopular bit of prognostication, but if the Democratic Party—already on its heels after years of cumulative electoral defeats at the local, state, and federal levels—does not wake up, stop wailing, and start governing, it runs a great risk of being reduced within a few short years to a regional political party concentrated in a few major urban centers along the east and west coasts.

Given that our system works best and is most accountable when there are two viable political parties available to voters, this would be a terrible shame. Perhaps a reinvigorated Democratic Party—or something entirely new—will rise out of the ashes of what will remain of the tattered Democratic coalition, but it could be the case that we are in for a protracted period of one party rule, which I believe would be a real detriment for our democracy. Immigration policy will not be the only facet of our lives to be affected in the years to come, so the possible lack of a political counterweight to the changes afoot should worry anyone who believes balanced debate and discussion is essential to the health of our nation.

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