The Real Immigration Issue

“Illegal” immigration has always been a red herring. The more fundamental question is whether the United States will continue to be a country dominated by English-speaking white Christians.

When an issue sharply divides America, we tend to avoid discussing our real division, and instead fight proxy wars about side issues. So, for example, our legislatures and our election campaigns seldom engage the real debate about abortion: A large chunk of the country strongly believes that abortion is a difficult decision that a pregnant woman needs to make for herself, possibly in consultation with her husband, parents, friends, and doctors. Another large chunk believes that abortion is a form of murder and so the government should forbid it, possibly punishing the people involved.

But day-to-day, neither of those positions is discussed by our pundits or politicians. Instead, they raise smaller, related issues that they hope will push the battle lines in the direction they want: Should late-term “partial birth” abortions be legal? Should abortion be legal after a fetus has a detectable heartbeat or can experience pain? (And when is that?) Should abortion (or forms of birth control that could result in the loss of a newly-fertilized ovum) be covered under Medicaid or ObamaCare? Such debates are like the occasional shooting wars that erupted out of the Cold War. The underlying struggle — the U.S. vs. the U.S.S.R. — always stayed under wraps, while the actual battles were fought in Korea or Vietnam or Angola.

For a long time, something similar has been going on with regard to immigration. Anti-immigration politicians and pundits want to talk about “illegal” immigration: the people (usually estimated to number around 11 million) who live in the U.S. without official permission. Some sneaked across one of our borders and have never had any legal status, while an almost equal number came through our ports-of-entry legally as tourists and then overstayed their visas. But however they got here, the anti-immigration folks say, they should leave. It’s nothing personal or racial; it’s just about the rule of law and maintaining border security. And even more than the generic undocumented immigrant, they want to talk about criminals like the M-13 gang, the people President Trump primarily blames for the “American carnage” he made the centerpiece of his inaugural speech.

Meanwhile, pro-immigration politicians and pundits want to talk about the Dreamers: undocumented residents who were brought here as children and know no other country. Or about refugees who came (or want to come) from Syria or Haiti or some other country stricken by natural disaster or war. Or Latin American children whose parents sent them away to America rather than see them forced to become either soldiers or prostitutes for local drug gangsters. Whatever your views on immigration in general, pro-immigration voices say, these are human beings in trouble who deserve our compassion.

It’s easy to get drawn into the details of any of these issues, and find yourself listing victims of illegal-immigrant crime, or correcting misconceptions about DACA or the refugee-screening process. But it’s always worthwhile to remember that these aren’t the fundamental issues; these are proxy wars, and the energy behind them comes from somewhere else.

The more important groupings, the U.S/U.S.S.R. of this struggle, look more like this:

  • One side likes living in a multi-cultural society, and believes that America is stronger because it draws ambitious, freedom-loving people from all over the world.
  • The other side sees the U.S. as a white, Christian, English-speaking country. They believe we can tolerate and assimilate a certain number of people who don’t fit that description, but beyond a certain point (and we’re getting well beyond it now) we will lose our national identity.

Occasionally, some comparatively trivial comment draws the line between these two groups very sharply. For example, when the founder of Latinos for Trump said: “My culture is a very dominant culture. It is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

The second group knew exactly what he was talking about: The America they grew up in is in danger of being overrun by people who eat differently, speak differently, and probably live totally different lives than they do. “I’m losing my country,” they believe. But the first group responded to the taco-truck vision with something like: “That would be fabulous. I can never find taco truck when I want one.” Or a truck that sells falafels or sushi or samosas.

Unsurprisingly, this is largely a rural/urban split. If you grew up someplace like San Francisco or New York City, being surrounded by people of all colors chattering in all sorts of languages feels normal, and the idea that this represents a threat to the essential identity of America seems absurd. (Whites are already a minority in California. But when I’ve been there, it still feels like America to me.) But if you’re accustomed to living in a small town that has only recently begun to have a sizeable non-white minority, that not-like-us presence can seem dangerous. Who knows what is going on inside those mosques and temples, or what is being discussed in those foreign languages? Maybe they’re insulting us, making fun of us, or plotting some violence against us. How would we know?

The result is a bit perverse: The native-born English-speaking whites who seem to be in the most danger of being overrun by immigrants — the ones in the polyglot cities — are precisely the ones most comfortable with a vision of a multi-cultural future. But those in the least danger are the ones easiest to rile up against Sharia law or M-13 gangsters or taco trucks on every corner.

The Trump administration has consistently put forward policies that reflect the nativist, keep-America-white position. But they  haven’t promoted it openly, hiding instead behind rhetoric about illegal or criminal immigrants. However, look at what they’ve done:

All of these actions are directed at legal immigrants and visitors. They submit (or have submitted) to a legal process, we know who they are, we have a chance to investigate them. We just don’t want them here.

Even with regard to undocumented immigrants, the Trump administration’s actions belie its rhetoric. The rhetoric is all about criminals, “really bad dudes” as Trump has said many times. The reality is quite different. ICE frequently targets undocumented people living otherwise normal lives, supporting families by working exhausting low-wage jobs. This week, ICE launched a nationwide campaign of raids not on drug dens or underworld hangouts, but on 7-Elevens — 98 stores in 17 states. That brown-skinned girl making your Slushie is the threat Trump wants to protect you from.

Unless some deal is reached — and Trump insists on getting a price for this “concession” — the government is going to start deporting Dreamers in March. (Or at least it was, until a court ordered the administration to keep taking renewal applications. “These allegations raise a plausible inference that racial animus towards Mexicans and Latinos was a motivating factor in the decision to end DACA,” the judge wrote. The administration is obeying the order while it seeks to reverse it on appeal.) There is nothing criminal about Dreamers; the decision ignore the legal immigration process was their parents’, and a felony or significant misdemeanor would make them ineligible. They are no threat to national security or public order. The only reason to expel them is that Americans don’t want them. Or at least some Americans don’t.

We can only hope that Trump’s recent comment about “shithole countries” will shift the immigration debate onto the fundamental issue that is really at its core: Is America a set of ideals that anyone can adopt, or is it an ethnic tribe you need to be born into? Is it about a democratic form of government pledged to defend individual rights? Or is it about being white, speaking English, and loving Jesus?

Because what Trump was questioning at the time were plans for legal immigration from Africa, from Haiti, and from El Salvador. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here? … Why do we need more Haitians?” He then asked why we couldn’t have more immigrants from countries like Norway instead. [1]

It’s not that we have no room left for immigrants, it’s that they’re wrong color. They don’t fit the “ideal American” stereotype many of us carry around in our heads. They make white English-speaking Christians feel like they’re losing their country.

That’s the real issue. It’s the issue Trump’s immigration policy is based on, why his base stands by him. It’s an issue we need to debate, without getting distracted by the red-herring issues of documentation.

[1] In general, people don’t leave their home countries if life is going well there. That applies to most white Americans also. (Consider, for example, the Irish Potato Famine or the pogroms that brought many Eastern European Jews to this country.) It’s also the answer to Trump’s question about bringing in more Norwegians: Life is good in Norway, so few of them want to come here.

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  • Larry Benjamin  On January 15, 2018 at 11:14 am

    One benefit of Trump’s “shithole” comment is that it is forcing the debate about the fundamental nature of immigration to take place. What’s disheartening isn’t Trump’s comment – we’ve come to expect this kind of thing from him – but the number of his followers falling all over themselves to defend him by saying that those are “shithole” countries, and how wonderful it is that Trump had the guts to describe them accurately.

    • weeklysift  On January 18, 2018 at 6:40 am

      A lot of the same people will proudly tell you how their grandparents came to this country with nothing.

      • Larry Benjamin  On January 18, 2018 at 8:58 am

        Definitely. I’ve had several people say “what’s the big deal? My grandparents came here from a shithole country, too.” The answer to that is that if people like you had been in charge back then, they wouldn’t have allowed your grandparents in, so you’d be living in that same shithole right now.

        Of course, this comes from the mindset that every country in Latin America, Asia, and Africa is a shithole, while Europe is a cesspool of liberal socialists who can’t wait to commit collective suicide by letting in as many denizens of shithole countries as possible.

      • weeklysift  On January 19, 2018 at 9:03 am

        It drives me nuts to hear Italian-Americans talk about the immigrant crime problem. I’m old enough to remember when the exact same language was used against them. La Cosa Nostra was the M-13 of the 1950s and 60s.

  • cgordon  On January 15, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    I love this statistic (from International Living’s top ranked country for US citizens to retire): “One 2015 study from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography reveals that a stunning 91.2 percent of Americans in the country don’t have their papers in order.”

  • kohsamuipete  On January 15, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    Excellent post. But I sigh in despair because, while honest debate is exactly whet should be happening, the narrower point of view seems unwilling/unable to come to the table with compelling, fact-based arguments for keeping the base as narrow as it is currently. As one who has lived in a different culture with people of a different race, this is sad. They don’t know or understand the facts of the universality of the human condition, and probably never will. But we shouldn’t give up trying to help them see and not feel threatened by what they simply don’t understand, I guess…

  • Nancy F Browning  On January 15, 2018 at 10:29 pm

    Great post! Something you might want to consider/mention is the large number of people from Latin America, Central America, etc. who were “forced” out of their nations by policies and dictators that the U.S. supported. I just watched “Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America.” I strongly recommend it.

    • weeklysift  On January 18, 2018 at 6:35 am

      On the Right, this kind of thinking is dismissed as “apologizing for America”. Precisely what it means to be a superpower, I guess, is that you can push the consequences of your actions off on somebody else.

  • Ron Terven Jr  On April 9, 2018 at 10:30 pm

    The Democratic road is a bunch of cowards can’t handle the truth immigration is fine as long as they go through the proper channels do we need to have some changes in our immigration how it’s done absolutely illegals is a huge burden on this country and its economy

    • kohsamuipete  On April 10, 2018 at 11:06 am

      There is no question about the need for impartial, comprehensive immigration reform, but, aside from any increased costs of manpower to handle immigration issues, I think the numbers show that illegals, while not able to realize much from their “investments”, contribute in taxes wa-a-a-ay more than they cost…

  • Hanover Law  On August 30, 2018 at 4:48 am

    Donald Trump has made some unwise decisions about immigrants. Separation of families is on top of the list. No one should ever face that and if an immigrant is legal, working on a job, he must be able to stay where he/she is.


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