Reflections on Immigration Policy

Before I begin discussing my thoughts and perspective on this issue I want to admit that I have certain biases on the issue. I was raised in a relatively liberal, upper-Midwest household and therefore have not experienced living in a Southern, conservative border state. Additionally I lived for more than two years in a Central American country and got to know many incredible people who have not had the opportunities that I, as a U.S. citizen, have had and who depend on remittances from family members in the U.S. to live decent lives. These personal experiences make me more interested in pursuing justice and compassion for immigrants here, especially those in the precarious legal situation of someone who has no legal documents. That being said, I am putting my thought and opinions in the public domain in order to have them challenged and to hear different opinions, so please help me identify my biases by sharing your perspective, if you feel inclined. I’ll start by talking about what I see as the moral foundations of the debate, then move on to the practical considerations before describing the broad outlines of what I consider the most reasonable approach to immigration policy.

 First I want to clear up one seemingly minor point: There are no illegal people, only people who are in a place illegally. This is an important distinction to preserve because it reminds us that all people deserve dignity and to not be defined by a single, relatively arbitrary characteristic. Language affects in subtle and important ways how we perceive others and we should be careful of how we use it. By calling a person an ‘illegal’ or an ‘illegal alien’ we betray a serious moral judgment, while more neutral language simply describes the condition without judgment. I understand the convenience of using non-PC language, but laziness is not an excuse for injustice, no matter how small. Using the logic proposed by those who label people as illegal because they have broken a law would lead to every driver being referred to as an illegal driver and indeed virtually every person over the age of 15 as illegal in some capacity or another. I will refer to ‘illegal immigrants’ using the more accurate and respectful term ‘undocumented immigrants’ in this post.

There is no moral case that I’m aware of that argues persuasively that someone doesn’t deserve the opportunities available in the United States. Unless you claim that the current distribution of people and resources, as determined by chance and luck (or divine plan), is what should be upheld and that maintaining the current geographic and economic distribution is somehow a morally desirable undertaking, you must concede that condemning those who happen to be born in one place to stay there and not improve their conditions is not morally justifiable. As a matter of fact, the US was founded upon the values of liberty and striving that are represented by people uprooting their lives in an idyllic search for self-betterment through hard work and ingenuity.

So if nobody ‘deserves’ to be born in a certain place and the status quo of limiting immigration to the US works against the freedom and liberty of people born in other places, then we are left to look for justifications elsewhere. Pragmatism usually serves this purpose when appeals to morality and liberty don’t support current policies. As I understand it, the concern is that if we allowed anyone who wanted to come to the US to immigrate here the quality of life for the average citizen would rapidly decline, more crime and drugs would flow in, terrorists could easily infiltrate vulnerable locations, social dislocation would end up hurting not only those who were here first but also those who came to escape it in the first place, and finally the stability and security that we have painstakingly constructed over more than 200 years would be plunged into uncertainty as demographic shifts and economic uncertainty undermine stability. These are obviously all extreme claims, but ones that could conceivably come to pass if the US were to throw open wide the borders and allow anyone who wants to to settle legally to do so.

It should be relatively easy to agree to some limitations on the number of people we allow to immigrate, and even on some of the priorities that we have about what kinds of people to let in. We don’t want to let people in who wish to do harm to others, we don’t want to allow people looking to participate in illegal activities, and we would prefer to have productive people here rather than people who use lots of resources without contributing. We can probably also agree that there should be priority for those who are at a high risk of death or persecution for unjust reasons in their own country. We should first allow those in real need, then those who will contribute positively to society, and then lastly all others who wish no harm to others. But how do we decide who falls in which category? How many should be allowed to enter each year? How do we administer that system? How should we enforce the system if the number of immigrants that we approve is, as is inevitable, fewer than the number who want to come here? There will always be people looking to cross the border illegally, so how are we supposed to confront this problem, since we have already agreed that we must have some kind of system of control?

Well, one argument would go something like this: Since we have already agreed that those who are desperate and are looking to be productive members of society should be given preference, then maybe we can agree that those who have risked their lives, sacrificed time with their families, and invested the time and effort required to come here illegally despite the odds, should be allowed to stay if we can make sure that this doesn’t mean that more people will attempt or achieve an illegal crossing. That’s a big ‘if’ that I will discuss in a moment. I also want to point out that we can still deport people who are found to be engaging in illegal activities, but there is no legitimate reason to punish the people who have worked the hardest and given up the most and who only want to better their lives by persecuting them in hiding and then kicking them out when they are found.

The reason that is given by some people for making undocumented immigrants suffer is that if we allow someone who came here illegally to be comfortable, then we are incentivizing all other people who cannot enter legally to cross illegally. Instead we should make life so difficult that they choose to ‘self-deport,’ which may also dissuade other from trying to cross illegally. I don’t find this argument convincing because of my understanding of human psychology. Two faulty assumptions seem to be at work in this argument. One is that people who are desperate enough to brave the dangerous crossing will likely not place much importance upon the distant and uncertain persecution that they hear word of through the grapevine. The short-term costs of leaving are much more powerful and certain than the long-term costs of discomfort. Another tendency is for individuals to consider themselves the exception. Others may have been caught or persecuted, but I will be different. We all do this to some extent, and those who are desperate will likely be even more inclined to imagine that they will be an exception. I doubt that punishing people years after they cross illegally will change anyone’s mind for the same reason that the death penalty does not stop people in the throes of anger or desperation from committing crimes. For these reasons I don’t think trying to decrease the uncertain long-term benefits through persecution of undocumented immigrants is a very effective policy.

A more value-oriented assumption also leads me to dislike the policies that increase fear and uncertainty for people here illegally: I weigh as morally significant the suffering of human beings as a result of anti-immigrant policies designed to try to convince others that they will not enjoy the benefits of living in this country if they cross illegally. Causing human suffering in order to ‘make an example’ of undocumented immigrants and deter future immigration of the same kind is indefensible in my thinking.

The kind of policies that I’m describing would focus on directly deterring those who want to enter illegally while allowing a path to citizenship for those who have come here illegally and who are working to become productive members of society. The argument against this policy, as far as I can tell, would be two-fold. First, the very idea of working on preventing people from coming here illegally and then rewarding those who make it over here seems counterproductive and paradoxical. Second, we would be supporting supposedly unproductive members of society and accepting a destabilizing demographic shift that will have destructive consequences for the country as a whole and especially for the states near the border.

In response to the first part of the argument, I believe that it makes perfect sense to offer high up-front costs and long-run benefits to allow for reasonable treatment of those who are here without significantly increasing the amount of people who try to or succeed in crossing illegally. In fact, we could theoretically lower illegal crossing by shifting resources away from persecuting those already here and spend them combating the underlying causes of illegal immigration (I say ‘theoretically’ because this is the kind of claim that is easy to make but hard to back up. There should be a serious effort to track the effectiveness of any program empirically). In addition to the decrease of illegal immigration that could result from this shift in focus, we tend to ignore the moral responsibility we have for the impulse to immigrate in the first place. We often see the suffering and poverty of our southern neighbors as unrelated to our actions, but if you consider where the drug money comes from and the US’s historic influence in favor of dictatorships you may agree that we are not innocent. An argument can be made for our current drug policies actually increasing the likelihood that people attempt to cross illegally and then punishing them self-righteously once they try to build their lives here.

As to the second objection, I’m not aware of any high costs being imposed on US society due to undocumented immigrants seeing as they do not benefit from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or food stamps. They are certainly free-riding on the benefits of safety, security, and convenience that are available because of police, defense, education, and infrastructure investments, but I would point out two things: First, we can afford to and already do offer these things to people in need. Second, if they are providing inexpensive labor that benefits both us as consumers and them as income-generators(as well as consumers and sales-tax payers), then it is still a win-win situation, especially if we can find innovative and fair ways to give them a path towards being fully contributing taxpayers and actively engaged citizens.

As to the arguments of destabilizing the society, I think they are highly exaggerated. Let’s not forget that we are a country of immigrants and it is hypocritical for us to claim that the next wave will destabilize something that is apparently just fine the way it is. I have no doubt that an influx of immigrants will cause some changes. Different people will be elected, different colors will start showing up in our neighborhoods and on television. Different music may be played on the radio. In fact, it already is changing, but if it’s change that some people are scared of then they should ask themselves two things: why are they frightened of the very thing at the heart of progress, the American character, and capitalism itself? And if it’s not change that they’re afraid of, then what are the real causes of their discomfort? I think that if they are honest they will recognize that they have a good thing here and they don’t want to jeopardize it just to give other people a chance. This is a natural instinct, and it’s not unreasonable from a self-interested perspective, but if you believe in what the Declaration of Independence says, then you must agree that protecting the lucky by holding back the unlucky goes against every fiber of what we stand for.

Now, I’m not an immigration policy expert by any stretch of the imagination. I understand the logic of the argument that this country has laws and they must be applied consistently and fully if we’re to avoid hypocrisy, favoritism, and mixed messages that could arguably lead people to attempt a very dangerous crossing. I do agree that whatever the policy is, it should be clearly-defined, consistently enforced, empirically-based, consistent with American values, and the result of a process of dialogue with all of the parties involved. Still, to claim that the laws as they are written are what we must accept is mistaken and misses the whole point of a democratic system. We the people have the power to change how we govern ourselves, and in my view we should change them to be more just, humane, and more in line with the founding principles of a land of opportunity.

Am I missing some legitimate points in the debate? Have I made unreasonable ones? Tell me! You can comment (respectfully) below or you can email me if you’d like to respond in a longer post. I would be happy to post your response as a separate post.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Elaine Stecker-Kochanski on February 1, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Your comments seem to have preceded and is similar to the plan currently being proposed which I agree with for the most part. I do think that people here illegally benefit from Medicare and Medicaid, if they use health care facilities that accept payment from those programs. It may not be directly, but as part of a process that tries to spread costs to all payors. That would include citizens like your parents who pay specific taxes toward MC and state and federal taxes that pay for Medicaid programs. They also likely pay (now higher probably) premiums toward their own health insurance, and higher payments to health providers who discount care for the uninsured and underinsured. I also think that “free” health clinics that likely help undocumented persons get federal or state monies in various ways. So there are some costs to our currently fragmented health care system.


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