January 28, 2011

Planning for the long term

Reframing the immigration issue is key to solving it objectively

Of all the words I could have chosen to stand alone and unadorned at the beginning of this column, I have no doubt that “immigration” is one of the most awkward-looking. The word itself evinces a sort of movement, begging for an end point. Immigration reform. Immigration debate. (The) Immigration problem. Immigrant rights. Immigrant—I think you can fill in the blanks from here.

And its lexical shift from an objective, tangible noun to an ethereal and innately biased adjective, a qualifier, doesn’t go unnoticed. The debate, the problem, the attempts at reform, almost everything surrounding “immigration” inevitably elicits passionate emotional responses, evoking and challenging many of the most profound of our “self-evident” truths.

How far has the shift gone? If people tell you today they don’t have an opinion on immigration, that they prefer to think of it in concrete terms as an objective phenomenon, they’re probably either lying or suffering from a particularly acute case of political apathy.

Even still, if I were to tell you about what I really think about immigration, I am willing to bet that it is very nearly identical to what you think, and that any real differences in our opinions lie merely in the details.

I am a member of the Emerging Minds Project, a nascent student cohort sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs aimed at inspiring critical engagement with contentious social issues. When we convened last Thursday to cover the topic of immigration, I went with the expectation that our disparate backgrounds would quickly lead us into a heated debate. Instead, we came to a consensus within the first few minutes of our discussion and decided the following:

Immigration, at least in America, cannot be unbounded. Any number of arguments on grounds of stability or political efficiency could convince you of this. And yet, given what America’s astoundingly effective political and economic structures have to offer to immigrants, and given in turn what these immigrants can contribute to America, immigration should, and perhaps must, continue in some form.

I think it’s reasonable to say that we weren’t the only ones sharing these views.

One might look at this debate and determine that any real differences in opinion must hinge on such innocuous quantitative questions as, “Where exactly does the happy medium reside?” After all, on one hand, American citizens (correctly) bemoan the short-term social and structural upheavals that immigration causes, while immigrants on the other hand (also correctly) contend that they don’t want to be denied the opportunity here when no one really suffers as a consequence, particularly in the long run.

That’s it then, right? There’s only one question at work here, namely, “Whose interests matter most?”

It’s an unsettling way to phrase the issue. Bad politics. We seem to know instinctively that the instant in which political discourse strays into questions of protecting those personal interests over these, mine over yours, something has gone horribly awry. And indeed something has.

We’ve lost sight of America in our analysis. America shouldn’t be primarily a mediator between our private interests. Indeed, it should be all but blind to these in most cases. To the eyes of my country, I am nothing more than a shell containing a precious kernel of human life and a handful of rights added for good measure.

And I wouldn’t have it otherwise. There’s a trade-off here: I submit to being a mere variable, a number as a citizen, because I acknowledge that doing so best enables the state to protect that kernel of life within me and the basic rights it entails. After all, how could I realistically expect to live under a just, effective government if it is clogged with endless (arbitrary) considerations of its citizens’ often disparate private desires?

Here then is the source of the real rift generating the tremors of the immigration debate: How much humanity are we willing to sacrifice today in order to foster a healthy, sustainable, and just immigration policy, and thus a sound America in the future?

Let me try to rephrase this: I spoke above about the (fallacious) spatial dichotomy around which the immigration question is typically framed. Inside versus outside. These people here and not those people there. In reality, the divide is—or at least should be—temporal in nature. Our government still exists “for the people” in the end, but we need some way of ensuring that this ‘people’ includes future citizens and generations as well and not only us. Real progress might require distributing the sacrifice in a way that is uncomfortable for people living today.

An America with a just and effective immigration policy can be more than just a nebulous, unattainable dream. But to move beyond the suffering and disillusionment caused by our current state of affairs, we have to be willing to step out of our skin and ask the cold, rational question of how best to pursue justice and efficacy over the long term, and only then factor in the necessary apolitical, here-and-now human considerations. And in moderation at that.

The hard truth: The more we approach immigration from a strictly humanitarian perspective and the more we let ideas of suffering—be it ours or theirs—contaminate our approach to improving the situation, the more we are reaffirming the injustice and inefficiencies built into the present system, and thus the more this suffering will be an ever-present reality.

Tyler Lutz is a second-year in the College.