With Congress attempting to come to grips with immigration reform, and highly visible protests and counterprotests taking place around the country, immigration is a subject that has pushed it's way to the forefront of the public consciousness in the last month or two. I think it's a bit like the age 60 issue: both sides have some good arguments, but neither side is entirely correct. I think the best solution would probably make both sides upset. Unlike the mostly civilized debate over the age 60 issue, debate over immigration tends to draw out some unsavory characters and dark prejudices that end up unfairly tainting the "good guys" in the debate.
My own position could be summed up as the following: I am pro-immigration. I think it's the lifeblood of this country, one of the things that make it great. I do believe, however, that there is a limit to how much immigration the country can absorb and still make it work. I believe that the country has a right and a responsibility to enforce it's borders. I don't think of illegal immigrants as criminals, although I think that their illegality creates a submerged culture that allows criminal elements to thrive. In short, I think that the US should make legal immigration much easier, with realistic procedures and quotas, while securing our borders and cutting down illegal immigration to a manageable rate, while at the same time looking hard at some of the issues that create a need for illegal immigration. It's not a position that fits well onto a protest sign, but is just right for an off-topic blog post [grin].
I think that the majority of Americans are generally pro-immigration. Most of us can easily trace our family trees to where we came across from "the old country." My dad's family, for example, is comprised of ethnic Germans that immigrated from the Ukraine in the late 1800s, settling near Napolean, ND. Right now I'm learning to speak German, partly because Dawn and I are visiting German-speaking areas of Europe this summer, but also as a way to connect to my heritage and understand where I came from. The descendents of Italian and Irish immigrants not only continue to celebrate their roots, but these celebrations have also permeated the larger American culture. It is in this context that most Americans realize the value of immigration to our country, and welcome new arrivals with open arms.
There is an anti-immigration movement in this country, although considerably smaller than in most other parts of the world. Some believe our country is too crowded already; others fear that immigrants will take "American jobs." Some are simply racist, whether it's conscious or unconscious. The racist element has tainted the entire immigration debate, to the point that anyone who opposes immigration is accused of racism. For that matter, the charge is often made against people like myself who are pro-immigration but leery of a laissez-faire border policy.
Right-wingers also sometimes make characterizations that amount to "guilt by association." Because many of the rallies of the last month have been organized by suspect organizations such as Communist-front International A.N.S.W.E.R., commentators may assume that the participants share the same radical ideology. Yet for every person chanting Marxist or Reconquistadora gibberish through the bullhorn, for every person screaming their demands at the American people, there are many more who are simply saying: "We're here for a better life, don't forget about us, we want to join you as American citizens."
I have a lot of sympathy for illegal immigrants, the majority of which come from Mexico. They are often the poorest citizens of that country, with little hope for them there. There is opportunity in their prosperous neighbor to the north, but the obstacles to legal immigration are almost insurmountable to a person of limited means. So they take the best route for them: they slip across the lightly guarded border. Does this make them criminals? They've broken the law, but they're not the same as thiefs or assailants. All the same, the fact of their illegality means that we have a huge subculture that is laying low, below the radar-scope of the law - and criminal and dangerous elements thrive in that environment. Consider, for example, that several of the 9/11 hijackers procured false I.D. through a criminal network that forged identification for mostly innocent illegal immigrants. You can see why most Americans, even many who support immigration in general, disapprove of illegal immigration.
But like it or not, millions of illegal immigrants are in this country. What is the solution? A mass amnesty? It seems as though this would encourage future illegal immigration, as happened after the 1986 amnesty. Step up enforcement and deportations? It would guarantee a lot of animosity from the immigrant community and drive it futher underground, again catering to the criminal elements that survive there and exploit the community. President Bush's guest worker proposal is an attempt to forge some middle ground, but I think our goal should be to assimilate our immigrants and turn them into U.S. citizens.
Assimilation is really at the core of this debate. A strong assimilation policy allowed the US to absorb large numbers of immigrants throughout the 1800s. Modern-day multiculturalists will argue that assimilation is a racist and inhumane concept that insists upon the stripping of one's identity to replace it with that of a foreign country. I would argue that assimilation is not about losing your identity, but retaining important elements of your roots while adding the culture of your new country, forming something new and wonderful. Assimilation is not a one way street: a country incorporates its immigrants' roots into its own culture. It takes time, and it takes a conscious decision to welcome immigrants and then incorporate them into your country, teaching them about its history, its values and mores, and yes, its common language.
One can see the consequences of failure to assimilate in Europe. In the 1960's, several European countries were suffering a manpower shortage so they opened their borders to a flood of immigration, often from former colonies. These new arrivals never really integrated into their host countries. They often lived in huge ghettos on the outskirts of large cities, with cultures that resembled rather little those of the host countries. They were never really accepted by the natives of their new countries, and often suffered discrimination and poor treatment, furthering their sense of alienation. When European economies stagnated, these immigrant communities were particularly hard hit. Among young Frenchmen of North African descent, for example, unemployment is currently over 40%. Is it any wonder that radical Islamism has taken a hold in the ghettos of Paris and Frankfurt and Hamburg and Manchester? Or that the unemployed sons and grandchildren of immigrants exploded in rage in the cities of France last year? Immigration itself was not to blame. The failure of the various countries to integrate new immigrants into their society was the problem.
In order to have a successful immigration program, one that produces assimilated and productive U.S. citizens, we need to be able to control the flow - legal and illegal. Ultimately, that means getting control over our borders. This needs to be the first step in any attempt at reform. Personally, I wish we didn't have to do it. A fenced and fortified border seems to carry the symbolism of a fearful, suspicious, and insular America - and I'm sure that's how it will play overseas. But if we're going to make life better for all our immigrants, we need to control the channels through which they arrive here. That means securing the border to the point that illegal immigration is a manageable trickle.
Secondly, we should turn our attention to the immigrants currently here, both legal and illegal. While I'm against a general amnesty, we should make it much easier for illegal immigrants to become documented. The law and order types will no matter grouse about rewarding their breaking of the law, but at this point the only real alternative is continued mass lawbreaking. Perhaps the sort of guest worker program that Bush proposed would be suitable if the borders were secured to prevent massive illegal immigration to take advantage of it, and if it was part of a comprehensive assimilation program that leads all immigrants towards citizenship.
Once we have reduced illegal immigration and are helping our current undocumented residents become legal residents and citizens, then we need to reform the system for those outside the country who want to come here. Right now it's a ridiculously lengthy and expensive process. For any hope of success, you need the money to hire an immigration lawyer, and preferably already have family here. That needs to change. We can put controls in place to reduce harmful effects of immigration - for example, those who are willing to settle in less-populous areas should jump to the head of the line. Depopulation is a concern throughout the prarie states; immigration provides a solution. And once here, there should be an apparatus in place to help our new immigrants assimilate. With these reforms made, our country can support greater levels of legal immigration than are currently allowed, and this would reduce the need for illegal immigration.
Finally, the root causes of illegal immigration need to be looked at. Primary is a poverty-striken, dysfunctional, and corrupt Mexico on our southern border. Mexico needs reform in its government, institutions, and economy. The US government needs to put pressure on Mexico to make these reforms. Trade and foreign aid can serve as both carrots and sticks. Incidently, the drug trade is a major force in keeping Mexico dysfunctional; increased border vigilance will have a strong effect on this. It will also have the side benefit of increasing homeland security.
Overall I think this is a common-sense, reasonable way of looking at the immigration issue. So, anybody wanna put together a rally for effective and fair immigration reform? Somehow I think I might have trouble coming up with a good bullhorn chant from this post....