A Few Thoughts on Immigration


On this blog, I rarely write on political issues (in the usual sense of the phrase). As soon as I start to say something, I start to see more sides, realize how little I know, and delete or postpone the post. I am usually somewhere on the liberal side of moderate (or vice versa). There are issues where my views are clear-cut: for instance, I support same-sex marriage (and marriage generally, while also acknowledging the possibility of an unmarried life); international cultural exchange; the arts in schools, public institutions, and beyond; and religious freedom, including the freedom to have no religion at all (though I am wary of religious extremism). But elsewhere I see many complexities and would rather take time to think things through. So this is a reluctant and imperfect attempt at saying something.

I am dismayed at the Trump administration’s actions and attitudes toward immigrants: its decision to hold children in detention camps, its upcoming raid (scheduled for today) on undocumented immigrants, and its attitudes of indifference and scorn toward the immigrants themselves. Not everyone in his administration shares Trump’s views; I respect Kevin McAleenan, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, for speaking up on various occasions. I imagine that many others in the field are doing their best. But the overall policy needs an overhaul.

What should happen instead? The U.S. should welcome immigrants while setting necessary limits. There should be a clear immigration policy. Those seeking entry should be given information on their options and rights. Children should not be separated from parents; no one should have to spend days, weeks, or months in a detention center. There should still be a distinction between legal and illegal immigration, but the U.S. should give legal status to as many people as possible and treat everyone with dignity and clarity.

For any of this to happen, the U.S. must stop condoning or ignoring its underground labor market. Millions of people–with legal and illegal status–work unofficially under dismal conditions, for wages far below the legal minimum: domestic workers, construction workers, agricultural workers, salon workers, sex workers, and others. Slave labor, or something close to it, still runs rampant. Illegal businesses should be treated, to varying degrees, as criminal operations; the owners should be tried in court, and the workers should be given other options.

Immigrants, too, have responsibilities and commitments: to learn about the country in which they seek to live, to learn its primary language, to learn and follow its laws, and to contribute to its economic and civic life. Many immigrants take up the learning with vigor. But it comes with a sacrifice; every immigrant must decide how much to retain of the former culture and language. Immigrants should have a chance to choose among several levels of commitment, each with its corresponding privileges. There should be a path, through several stages, to citizenship.

For various reasons, the U.S. has about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. The overwhelming majority has been in the country for a decade or longer. This is due partly to the underground economy, partly to the bureaucratic difficulty of keeping up with each individual (many of whom have overstayed their visas), and partly to the U.S.’s reluctance to grant immigration amnesty. I support some kind of amnesty, though I recognize the difficulty of agreeing on a specific plan.

In general, immigrants have enriched the U.S. over time and continue to do so in new ways. They bring their experiences, languages, cultures, dedication, desire to work, desire for freedom, and love of the new land. Not all immigrants are benevolent–some belong to gangs, drug rings, extremist groups, etc.–but this is separate from the issue of immigration overall. The U.S. should crack down on destructive activity of this kind without equating it with immigrants.

Any policy involves and arises from difficult decisions. The New York Times Editorial Board writes (in a trenchant opinion essay), “Whichever Democrat ends up challenging Mr. Trump for the presidency would be right to call for fundamental change from the cruelties of the current administration. But as long as America wants to have secure borders, immigration will present painful trade-offs for any president. Some people will get in, others will be kept out, still others will be compelled to leave. Any meaningful effort to reform the country’s degrading approach to migrants will fall apart if it pretends a president can simply ignore such choices. ”

Questions of immigration matter to me for many reasons: my ancestors came to the U.S. in an era of relative openness and welcome; I live and work in Hungary (and hope to stay for a long time); most of my students in the U.S. were immigrants or children of immigrants; and I believe that people should be able to seek work, asylum, or freedom outside their country of origin. In addition, I recognize that many people today are driven by desperation at home: extreme violence, poverty, catastrophe. We should recognize the severity of these problems.

An immigration policy can be clear, humane, generous, feasible, and strong. This is no easy feat, but it is worth every bit of doubt and sweat.

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

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