[The below essay was written in 2006 at a time when there was an effort to unionize cleaning people, virtually all Hispanic, who labored in the office buildings of Boston. There were parades in the street, and a limited (and unsuccessful) outcry from the liberal elements of Boston making broad moral claims on behalf of these presumed immigrant workers. While no one should question their rights — to reasonable status, to reasonable wages, to fair humane treatment — the claims on behalf of this group struck me at the time as out of balance with a reasoned approach; and the debate seemed polarized, neither side listening to the other. The below is posted here, in the midst of the 2016 Presidential race, at a time when immigration is emotionally at the forefront of discourse, and where (even more so than in 2006) neither side is listening to the other. Although I am not sure I agree with some of my arguments (was not even sure then), the lack of logic and the lack of zero-base-evaluating ideas and alternatives which I noted at the time are factors even more predominant in the wholly angry and polarized Clinton-Trump election battle. I swallow my embarrassment for some of what I wrote (and threw into my file) a decade ago, and offer the below.]
It is difficult to get “air time” in liberal Massachusetts to express a reasoned liberal position that is generally opposed to much of the thrust of the “immigrant movement.” The issues to be dealt with are:
I. Why people shut down and don’t listen?
II. If they do listen, why do they not give any weight to logical arguments?
III. What can we learn from fact and reason, setting aside rhetoric and assumed analogy?
IV. Even if one listens and even agrees that the “immigrant movement” is premised on unsupportable emotional appeal, what is the correct, liberal, humane answer to the issues (if any there be)?
I. You Are Not Listening. Typical of the polarization of political thinking, we do not debate. There are several reasons for this:
a. in Massachusetts, liberals are very far to the left of the general US population, to the point of feeling besieged; they form a shell and let everything that they do not reflexively agree with bounce off them, rather than wearily engaging what they perceive as a continuous onslaught of illiberal hogwash.
b. in the land where everyone is entitled to an opinion, we are forgetting that that aphorism was born at a time when a corollary was that you needed facts to back up that opinion; we do not read; the vast majority of Americans do not even read newspapers any more; we rely more and more on the internet which is fundamentally unedited, and where each written “fact” appears on a par with every other (even if it doesn’t happen to be true). People without facts just repeat themselves with ever-increasing stridency; they do not listen.
c. in an interesting study in the power of a word, and in a great injury to our national texture, fundamentalists and conservatives consciously have attempted to make a political philosophy – liberalism – a dirty word. To call someone a liberal is now perceived as painting someone with a broad negative brush, and it is assumed that every thought they have is wrong-minded and un-American. This demonization of what had been for decades the dominant political articulation of the nature of our social contract is the single most powerful invention for political gain even accomplished in our country, excepting perhaps the invention of the gold standard as a convenient proxy for all that the Populists wanted to hate. Demonized groups tend to shut down their receptors; the broadcasts hurt too much.
II. The Anti message is not facially appealing. If you force yourself to listen, what does it seem like you are hearing? It sounds/feels like it is anti-foreign, anti-humane and bigoted. The Anti message on its surface seems to be against all those who liberals want to be FOR: the poorer among us, with no Roth IRAs and 529 Plans; the dark-complected; the foreign with accents and hence presumed inability to negotiate the difficulties of living in the US today; the politically unrepresented, un-lobbied-for, un-PACed. The marches are illustrative: large numbers of short brown people, very very many pushing baby carriages, large numbers of women. Who the heck wants to line up as “against” these, the meek who are to be the inheritors, the tempest-tossed who find themselves on this side of the golden door?
III. The logical analysis.
There is a first step, I suppose, which is: do you even want to apply a logical analysis? It is not too bold a heresy, I suggest, to take the intellectual position that there is so much obvious emotional weight on the side of the “immigrant movement” that one should not quibble with wherever it is logic may take you; certainly granting all demands cannot be imagined to impair the condition of 15,000,000 people, and certainly we believe that being “in” the US system is a huge gift of freedom, power and potential for all peoples and particularly for their bless-ed children, so why pause to entertain negatives that caring people will ultimately and surely brush aside in the final analysis anyway?
And logic is suspect when it runs head-on into so many implicit instinctive suppositions that liberals hold. In addition to the factors noted in the second part of this essay, above, do we as liberals not understand that:
a. we are an entire nation of immigrants; we are ourselves children of immigrants; that is indeed our special genius, why we are “better” ultimately than all other political entities; it is a heresy to oppose immigrants, it is like we are denying our parents AND our children as a nation.
b. these poor, short, brown people are fiercely exploited by American business, and they NEED the protection implicit in the status of US citizen – the group protection that comes from many such citizens voting together—in order to be able to lead decent lives and raise children who are productive people and not welfare parasites with poor teeth and no health insurance. To oppose the Movement is to condemn children to the economic, racial and political hell that we so well recognize as growing out of the residue of such other ill-conceptualized American exercises in political power: the cynically driven economic exploitation of Chinese labor, the economic system we called slavery, the sharecropper and company town systems of economic dependency, the sweat shops and inhuman mills of our industrial revolution.
c. our position in the world will be incredibly weakened if we are seen to be discriminating against our poor, mostly a darker ethnic sub-group.
d. we are not the kind of people who (any more) herd people we do not want or respect into prisons, or deport them or punish them, particularly if they actually are here among us, clean our trash from our offices each night, and have so many children, even children actually born here in the United States.
Who wants to apply logic to make fine line distinctions in the face of these agreed-upon facts? What a narrow-minded exercise that would be, not to mention if conducted by someone who once called himself a liberal!
Let’s try a few simple logical drills for starters. Because perhaps we will be interested in where those drills take us.
First, everyone is a nation of immigrants. Only Oldavai Gorge has true human natives. Everyone else came from somewhere else. Why does the fact that we are a nation of RECENT immigrants carry with it moral consequences? Why should it matter morally that the French, who are thought of as indigenous, came mainly from Norse invasions 1500 years ago while you and I had grandparents who came from a few hundred miles South of the Norseman habitat in Europe and a few hundred years later?
Why, logically, even if it WERE true that we are uniquely a nation of immigrants, are we obligated to favor new immigrants? Forever? Regardless of number? What if in ten years five million Canadians rushed the border and ran a few miles into the US, and what if none of them had jobs or money (or of course health care) and what if they all had TB and pink eye and athlete’s foot? Are they immigrants and therefore okay?
Our earlier immigration was overwhelmingly legal. Think about the US as a country of laws, not men; if ideas and ideals; a superior political compact. Think of the main function of a government as the protection of our nation as it exists. Does it not matter that vast numbers of the new immigrants are here illegally, in violation of the laws of our nation – mine and yours? Certainly this is not a game, is it; “ you should not be here but, gosh, you did slip past the system against our laws and in the dead of night, you have worked here for a few years, you have a kid you should not have going to school and he is pretty cute so – okay, folks, YOU and your family have won the lucky lottery of life and you can stay here in the US regardless of other factors because, after all, everyone loves a winner and – you WIN!”
Is it not anomalous to see thousands of people, here in this country against our laws, marching in our streets (an American legal right) and demanding an American political solution to give them the American rights under law that happen to arise under the same laws they felt fully entitled to ignore in order to get here? Is that just a little twist of fate, a chuckle on the road of life—or, is there not really something fundamentally wrong-minded about it?
Second, these people have jobs we need. The unemployment rate among people who are already here (do they lose status because they are first?) and who are also here legally (do they lose status because they did NOT violate our laws? Or because they are citizens) is enormously high. Now there are many many issues about putting populations to work, a separate and poignant debate not amenable to easy resolutions or pat, politically conservative Draconian answers. But it just must be logically true that the task of ultimately putting legal citizens to work is made harder by the presence of a large cheap pool of exploitable labor. Liberals know too well that the economic marketplace absorbs underpaid, noncomplaining low-level labor more rapidly than higher-paid, politically potent (legally powerful) labor. Can anyone seriously maintain that the presence of more, uncomplaining lowest-paid labor does not deny earlier legal immigrants or citizens jobs, does not depress the wages set by market forces, does not disempower yet another equally worthy group at the bottom of our society? It is just untrue that we need all this labor; we have what is known as”Unemployment.” That comes from more labor than jobs. How subtle is that fact? How mean-spirited to our older oppressed groups, to foster more lower paid labor when the nature of our economy, UNLIKE earlier times when we needed workers and farmers, does NOT need this influx of people? Would it not be better to have a cadre of poor white and black legal Americans cleaning out your office trash can tonight at $17.50 an hour?
You do not aid the poor by creating a large pool of disorganized labor which cannot assert its rights and lacks the ability to sue. The recent strikes to organize the Boston unions that clean the buildings, for example, leave this group of people still the most pitiably underpaid and socially abused part of our population. They walk to work each evening past street corners full of other people with no jobs at all.
The children! What about the children? They surely are blameless. Some were even born here. (If I sneak into Buckingham palace with my wife and we deliver a baby boy, should he not be king? Bad analogy you say—and, I digress.) Whatever the other arguments, what do we do about the children? How can this society turn its back on children? (In this discussion, we wrap ourselves in a flag and do not discuss the Napalm-burned in Viet Nam, the artilleried in Gaza, the bombed in Basra, the shot in Somalia, the malnourished in Mississippi; these children are different, of course, because —-uh——.)(The point is not to advocate harming these children because our government is so casual about harming other children; the point IS to put in context the emotional tugs perceived to bear upon the immigration movement debate.) This factor of course commits the ultimate logical sin of assuming the conclusion, that we are turning these children into refugees, poverty-stricken and without hope.
The now-collapsed compromise bill included the logical counterweight, or sop, of tightening borders. How sportingly American: being a legal American is a game, you got to pass GO so you get yours, but others in the future had darned well better watch out: this time we are passing a law, sort of like the law we have today actually, that you cannot just sneak into the US, but this time we REALLY REALLY REALLY mean it!!!! Wow, there is a tough governmental stance. Of course, morally there likely should not be any distinction, to hear the Immigration Movement argument, between those who come in the future and those who came in the past; once you are here, you are in! Additionally, morally, why is there any difference between those who have arrived here legally OR illegally, on the one hand, and those who in the future simply WANT to come here to live? Are they not similarly morally entitled? IS the difference that some sneaked in in 2005, and others will sneak in in 2007? What IS our policy, if we are entitled to have one, on national immigration? The answer is, we are entitled to and in need of a policy, tomorrow and today, in order to protect the social and economic fabric of our country, and that policy should be enforced tomorrow and it should be enforced today. Because it is the obligation of intelligent government to identify levels of immigration, and immigration needs for our country, and to factor in a world-wide function to serve as a partial safety valve for people truly at risk politically, and to enforce that policy. It is not logical, nor I submit conscionable, to give current illegal immigrants a pass and pledge at the same time to shoot the next wave of immigrants at our border crossings so it won’t happen again.
IV. So what to do?
The difficulty in answering that question is at the core of sloppy thinking. Even if a liberal is to believe some, let alone much, of what has been said above, what should be done as a practical matter? It looks like 7 people out of every hundred, physically within our borders, is an illegal immigrant. Is that correct? If it is anywhere near correct, do we even have the physical capacity to deal with a policy of enforcing the current law against all these people? Do we have the will power to sort out families, individuals, deal with figuring out whether mom and dad go back to Haiti and Pierre (born in Pittsburgh) gets to stay here (with whom?). Do we have the courage, and is it wise to have the courage, to ship Pierre to Port-au-Prince (let’s say he is in Junior High, is getting As and can already slam-dunk, if you want to draw the hard picture)?
Not problems one wants to tackle. And beware adopting a law that you cannot enforce. Or do not have the lack of sensibility to enforce.
I submit not even Congress, at least in public, is discussing a principled, logical and morally defensible program to break this almost inconceivably complex conundrum. But one thing ought to be clear: the insistence of people illegally here to be categorically given a pass is illogical, immoral, inconsistent with any definition of governance, and not in the best overall interest of the largest number of American citizens.
Rather than glibly decree the answer, let me just suggest things to think about. But we should not conclude that the Immigration Movement has the right answer just because we recognize the problem as complex and not easily solvable. It is very American to see a problem, want to solve it promptly, and then move on to the next problem to be solved, all on our merry march to the West Coast, to the Moon, to world hegemony; it is that characteristic, one likes to think, that makes American into the kind of people who actually DO all the things we do when others only sit aside and say tsk-tsk. It is important here not to throw up hands over complexity, or because answers are textured and subtle.
Where do people come from? What sort of country? Political repression? Physical risk?
Do they have children? People now too old to move?
What is the role, in today’s society, of the fact that someone was actually born on US soil. Does it matter? How much?
What will the countries who own these people pay us to help solve this problem (they are their people). Reimburse us for our historical costs, or our current costs to sort out and ship people?
Should geography matter? Where do we need labor, if anywhere? Should we offer all people, legal immigrants (even citizens) first shot at those opportunities but, if not taken, offer an illegal immigrant a deal of citizenship in exchange for moving/training? (or does successfully sneaking through mean you not only get to be legal, but you get to choose your location, even if that choice is harmful to extant society?)
What skills do people have? Can we train legal immigrants or citizens to do these things, or not? What if we raised the minimum wage first? What if we raised it only for legals?
Most immigrants are from South America. Is there a hemispheric fix? What do our neighbors think?
Is there a different status for these people that recognizes their geography and certain basic rights, but not others? Such as to vote? Such as to have equal access to jobs? Why DOES someone who is illegal have to have the same full rights of others? Can we be humane but have graded rights?
What should our borders look like? What IS a secure border? (How many jobs do you create if you put people along our borders, and upgrade our governmental processes and computers? Are these bad jobs to create? Badder than shooting Iraqis? What IS the proper liberal agenda for our government’s deliverables?)
Money. If you are illegal and rich, should that mean you should stay because you are our kind of people? That you must go, because you can afford it and you will not starve? That you can stay if you pay us (let’s put the money in a fund for poor people—poor illegals? Or, poor legals [called citizens], maybe those living in areas with many illegals and high citizen unemployment?).
Principles: what ARE our principles? Should government not proceed by articulating on the ground our social principles – what Rousseau called our social contract? We lose the process of thinking this way – logically, intelligently, and NOT necessarily inhumanely either—when we lose the ability to have a true communicative debate. We are at such a moment in our national history. Are we capable of recovering a modicum of “society” in the classic sense, and also a touch of logic? Or are we cursed to observe the buzz-words and preconceptions of our moment in time – Massachusetts liberals sticking with our knee-jerk judgments and proud of our unwillingness to consider what is possible, or smart to do, in the broader world?