Saturday, June 26, 2010

National sovereignty and immigration: a response

My friend Katlin recently posted an argument in favor of Arizona's new-ish immigration law, as well as a link to Ray Steven's music video on the subject (he's still alive?).

I don't entirely disagree with her. Yet one can listen only to so much NPR (and associate with the highly activist Catholic Church in the southwest as much as I have) before one begins to pay serious attention to complicating factors in this issue.

Yes, a country has a right to enforce its borders. And yes, the United States has taken a gentler hand to border crossers than many countries, including, tellingly, Mexico. Sentimentality is a poor basis for legislation. Those who are in the United States illegally may have their advocates here--but how can they reasonably expect to demand anything for themselves? So far is it goes, error has no rights. Those who push for amnesty do not have solid ground to be shrill or self-righteous. To advocate for amnesty is to advocate for the capitulation of our legal system to serve interests to which nobody has a right.

But leftists are not necessarily the only sentimentalists to speak of, here. I dislike crooning, whether it's crooning over the plight of the poor [your favorite minority here], or crooning over the much threatened "American way of life" (a phrase which is abused when leveraged as a xenophobic bludgeon).

One consistent trend to be drawn, on many issues, is that the right tends to be principle-centered and the left tends to be more pragmatic. In the extremes, the left sometimes threatens to forget important principles (like national sovereignty), and the right threatens to forget the facts on the ground (like the material and historical causes of illegal immigration).

My problem with Ray Stevens is not that he's wrong in the principles his music celebrates, but that he is not tempering them with a healthy consideration of the problems at hand.

  • Illegal immigrants are in a desperate geopolitical/economic situation.
  • Legal immigration is too difficult/costly to achieve.
  • Birthright citizenship creates important human rights problems when dealing with the illegally immigrated parents of US citizens.
At the same time, amnesty is not a desirable option.
  • It sets a precedent that encourages further illegal immigration.
  • It does not address the actual causes of the problem.
  • As a matter of principle, it is an affront to justice for those who are legally inside the country.
So it seems that we need comprehensive immigration reform. The difficulty is that those words have been, fairly or unfairly, entangled with amnesty.

But we still have problems to solve. How will we deal with the American-born children of illegally immigrated parents, without forcibly separating families? How can we bring some sanity and accessibility to legal immigration?

And in the long term (when we are slightly less desperate ourselves), how will we discourage illegal immigration in the first place? It is important here not to pooh-pooh the economic situation in Latin America. The choice to cross illegally is not made lightly and it is not made with delusions of an easy life. In Altar, just south of the border, humanitarian organizations provide basic needs while strongly discouraging border crossing and expelling any myths about the availability of jobs. Problem is, many of the people in Altar aren't Mexicans--they're from South America. You're not going to dissuade someone who walked/hitched to Altar from El Salvador.

And the words "choosing to cross the border" need to be spoken slightly tongue-in-cheek. Certainly, everyone has a sob story. Like I said, I don't like sentimentalism. Yet the Ray Stevens video gives the inaccurate impression that people jump the border expecting to transition to a great life (full of freebies). This is not the case. In many cases, border crossers believe their choice is between assured expiration and uncertain hope. Considerations of whether it is right or wrong to break a law shrink in view of reality. Ultimately, the consequences of spending one's total resources to travel thousands of miles, get caught and prosecuted, become more tolerable than the consequences of staying home.

There is no legal classification for "economic refugees", but one could make a case. In the absence of such a legal classification, however, we should act in view of the facts on the ground.

Which brings me back to the immigration law. Is it wrong? Not really. But is it enough? Not even close.