This is the ninth essay in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.
Immigrants are perfect targets. The foreigner seeking opportunity, refuge, or escape ignites our fear of the ‘other’ quick as dried newsprint. He’s equally cheap and abundant. He will steal our jobs; she will corrupt our culture; they will take what is rightfully ours. Politicians suffer no fallout for beating on them; they cannot vote. Employers risk no retribution for abusing them; they cannot complain.
Virtually all of us were immigrants. Our family stories include forebears who risked all to come to this new land. This shared experience ought to foster empathy for the immigrant. Instead it fuels our disdain. Poverty, persecution, and need create immigrants. We may be grateful that our grandparents and great grandparents took risks to deliver us to the promise of America. But for all we cherish our collective nation-of-immigrants tale, we don’t much like immigrants in the here and now. They are too close reminders of our own vulnerability.
Immigration is more complicated than most other challenges we face: because immigrants are so easily abused; because our own prejudices are so strong; because their motivations are too complex to be addressed in 140, or even 280 characters. Unlike the broad concepts that capture other aspects of achieving A Soft Landing (a new Constitution, universal income, universal service), how we ought to assess and welcome immigrants (or not) cannot be distilled into a single phrase. Nevertheless, it can be synthesized into a spectrum of attitudes and actions that we will need to undertake if we seek a balanced approach to immigration. I am hesitant to label it a list, as each idea builds upon, and reinforces, the others. Cumulatively, they provide a framework that can lead to more rational immigration policies. Perfectly fair and just: probably not. But striving in that direction.
One: Immigrants are individuals, not a collective threat. When we aggregate immigrants and describe them as a force, we make it easier to stoke fear against them. This benefits politicians, but obfuscates reason. Truth is, it would be difficult to find any defined group with less ‘collective’ identity or organizational structure than immigrants. Their histories span every segment of every culture. They hold nothing in common save hope.
Two: Enforce existing immigration laws with respect. Our borders should not be open to anyone who wants to cross. However, if someone arrives seeking asylum, they are entitled to a fair hearing and timely resolution, and we should allocate the necessary resources to enable that.
Three: Revise immigration laws to reflect national and humane priorities. Our patchwork of green card lotteries, H-visas, J-visas, and selective raids against undocumented immigrants is a complicated labyrinth that keeps immigrants in a limbo of harassment. The number of people admitted by lottery fluctuates so much. Sponsored individuals granted work-dependent visas are strung along for ten, sometimes twenty, years before determining permanent residency. We reveal and deport undocumented immigrants in arbitrary raids. All of this confusion and delay further politicizes immigration; fosters continuous anxiety among immigrants, and foments fear in the rest of us.
Four: Eliminate opportunities for undocumented workers. At present, everyone benefits (in the short term) from undocumented workers. Employers get cheap labor; consumers get artificially low prices. Everyone, that is, except undocumented workers. They toil for low wages; they make few demands. A person living in shadow has no voice, no power, no agency. If we enforced labor laws against employers who hire undocumented workers; fine them, jail them even, opportunities for undocumented workers would evaporate as would their incentive to come here. Unfortunately, the undocumented themselves cannot realize this change. It is up to us, all of us, who benefit from the current patterns to take ethically correct action.
Five: Institute a guest work program. This may seem a big new idea, thought it is actually an old one. Our society, our economy cannot function without the labor currently performed by undocumented workers. Even with wage and benefit increases, American citizens are unlikely to pick our crops, process our meat, mow our lawns, and clean our houses. We need a guest worker program to enable citizens of other countries to come here to work, in the light, with specified rights, baseline economic and civil protections, and a clear, albeit long-term path to citizenship.
Six: Support justice and opportunity in everyone’s native land. Although we need to improve how we intercept, process, and accommodate people who arrive at our borders seeking asylum, our ultimate goal should be a world where justice and opportunity is distributed so evenly that people are not compelled to flee. We are so far from this fantasy. In fact, we are careening in the opposite direction. Human action: political upheaval, lack of economic opportunity, and violence against oppressed groups all contribute to more refugees, more immigrants, every year. As environmental dislocation accelerates, the number of people who must relocate simply to sustain life, the number of nomads, will only increase.
As long as we live on a planet divvied up into independent nation-states, each propping up different systems of inequity, the number of immigrants across the globe will continue increase. How we will address this unprecedented migration is a daunting challenge. But if we wish to do it with dignity and respect, we must stop treating immigration as a political footfall and accept it as the ultimate test of our humanity. We have to begin treating others, as we want to be treated ourselves.