Finding Common Ground on Immigration


By Justin Naylor

As I write this, President Trump has recently declared a national emergency in order to increase funding, beyond what Congress has already approved, for extending a physical barrier at the Southern border.

I share the concerns of many conservatives (and liberals) that the declaration sets a dangerous precedent. It gives the President access to billions of dollars to pursue perceived threats in ways with which the majority in Congress disagree, and which Congress has not approved. As conservatives have pointed out, a future liberal president now has a precedent to declare a national emergency to deal with gun violence, climate change, or income inequality absent an obvious crisis.

But I’m equally concerned that the immigration debate has been, in many ways, a debate over nothing. It’s the best example of a public debate in which our actual policy differences, which on this issue are really comparatively minor, have been blown completely out of proportion. They are amplified by media which thrives on conflict, deepened by politicians thinking mainly of their own personal futures, and perpetuated by our own inability to communicate accurately and effectively. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I really think the vast majority of Americans are on the same page about illegal immigration: that illegal immigration is a real problem that must be addressed, but that it must be addressed in a realistic and humane way. I think there are two main problems, one blue and one red, which have obscured this basic agreement, and made it seem like we’re further apart than we really are.

Those who lean blue have helped to degrade the debate by being reluctant to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. This drives reds crazy, because conflating the two makes it impossible to come to accurate disagreement. When President Trump says something inflammatory about illegal immigrants, blues tend to reply by pointing out how valuable immigrants in general have been to our country, and how our country was founded on immigration.

When discussing immigration, blues even tend to avoid using the term “illegal” at all, preferring the less-judgmental “undocumented.” But to reds, the term “undocumented” seems like a sort of exercise in ‘newspeak,’ where the politically unthinkable or ridiculous is made acceptable, neutral, and mainstream simply by being given a new name without old baggage. Nothing is “bad;” it is simply “ungood.”’

This reluctance by blues to call illegal immigration what it is sends up red flags for reds. It seems to them as if progressives don’t want to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants at all. As a result, prominent voices on the right have caricatured the progressive view as advocating for “open borders.” This, of course, isn’t accurate- only a tiny minority of progressives would argue for true open borders. But blues’ reluctance to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration has given reds fuel for this inaccurate stereotype.

Of course, progressives’ reluctance is driven by their unwillingness to dehumanize or demonize illegal immigrants, who are still human beings, with what they see as judgmental labels. Blues know that illegal border crossing is a crime, but they tend to avoid lumping illegal immigrants with other criminals like murderers and bank robbers, for entirely understandable reasons. Blues have great empathy for those looking for a better life, and they rightly see that language can dehumanize and change how we think about someone.

Still, blues’ reluctance to make a clear and unmistakable distinction between legal and illegal immigration contributes significantly to the poor quality of our conversation.

Those who lean red have degraded the debate by offering impractical and rigid solutions and by coming off too often as uncaring at best, and racist at worst.

Before the political rise of Donald Trump, one of our great national controversies was the question of what to do with the illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. As of 2016, there were about ten million illegal immigrants in America- around 3% of the total population. The idea that all ten million would voluntarily leave the U.S., or be forcibly rounded up and deported, was always impractical. It also seems inhumane to many. These illegal immigrants are ten million human beings, some of whom have lived in and contributed to the United States for decades.

Donald Trump, of course, has made things worse by not merely criticizing the crime of illegal immigration, but simultaneously defaming the character and value of illegal and legal immigrants alike, particularly those from Central America. I have no real way of knowing if Donald Trump harbors racism in his heart, and I tend to think not. But I do know that describing many illegal immigrants as murders and rapists opens the door to that criticism. If blue citizens have too often failed to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, red citizens have too often failed to distinguish between illegal and legal immigrants, defaming both with a subtlety that sometimes looks more than a little racist.

But if we turn our ears away from the loudest and most extreme voices, the way forward seems pretty clear, and it’s a path that I think would enjoy wide bipartisan support. Although there are many details about immigration which don’t enjoy wide-spread agreement, I would humbly suggest that the following principles would have broad bipartisan support if and when our leaders can come to an agreement.

First, most Americans support efforts to bolster border security in whatever ways the experts deem most effective. Most experts argue that a physical barrier is not the most effective way to do this, and that it shouldn’t be the central focus of our approach. On the other hand, extending a physical barrier over more sections of the border wouldn’t hurt, and many people want it, so it should be included as a component. Despite recent rhetoric from some, border fencing enjoyed bi-partisan support as recently as 2006. To now refer to such fencing as “immoral” looks merely political and partisan. We ought to let the border security experts take the lead on recommending how best to secure the border, whatever forms that would take.

Another area of broad agreement I think is the need for a practical solution for ‘Dreamers,’ those brought to America illegally as children, as well as for those who have been in America for a significant amount of time and have contributed to our nation.” While I have sympathy with the instinct that there should be justice for those who break our immigration laws, there is literally no practical way to do so on a mass scale. A tough-to-swallow but necessary compromise would be allowing illegal immigrants to come forward and register themselves, pay a fine, and gain legal status. This would also provide solid moral footing for subsequent efforts to enforce the law and deport those who refuse to come forward when given the opportunity of amnesty. Whether such legal status could lead to citizenship is a more divisive topic, but I think most agree that those here illegally need to come out of the shadows and have some legal standing which allows them to live and work in the US.

Finally, although we might disagree about how we should reform our legal immigration, there seems to be broad agreement that legal immigration must be reformed, and that it is our broken legal immigration system that drives much illegal immigration. Endlessly debating about illegal immigration fails to get at the source of the issue.  Likewise, although we might disagree about what a humane and just refugee program might look like, I think there is agreement that we need to have a clear, thought-through policy dealing with asylum seekers which is both compassionate and just. Although we can debate about details, I think most Americans agree that our nation is a nation of both justice and charity, and I think we would agree that our nation has a critical role to play in helping, within reason, those in desperate circumstances.

There is much more to say about immigration and a harder conversation to have about such things as national identity, cultural assimilation, and the like, and here we might find more disagreement. But that conversation is better had at a separate time. My hope in this piece has been to focus on what we have in common and to make it clear that both left and right have obscured this by degrading the conversation with exaggeration and inaccuracies. I’m hopeful that if we clear away that clutter and communicate more accurately, we can recognize those apsects of the issue where we basically agree. I think we can make progress on those areas, and if we do I think we can generate the goodwill needed to begin to talk more productively about those harder and more divisive aspects of the issue.

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2 thoughts on “Finding Common Ground on Immigration”

  1. Wow! This contribution from Justin Naylor knocked my socks off. This is the most clear thinking I’ve ever heard or read before. Our country needs a lot more of this kind of clear thinking about the complex issue of immigration and Taylor’s contribution is a beautiful example about what Americans can do if we sit down and carefully think this issue through. I was not aware of the different ways that Reds and Blues talk about immigration and this is very, very helpful. Thank you to all who contributed to this discussion.

  2. Justin
    This editorial is extremely cogent and well conceived. It should become a basis for a larger conversation within BA. My hope is that would lead to BA taking a position on immigration which can influence public policy.
    Thank You!

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