Life Abroad

My thoughts on the immigration debate in America

Sometimes, listening to the immigration debate in America, one wonders if this nation is indeed a nation of immigrants. The subtlety in the debate is lost on no one. Of course, not all opposition to resolving the illegal immigration problem in America is founded on spiteful reasons. Part of the opposition to resolving the issue is founded on the conviction that some immigrants game, and take undue advantage of the system. But the resistance to resolving the issue is also driven in part by a certain discomfort towards immigrants from non-European nations—who constitute the bulk of the illegal immigrant population in America. There are some people who just feel that immigrants from these nations do not belong in America. They do not say this openly, of course. They imply it.

These people view the new generation of immigrants coming to America as coming from undistinguished nations; countries with nothing to contribute to the social, economic, and cultural life of the United States. These nations, they surmise, having failed to provide opportunities for their people in their countries, now take delight in facilitating the exodus of thousands of their citizens to America. These immigrants (legal or illegal), arriving in America, then refuse to assimilate into American society, keep to themselves, refuse to learn English (particularly those from non-English speaking countries), and maintain close ties to their home countries.

These immigrants, Jim Webb, the highly regarded Democratic senator from Virginia, argues, have benefitted disproportionately from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965—the federal legislation which eliminated the immigration quota system favoring immigrants from Western Europe. Instead of leveling the immigration playing field, Senator Webb argues, the law had an unintended effect: it led to the creation of diversity programs that unfairly benefitted immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa, at the expense of poor whites, “whose families have been in the country for generations.”

Senator Webb’s argument is not relegated to the world of talk radio. It is also prevalent in suburbia. It finds expression in conversations around dinner tables, and in the Op-ed pages of national newspapers. It is driven by fear and uncertainty. And fueled by social services spending that benefit illegal immigrants. The financial crisis of 2008, which left in its wake, record budget deficits in many states and local governments, has heightened this feeling.

It is why there would likely not be any serious national effort at immigration reform now, or in the foreseeable future. What is likely to happen is what is occurring in states like Arizona, Utah, and Georgia: GOP initiated laws making illegal immigration a state crime; requiring immigrants to carry immigration documents at all times proving their status in the country; and requiring police officers to check the status of people they suspect to be in the country, illegally, in routine stops.

The conversation on immigration in this country is very emotional. The reaction to the issue is from the gut. And knee-jerk. There is a certain demagoguery about it, sometimes, that is unsettling. The debate is black and white. Any discussion about resolving the status of the 12 million immigrants in the country illegally quickly turns into a shouting match.

The right, I think, has succeeded in defining the debate about immigration in this country, and the terms under which it is discussed. To them, it boils down to this: the federal government should build a fence along the 1,989 mile U.S.-Mexico border, and deport the 12 million or so people living in the country illegally. It’s that simple. Anything beyond deportation is amnesty. It is rewarding bad behavior and encouraging illegal immigration. When you break the law, you must suffer the consequences, whether it means being hauled into a plane and separated from your family or children who are U.S.citizens or not.

There is no denying the fact that any country would want to control the number of people who enter it at any given moment. Every responsible country does that. And America should. But it, must ensure that in doing so, it does not end up, objectifying immigrants. Blaming illegal immigrants for all of America’s woes would not solve America’s immigration problem.

Sometimes, this country is too quick to judge, too quick to objectify, too quick to classify and define, people. Yet, it is the first to celebrate, to claim as its own, immigrants who succeed in the arts, in the sciences or in sports. Yet, when these immigrants are unaccomplished and unknown, when they struggle to put food on the table, it leaves them to the mercies of the weather and watches as they struggle to survive. This is not the mark of a great country.

Yet any discussion about immigration in America cannot go without a discussion about the responsibilities and obligations of immigrants in America. America is a country of laws. We cannot simply walk in, break the law, and assume that America will simply let us in. It is not fair to the country.

America is a generous country. Anyone who denies this is not honest. This country, despite its many contradictions, is more welcoming of immigrants than any country on earth. It rewards talent and innovation. That is why, in spite of its many imperfections, it remains a magnet for many people around the world. It must now find a humane and compassionate way to deal with the 12 million or so people in the country, illegally.

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