Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Immigration conflation

by Stephen Menendian, Research Associate for the Kirwan Institute

A few years ago I chided my European friends, who are used to lecturing me in holier-than-thou tones about American policies, for the anti-immigrant turn in their countries, particularly the surprising popularity of anti-immigrant demagogues like Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jorg Haider, and Pim Fortyn, and the subsequent rejection of the EU Constitution in those same countries. I was forced to eat crow when large scale demonstrations broke out in the US last spring, spurred by similar misgivings and apprehensions.

Immigration, as an issue, is really many issues. It's an economic issue, a cultural question, a security dilemma, and a legal question, among others – all of which are conflated into an incoherent whole. This conflation produces a debate that is astonishingly confused. Every night Lou Dobbs can be heard complaining about the need to “secure our borders.” Is he talking about national security? Primarily, he's talking about economics. The Lou Dobbs mantra is the decline of the middle class. He connects immigration with a declining middle class every evening on TV and in print, but he doesn't clearly explain what the connection is. Perhaps the rhetorical conflation is easier to swallow than a careful economic analysis.

Then there is the cultural side of the immigration debate, prominently displayed in the writings of Samuel Huntington, among others. The fear is that immigrants today - as distinguished from the past - will not assimilate. The assimilationist ideal is largely a post-hoc fabrication. America never represented a single cultural tradition. The original thirteen colonies were rival religious and cultural factions that arrived on these shores for very different reasons. The Puritans scorned the Quakers who despised the Calvinists, and so on. Contrary to the assumption that Americans largely reflect a single viewpoint or cultural tradition, the federalist structure of our system assumes a pluralism of viewpoint bound together through a common Constitution. Democracy is a system designed to negotiate that pluralism.

And the security side of the immigration debate? In our post-9/11 world, the idea is that porous borders make it possible for terrorists to enter the US. This is very different from the claim that illegal immigration will drive down standards of living or lead to a clash of cultures.

Then there is the legal side of the debate. From the very first Immigration Act in 1790, restricting immigration to “free white persons,” immigration has had a racial component. Today, it is critical to emphasize that immigration is not about Hispanics or Latinos. The immigration question is a much broader (and narrower) legal question about requirements for citizenship.

An honest and careful debate on immigration will strive to clarify the separate components of the immigration debate and help to build policies that address each in their own sphere without conflating them for rhetorical flourish.