Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Immigration Problem (or is this about citizenship?)

I've been trying to make sense out of the immigration debate, as it's currently framed, for quite a while now. And, to borrow a phrase, "it's hard work."

I've been on hand a couple of times when people I know have taken up the subject and suddenly taken on an extreme and angry demeanor. People who I just know cheat on their taxes (a little), who disregard highway speed limits (almost always), and who most certainly "inhaled" in college (maybe even more recently) suddenly become law and order fundamentalists. "We are a nation of laws!" they proclaim.

I've heard this coming out of some of the most unlikely mouths.

Then there comes the righteous tax dollar argument: "Why should we pay for 'their' healthcare, housing, education, etc., etc.?" (As a citizen myself I start to wonder what I've been missing!) Once or twice I've tried to proffer the argument that maybe the problem isn't so much with immigration as it is actually with those issues: healthcare, housing, education, et cetera.

This argument rarely wins me any friends, or influences anybody. It only serves as a distraction and goes to diffuse the raised voice resentment (just when people were starting to enjoy themselves!)

Then from the other side of the room you get the practical pragmatist types and their side of the debate. They don't raise their voices as much as the law and order table pounders, theirs is more an attitude of abject sighing. "How are we supposed to come by affordable landscaping, fast food, child care and domestic help? We simply need a lower caste for modern American society to function!" As Karl Rove pointedly observed, as he was touting the Bush administration's immigration policy proposals this past year, we shouldn't expect his kid to come around mowing our lawns. He'll have none of that! "Those (immigrant) people, they're necessary." By some estimates there are 12 million of them. We don't need to think of them as potential citizens. They are our "workers"... we could call them "guests" perhaps.

So this is where we find the debate: How high and long should the wall be? How severely can we punish the supposed perpetrators of illegal immigration and still have them vacuum the family room? One man's "path towards legal status" becomes another man's anathema of "amnesty."

And suddenly I feel like I'm a twelve year old Red Sox fan again. I'm watching Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles play Billy Martin's New York Yankees and I'm wishing there was a way both sides could lose.

Now, I know better than that. There isn't a healthy way both sides of this debate can lose. Not healthy for the country. For now, neither is winning and perhaps both are losing. Reform legislation has been taken from the table and some sad amount of wall has been built, more an anemic and depressing symbol than any kind of effective barrier. Spastic and sporadic enforcement of our extant immigration statutes only serves to embarrass this "nation of laws" with its apparently arbitrary cruelty.

How then can we move beyond this, beyond those who jealously guard the privileges of citizenship and those who would offer citizenship in some sadly compromised form? I won't pretend to have worked out an answer to that question in terms of policy. But I would like to advance just a couple of thoughts, ways we might improve the debate and, by that means, maybe improve the result.

These issues it seems are constantly described in terms of being an "immigration problem." Citizenship, when it is discussed, is almost always conceived of as a set of social and economic privileges to be reserved for the deserving Americans. Hardly ever is citizenship in this country discussed as a form of civic responsibility, as a common commitment, as something that identifies who we are by virtue of what we share. I think we would all be well served if, citizens and immigrants alike, we were to to rearrange that set of understandings. Perhaps this debate shouldn't be about the "immigration problem" at all. Rather it should be about the challenges of citizenship.

What does it mean to be a citizen when the logic of our global policies have come home to live here around us? Beyond the privileges, what are our tasks as citizens in the American landscape and, yes, in the global village.

Perhaps we can divorce the ideas of charity and compassion from our understanding of an entitled citizenship. But should we altogether dispense with these as values as well? We are a nation that takes pride in the aid we offer to impoverished nations. Why then should we treat their citizens differently when they arrive here at our door?

Citizenship, understood as a blessing, and also a task, is it something to be guarded jealously? Or, just as any blessing and any task, is it actually best shared?

I know these are questions, not answers. And they might only get us more debate. But I'd like to think of them as a different lens, on a different debate, something more useful maybe. I can only hope so.

1 comment:

chris said...

Tom is absolutley right. As someone who works with immigrants daily, I often hear the angry, irrational comments that arise when the topic of immigration comes up. I can also add that almost every immigrant I meet would love the opportunity to become a citizen of the U.S. In fact, in my work with immigrants, we teach the responsibilites of citzenship and civic participation. Not only do we need these new arrivals to build our workforce, we need their infusion of work ethic, their strong family values, and their love of our country in spite of how we treat them!