One of the exasperating things about the debate over immigration is that the positions are elusive and the arguments elliptical. By way of contrast, other debates between the left and right are easy to understand, and the arguments advanced in defense of them are sufficiently developed to be evaluated. In the case of such politically divisive issues as abortion, torture, war, and entitlements, for instance, I have no trouble understanding what someone’s position is and what his arguments are. This is less so in the case of immigration. Understanding what the respective positions are is desirable for its own sake, and it is to that end that this essay is written.
In politics, it is wise to couch a debate in terms that are favorable to one’s position and prejudicial against one’s opponent. Thus, in the debate over abortion, one side calls itself “pro-life” and the other side calls itself “pro-choice.” Regarding the use of pain and discomfort to extract information from terrorists, one side calls it “torture” and the other side calls it “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Using terms that will inflame the electorate is a good strategy in politics, but if what is desired is clear thinking as an aid to get to the truth, it is best to use emotively neutral language that does not prejudice the issue in favor of one side or the other.
This is a worthy goal, though it cannot always be achieved. In the case of abortion, it would be better to have the debate be between those who are pro-legal-abortion and those who are anti-legal-abortion. But that would be a mouthful, and it would be unrealistic to expect people to talk that way. So, we are stuck with the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” In a similar manner, the choice of terms in the debate over immigration is between “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented alien.” It would be nice to have an emotively neutral term by which to discuss this issue, but as in the case with abortion, an attempt to find one would result in something that is too wordy. In this case, ease of expression will have to determine my choice. Whereas “illegal immigrant” readily allows for the formation of the abstract term “illegal immigration,” the term “undocumented alien” does not readily lend itself to a corresponding abstract expression. Therefore, I shall opt for the former rather than the latter, despite the somewhat pejorative connotation of “illegal immigrant.”
One way of getting to the truth is by making distinctions, and in this case it is important to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. It makes all the difference in the world whether an immigrant is here legally, not only for us, but also for him. And yet this distinction is often elided, as when people say, “We need immigrants to do work that Americans will not do.” Whether that is true or not can be debated, but the point for the moment is that this assertion does not make the distinction in question. The reason for this may be innocent, but one suspects the motive is conflation, the merging of two concepts for the purpose of obfuscation. If we do need immigrants to pick crops, for example, we can certainly have all the legal immigrants we want. But there are those, one fears, that prefer that such labor be illegal, because illegal immigrants are cheaper to employ and easier to exploit. Therefore, in discussing the need for immigrant labor, let us be clear as to whether we want that labor to be legal, illegal, or either one indifferently.
This distinction is also omitted in the claim that we are a nation of immigrants. Actually, most of us are not immigrants, but presumably the point being made is we all have ancestors who were immigrants. This would include even the Native Americans, only their immigration took place much earlier. In any event, while the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants is clear when applied to immigrants today, it is less clear regarding immigrants in the past, and in any case, the distinction is not terribly important. A fallacy common enough to have a name, the genetic fallacy, is the inference from the origin of a thing to its essence. Even if it is true that this country originated through immigration, it does not follow that the manner by which this country was populated is essential to who we are. Nor does such an origin distinguish us from other countries in any interesting way. If the human race began in Africa, a reasonable hypothesis, then all the countries of all the continents other than Africa are nations of immigrants. In fact, even most of the nations in Africa would be nations of immigrants. Rather than worry about whether immigration is essential to who we are as a nation, we should ask whether immigration is desirable. And once we frame the question that way, it becomes clear that what might have been good in the past may no longer be so. Furthermore, even if some immigration is good, it does not follow that more is better. Extreme positions are easier to understand, but less likely to be optimal. That is, neither zero immigration nor unlimited immigration is likely to be a good thing. Rather, some limited amount of immigration is more likely to yield the best result. We seldom hear anyone put a number on it, even an approximate one, which would be a lot more meaningful than the empty formula that we are a nation of immigrants.
In addition to the question of quantity there is that of quality, because mixed up with the question of immigration is that of race and culture. When it is said that we are a nation of immigrants, it may well be the ethnic and cultural diversity of those immigrants that is intended, and not merely the manner by which they came to live here. In this regard, we are different from other nations, for we have much more diversity than most. Once again, the question is whether this is a good thing. Even restricting the discussion to legal immigration, there are those, such as Pat Buchanan, who argue that more than mere numbers, it is the quality of immigration that matters. Immigrants that are from Europe, he argues, are more easily assimilated than those from other parts of the world, and thus should be favored. On the other hand, there are those who argue that it is precisely the ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity of our society that makes this country great, and our immigration policy should encourage such diversity.
Though each side wants to present itself as being rational, yet neither will hesitate to make an emotional appeal when the opportunity arises. In the case of abortion, for example, the right of a woman to choose is opposed by images of the fetus; while the rights of the unborn are opposed by images of coat hangers and back alley abortions. Lately, there have been emotional appeals regarding illegal immigrants, from Rick Perry’s “Don’t you have a heart?” response regarding tuition for illegal immigrants in Texas, to Jeb Bush’s assertion that illegal immigration is “an act of love,” to others making the point that these illegal immigrants are people just like us, and thus deserve our compassion. An emotional appeal is fine, provided it is followed up by a statement of exactly what we should do about it. In particular, it is fine to talk about love and compassion, but the question is whether they should be allowed to stay. There is a difference between saying we should treat these people compassionately as we house them until they can be deported, and saying that we should treat them compassionately and let them stay.
Ultimately, a clear statement about whether one wants a border that is closed, open, or porous would make it easier to understand what one’s position is. When the subject is brought up about building a wall from Brownsville to San Diego, a lot of people argue that it would not be practicable. It is hard to understand why. The Great Wall of China was built over two thousand years ago, so I think we have the engineering expertise to accomplish this task. Sometimes the argument is made that people will just use ladders to get over the wall. Admittedly, there is no substitute for a cop on the beat. But if we are willing to deploy hundreds of thousands of soldiers all over the world to protect other countries, our unwillingness to have sufficient border patrol agents to guard the border invites skepticism. In particular, one wonders if the real objection to the wall is that it might actually work. People who like illegal immigration would naturally want a porous border.
Because my goal is to get a sense of the fundamental positions of others regarding this subject, I am including a poll that addresses the question of what to do about the border. In all fairness, I suppose I should go first. I think we should close the border and bring illegal immigration down to a very small number. As for those who are already here, I suspect that once the border is sealed, there will be much less opposition to legalization or citizenship. There was a time when I would have thought that everyone would favor this, but now I have doubts. That is to say, I sometimes suspect that there are people who want a porous border that allows some people to immigrate here illegally, but not too many. And I suspect others want an open border that would allow an unlimited number of people to come here. But whether they actually hold these positions and just never get around to stating them explicitly, or whether I am mistaken in my attribution of such views to people who do not hold them is something I would like to know.