Is the U. S. “anti-immigrant?”

Not exactly. But “anti-immigrant” is just a political spitball. It is not intended to and it does not, in fact, help anyone understand what is at stake here. Let me start with the passage that helped me start thinking about this. Here is Timothy Egan in a recent New York Times.

{France has] nearly five million Muslims, many living in slums that breed hatred and isolation. But [President] Hollande said Wednesday that France would honor its commitment to those fleeing the barbarians of the Islamic State, allowing up to 30,000 refugees to settle in France, with proper vetting, over the next two years.

I think it was the juxtaposition of “slums that breed hatred and isolations” with “admitting refugees who are in great need” that started me thinking. I would like to run a simple analogy here. The analogy asks whether it is worth our while to align the values in Scenario 1 with the values in Scenario 2. It does not assert. It asks.

immigrant 2Scenario 1 is about entrance into the world the way the fetus experiences it—or, actually, the way we imagine a fetus might experience it. The fetus is in the womb, then passes through the birth canal, then is “accepted into” the larger reality that the rest of us call “the world,” ignoring, by calling it that, how very different it is from anything the new member has ever experienced before.

Scenario 2 is about entrance into the country the way a new immigrant experiences it. We do actually know something about how they experience it [1] because we have asked and they have said. I am going to shift over, at this point, to talking about “refugees.” We call people refugees who immigrate to the U. S. seeking refuge. They have been forced out of their homes by religious persecution or gang violence or civil war. [2] This makes them “fugitives.” [2] There are many places where immigrants—those who call themselves refugees and those who do not—are admitted to the U. S., but for the sake of the analogy, I am going to choose the best known such place: Ellis Island.

immigrant 4So the argument is going to be that we can learn a lot by imagining that these two processes are parallel. To help do that, let me introduce some ordinary terms. In Scenario 1, I will use “Pro-Birth” to refer to people who believe that extraordinary care should be exercised to get a fetus through the birth canal. At that point the birth has occurred and no further consideration would need to be given. I will use 
“Pro-Life” to refer to those who are concerned not only with the successful birth but also for the conditions of a successful life. The infant will need shelter and food and human caring at first; then a stable home life and opportunities to prepare for fulfilling and rewarding work. The Pro-Life position, as I am describing it, commits the society to all those things by the most practicable means, whether they are public (governmental) or private (families, clans, small villages, gangs) or some combination of public and private. Preparing the conditions within which this new life can thrive will be part of the designation, Pro-Life.

immigrant 8Similarly, I will use Pro-Refugee as the stance the takes it as crucially important to get a person or a family who lives in intolerable conditions in the homeland, to Ellis Island. Government policy should favor it, private charity should favor it, voluntary movements of compassion should favor it. Whatever is necessary to get the refugees to Ellis Island. I will use Pro-Immigrant to refer to the position that there is no merit in shepherding refugees through Ellis Island only to dump them into the streets of our cities without support. These new residents and potential new citizens, will require what the infant requires: shelter and food and social support at the beginning; then opportunities to establish themselves in this country, and provide for their offspring.

The analogy continues so far as recognizing that, in Scenario 1, people will come to maturity at different times in different ways. They will make their livings in different ways and raise their families in different ways. “Different strokes,” we used to say, “for different folks.” In the same way, people who are reborn in this country will choose different styles of living together. They may gather together in clans, which is not the form of organization we expect today. They will exercise their right to worship together in the faith of their choice. They will need public assistance until they are economically secure and the kinds of employment they choose may provide an oversupply of any one kind of work–at least in the short run.  Any displaced American workers may also require some short term aid.

immigrant 6Pro-Life and Pro-Immigrant positions look at these continuing needs and begin to work at ways to provide them. New humans will need these services and guarantees; new immigrant groups will need those services and guarantees. These two positions will be at odds with the Pro-Birth and the Pro-Refugee positions, which will argue that the work is done at the farther end of the birth canal or the exit doors of Ellis Island. Compassion is appropriately offered, they will say to the fetus and the refugee, but then the needs of society needs to be weighed as well.

The moral approach to these two groups can be seen, oddly, as one in which the fetus has great moral value, but loses it somehow in the trip through he birth canal. A fetus in the womb of a poor and/or unmarried woman has incalculable value, but the infant child of a poor and/or unmarried woman is burden on society and society is justified in taking measures to ensure that such young lives are not seen as an encouragement of other women to follow this course. The young child will certainly be punished in making such spartan provisions for the mother, but she should have thought of that either before she got pregnant or before she got poor.

Similarly, the moral approach to the refugees grants them great value, a valueimmigrant 7proportionate not only to their need but to our distaste for their oppressors. But as they emerge from “Ellis Island,” they lose all their moral virtue. They are now just that many additional poor people. They will take jobs away from “real Americans,” i.e., those who preceded them at Ellis Island. They will practice religious faiths unlike the most common ones practiced here and they may very well fail to understand how deeply we value non-religion here. If they are “religious” in any obvious way, those of us who are “non-religious” may feel disapproved of or even judged.

My practice in these thought experiments is, as a rule, to set up the conditions, to run the machine, and to allow whatever emerges to stand on its own. In that same way, I offer here no guidance other than the sets of affiliations that are implied in the terms I have given to the four positions.

My goal was to argue that if these two cases—birth and immigration—are set up as parallel systems, interesting commonalities emerge. I think I have done that.



[1] Not to imply that there is one immigrant experience. Obviously, there are many. But we know something about the variety of experiences because we have asked a variety of people about their experience.
[2] This is probably the place to say that people who want to live in the U. S. and who know that being a “refugee” gives them a better chance to do so, will call themselves refugees whether they are or not. “Immigrant” is a fact; “refugee” is an explanation.
[3] This whole family of words is based on the Latin fugere, “to flee.” A fugitive who is looking for a new place to live is a refugee. Same word.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Politics, Society, Sustainability, Words and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.