Monday, February 11, 2008

More Questions, No Answers

As I mentioned to Sharon before, I struggle with how to stand in front of the immigration issue. It is one that raises mostly questions for me and for which I see no clear paths. Some thoughts:

1) I had never before heard of the DREAM Act that Sharon mentions. An interesting piece of legislation and it strikes me as a sensible emphasis, namely a recognition that not all who come here illegally do so because they choose to and our law should look at their situation more openly rather than merely labeling them as "illegals". (And this is not to say that those who choose to come here illegally should be treated however we feel like, of course. Just to recognize that there is a difference in the situations.)

2) I worry about sentimentalism driving a lot of people's approach to policy on this issue. Charity is a beautiful motivator. But it strikes me that it can become distorted when raised to the government level. First, by the fact of our democracy, it gets distorted in that we are now using law to effect the charitable impulses of some members of the culture over the objections of others. Whether we think that is a good thing or a bad thing, we should recognize that this has consequences. It's one of my main realizations about the so called "culture war" and from my exposure to libertarianism recently through the Ron Paul campaign. One of the challenges we face as a culture is that we do not know well how to live with the tension created by the fact that we disagree on fundamental moral questions. We want to resolve that tension. Some attempt to do so through persuasion. Others use force; in our culture, typically the force of law. I disagree with much of libertarianism's ideological tendencies when it comes to the role of the state, but I must admit there's wisdom in some if it, especially in this area: a recognition that relieving that tension though force of law in some situations will backfire. Who cannot look at the abortion debate and not see the weakness of both sides efforts to use courts and judicial decisions to change the debate on this? Or the drug war and not at least recognize that having the law reinforce morality hasn't always resulted in the change of behavior that many hoped for and has often created new problems? Similarly, I worry that we may underestimate the possibility of the federal government "leaving space" for the states and private citizens to address the immigration issue. I'm not suggesting the federal government per se shouldn't act. But I worry, in our analysis, are we really considering all of the factors?

3) Again, on the theme of sentimentalism, I've encountered at times an attitude that behaves as if the United States is capable of solving worldwide poverty and inequality, if only it opens up its doors more widely. I think this is utopian. Even so, I'm not sure if I would dismiss this attitude if practiced on the individual level. After all, we recognize heroic virtue as a mark of the saints. But again, when it becomes governmental policy, some of the heroism that we might attribute to the "foolish" sacrifices of the saint seems lacking when what one is volunteering to sacrifice is what belongs to another. Isn't there a degree to which this fails to respect the freedom of the other? I have chiefly in mind solutions to the immigration problem that involve expanding ever-greater government subsidies and programs. If someone could demonstrate to me how we can afford all of that, when we can't afford what we already spend, I'd be open to it. But I think there is something to be said for a nation having the humility to recognize that, even as the world's last superpower, there's a limit to what it is capable of doing, that it isn't the Savior.

4) I don't disagree with Deacon's comment that working with Mexico and Central American governments to help them provide people opportunities in their own countries is important. Ironically, this is similar to my advice to union advocates back in the early 90s when we saw one of the big waves of manufacturing moving overseas. My advice was to also move overseas and effect there the noble changes in working conditions that unions made happen in our own history. Largely, this advice was ignored and, I think, to the detriment of American union members (besides those potential members overseas). But back to Deacon's point, the real question is *how* to do this, isn't it? How to do this in a way that is both effective and also respectful of the freedom of the peoples of these other countries? Our history is filled with many examples of how not to do it. The United States has backed many regimes for poor reasons and spent countless billions financing them. We've seen the results and typically they are not for the benefit of the ordinary people of those countries.

5) I am dubious of some of the reasoning that seems to under gird most defenses of a guest-worker program. I won't get into them all here. But having been told some of the ways agricultural migrant workers get treated, the chief beneficiaries seem to me to be those companies who get to avoid raising wages to a level demanded by the labor market and I really wonder if creating a guest-worker status will really do anything to cause a greater respect for the humanity of these workers. Might it just legalize (and in the way our culture tends to let law dictate morality, make socially acceptable) the already truncated view many hold of these workers? To me, it seems built on a presumption that nothing really can be done about illegal immigration and that sees borders primarily in economic terms and, thus, as (dare I say, archaic) artifice. I consider the correctness of these presumptions as not obvious.

6) No doubt it is a complicated mess and one can't help but address the present large population of illegal immigrants in this country. But I do long for the day when discussion in our culture recognizes again that what's of concern is the illegal nature of the immigration (both from the perspective of the violation of the laws, but also from the perceptive of the net consequences for those who are present here illegally) and not immigration itself. Surely there is a middle ground between no immigration and open borders. It would be nice to be able to speak in favor of just plain-old immigration.

Again, no answers, just questions. This is a tough matter.

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