Many aspects of the current American immigration system and the attitudes that support it are troubling. There is the death and suffering the system inflicts on people simply wanting to improve their lives by moving to a different location on the planet. There is the discrimination against people based on nothing else than their place of birth, over which no one has control. There is the self righteousness of individuals who excoriate undocumented immigrants because they aren’t abiding by the immigration laws, even though those laws are unjust and, in their current form, have existed for less than half of the period since the U.S. was created.
I also am bothered by the intersection of personal character and immigration restrictions, which has two components. The first is that there are many immoral native born Americans who are untouched by immigration restrictions, while at the same time there are many virtuous immigrants and would be immigrants who are negatively impacted by the restrictions. Moreover, it is possible that, on average, immigrants and would-be immigrants are better people than native born Americans, yet it is mostly immigrants who are tormented by the immigration laws.
It is acknowledged that classifying a person as good or bad can be subjective. However, here are some traits that many people would associate with being a good person, not necessarily in order of importance: hardworking, kind, generous, responsible, respectful, empathetic, compassionate, altruistic, helpful, honest, unprejudiced, and, in the context of family, loving and supportive. A bad person would demonstrate the opposite traits. Of course, nobody acts virtuously all of the time, and probably nobody acts badly every waking moment, but I think that many people lean towards either virtue or immorality.
Notwithstanding the complexity of measuring a person’s decency, I will address the first component of the character issue. There are many people who exhibit deplorable behavior yet have had the good fortune to be born as American citizens. Despite their behavior, they are officially never at risk of detention or deportation by immigration agents. Unless they are convicted of certain offenses, they have access to an economy which provides relatively high wages, to a government safety net (if often insufficient), to the rule of law, to participation in a democracy, and to relatively safe communities. I am thinking here of murderers, rapists, parents who abuse their children, white supremacists, people who attack or harass others based on their ethnicity, gender, religion, race, or other traits, and people who are cruel to animals. (Some might suggest that stripping such people of their citizenship and deporting them would be an option, but there are other ways to punish these individuals without resorting to such an approach, which could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.)
And it is not just a matter of a few bad apples. For example, many Americans reportedly mistreat their children. According to J.D. Vance (as reported in the Yale News), author of Hillbilly Elegy, 40 percent of working-class children experience forms of domestic and household abuse. In addition, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists almost one thousand hate groups in the U.S.
Some native born Americans with enormous power have acted unconscionably. Scott Pruitt, who was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator until this month, has been described by Justin Gillis, who is writing a book on global warming, as “… so fundamentally immoral that for momentary political gain, he is willing to risk nothing less than the fate of the Earth.” Pruitt claims that it is unclear whether human activity is a major contributor to global warming. Gillis suggests Pruitt is lying rather than deluded when he makes this claim because “you can tell by the way he words his statements, all that fine salami slicing about the need for more ‘precision’ before we can do anything.” Pruitt urged the president to abandon the Paris climate agreement and worked to dismantle climate change regulations established under the Obama administration. Meanwhile, Gillis reports that scientists “… are telling us that failing to get emissions under control would be to risk a mass extinction of life on Earth and would be very likely to create so much chaos in the human realm as to imperil the stability of our civilization.”
Donald Trump, the most powerful American, has a history of malfeasance. Before Trump became president, Thomas Friedman wrote,
“Trump is not only a flawed politician, he’s an indecent human being. He’s boasted of assaulting women — prompting 11 to come forward to testify that he did just that to them; his defense is that he could not have assaulted these women because they weren’t pretty enough.
“He’s created a university that was charged with defrauding its students. He’s been charged with discriminating against racial minorities in his rental properties. He’s stiffed countless vendors, from piano sellers to major contractors. He’s refused to disclose his tax returns because they likely reveal that he’s paid no federal taxes for years, is in bed with dodgy financiers and doesn’t give like he says to charity.”
As president, in addition to his role in making an already cruel immigration system even more monstrous, Trump has repeatedly made false claims, which some consider a threat to America’s liberal democracy. Michiko Kakutani recently noted in The Washington Post that
“President Trump not only lies with astonishing temerity and abandon, but those lies connect into equally false narratives that gin up the worst fears and prejudices of his base. … The shamelessness and volume of Mr. Trump’s lies — The Washington Post calculated last month that he was averaging more than 6.5 false or misleading claims a day — are flooding the country in misinformation…
“With his mendacity and increasingly virulent attacks on immigrants, Muslims, women, the press, the judiciary, the intelligence services, the F.B.I. — any group or institution that he finds threatening or useful as a scapegoat — Mr. Trump is attempting the Orwellian trick of redefining American reality on his own terms. This assault on truth has the gravest consequences for our democracy. When lying is normalized, the sort of cynicism found in autocracies like Vladimir Putin’s Russia takes hold — people begin to assume that all politicians lie, that all knowledge is relative, that there is no point in voting or protest. Without truth, informed public discourse is hobbled and politicians cannot be held accountable.”
(See more here about Trump’s false statements.)
Trump is a threat to our country, yet since he was born here, he’ll never be forced to leave the U.S. or fear such a scenario.
At the same time, there are many good people who wish to immigrate to America but are blocked by immigration restrictions or adversely affected by them. It is a safe assumption, a priori, that all countries have their share of good and bad people. But there also are individual examples of decent people harmed by immigration policy. Consider Roberto Beristain, who entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico in 1998 and was deported last year. He was the owner of a restaurant in Indiana which employed 20 American workers and is a husband and father. He apparently never broke a law in the U.S., and the mayor of a town near where he lived in Indiana referred to him as a “model resident.” The mayor wrote about Roberto that “…once he was here, in love and raising a family, did the system give him any better option than to do what he did, which was to keep his head down, work extremely hard, put his kids through school, support his wife, break no laws…” The mayor also noted that many in the community are “proud” to call Roberto a friend.
Similarly, Andres Magana, who lived in the U.S. for almost 30 years after illegally entering the U.S. from Mexico and returned there after being ordered to be deported, appears to have been a model resident. He picked coffee in Hawaii, saved up money, and bought his own farm. According to Hawaii News Now,
“Over the years, Magana’s reputation has made him one of the most sought-after coffee growers on the Big Island. He’s known for his work to rid farms of the destructive borer beetle.
“‘He’s been taking care of this farm, and he’s got it down to about 2 percent or less bug problem,'” said Magana’s business partner, Brian Lindau.
“Lindau said he can understand the president’s desire to deport illegal immigrants who are here causing trouble, but can’t comprehend something like this.
“‘When you get a guy like Andres who’s a model citizen, been in business for years, pays taxes and is one of the heavy hitters in the coffee industry here, you’re shooting yourself in the foot and you’re shooting down the Kona coffee business,’ he said.”
The Washington Post added that “Hawaii’s congressional delegation wrote letters of support to top immigration officials and spoke on his behalf. A senior federal appeals court judge called him a ‘pillar of his community…’”
Amer Adi was also a remarkable immigrant. He was deported back to Jordan earlier this year after spending almost 40 years abroad, mostly in the U.S. He has an American wife and four American daughters and owns several businesses in Ohio. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan fought for years to help Adi remain in the U.S. According to CNN, Ryan “describes Adi as a ‘pillar’ of their community, who creates jobs with his multiple businesses and distributes hundreds of turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving.”
Then there are the many impressive DACA recipients, who were brought to the U.S. as children, lived without documentation for a period of time, received protection from deportation from President Obama, and whose status is uncertain under Trump. After receiving DACA status, Cristina Musch worked for an Arizona attorney, who described her as “an arduous, meticulous, and responsible worker.” Another DACA recipient, Alex Medrano, excelled in high school. After gaining experience working at a bank, he
“now advises small businesses and entrepreneurs on launching their projects. He also volunteers financial planning advice to members of the Hispanic Contractor’s Association and the Dallas Chamber of Commerce.
“’Since 2014, I’ve been creating a little bit of a career,’ he says. Medrano is now leaning toward more community-oriented work. ‘I volunteer at a food pantry and attend city council meetings to share updates with my customers. I would love to work for a nonprofit and educate people in need about their finances.'”
Other young immigrants are also honorable. William Perez of Claremont Graduate University has studied undocumented college students and has found that many of these students are interested in careers such as teaching, law enforcement, medicine, social work, and working in the nonprofit sector, which reflects a desire to help others. For example, an undocumented high school valedictorian, who received a full scholarship to Yale University and was praised by a teacher for her academics and her character, intends to be a physician.
Thus far, I have described upstanding individuals who have been harmed as a result of their undocumented status. At the very least, they have lived with the fear that they or a family member could be detained and deported.
It also is important to recognize the virtue of many of those who have benefitted from the American immigration system, at least eventually, by acquiring permanent legal status and sometimes citizenship. This helps to counter the efforts by some to further restrict the current system. One example is Hamdi Ulukaya, who founded the Chobani yoghurt company and who has a “reputation for being a man of outspoken civic duty and generosity.” He donates ten percent of the company’s profits to charity, he has given his full time employees an ownership stake in the company before it goes public, and hundreds of his two thousand employees are refugees. Another is David Ho, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12 years old and became a medical researcher. His discoveries changed how AIDS is treated and led Time Magazine to chose him as its 1996 “Man of the Year.” A third standout is Raisuddin Bhuiyan from Bangladesh, who was shot in Texas shortly after 9/11 by an American “out ‘hunting Arabs.’” Bhuiyan survived, endured surgeries on his injured eye, forgave his attacker, and campaigned to save the attacker from execution. Not only did he demonstrate compassion and forgiveness towards his attacker, he created a program, A World Without Hate, to help communities affected by gun violence.
On Average, Are Immigrants Better Than Native Born Americans?
At the same time, there are immigrants, documented and undocumented, who have done bad things, and there are many upstanding native born Americans. This leads to the question, “Are immigrants, regardless of status, better or worse people, on average, than native born Americans?” The answer to this question, the second component of the character issue, is difficult to determine. Yet some information suggests immigrants are, again on average, better people than native born Americans.
The data on crime supports this proposition. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are less likely to commit crimes than native born Americans. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, “… the social-science research on immigration and crime is clear: Undocumented immigrants are considerably less likely to commit crime than native-born citizens, with immigrants legally in the United States even less likely to do so.” One 2018 study cited by the Post found that “… not only does illegal immigration not increase crime, but it may actually contribute to the drop in overall crime rates observed in the United States in recent decades.” Similarly a 2017 Cato Institute study found that “all immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than natives relative to their shares of the population. Even illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.” Furthermore, when the researchers subtracted out incarcerations in immigration detention facilities, the incarceration rate for undocumented immigrants was almost 50% lower than the rate for native born white Americans. Documented immigrants had an even lower rate. (See also here.)
In addition, some observers note that many immigrants exhibit exemplary traits that are less characteristic of many Americans. In a column this year, David Brooks, referencing Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which describes the social problems of many native born white Americans, notes that “one of Murray’s points is that ‘the feasibility of the American project has historically been based on industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.’ It is a blunt fact of life that, these days, immigrants show more of these virtues than the native-born.” Brooks concludes his piece scathingly, stating that it is not surprising restrictionists “… react with defensive animosity to the immigrants who out-hustle and out-build them. You’d react negatively, too, if confronted with people who are better versions of what you wish you were yourself.”
In a 2006 column, Brooks highlighted the ways immigrants tend to be more supportive of family members and more community oriented than native born Americans. He wrote that
“Over the past decade we’ve seen the beginnings of a moral revival, and some of the most important work has been done by Catholic and evangelical immigrant churches, by faith-based organizations like the Rev. Luis Cortés’s Nueva Esperanza, by Hispanic mothers and fathers monitoring their kids. The anti-immigration crowd says this country is under assault. But if that’s so, we’re under assault by people who love their children.
“… immigrants themselves are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic. Immigrants work hard. They build community groups. They have traditional ideas about family structure, and they work heroically to make them a reality.
“Hispanics and Hispanic immigrants have less money than average Americans, but they spend what they have on their families, usually in wholesome ways. According to Simmons Research, Hispanics are 57 percent more likely than average Americans to have purchased children’s furniture in the past year. Mexican-Americans spend 93 percent more on children’s music.
“According to the government’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, Hispanics spend more on gifts, on average, than other Americans. They’re more likely to support their parents financially. They’re more likely to have big family dinners at home.
“This isn’t alien behavior. It’s admirable behavior, the antidote to the excessive individualism that social conservatives decry.
“… Women who have recently arrived from Mexico have bigger, healthier babies than more affluent non-Hispanic white natives. That’s because strong family and social networks support these pregnant women, reminding them what to eat and do…”
Another observer, Anand Giridharadas, who wrote a book about the experience of Raisuddin Bhuiyan, the aforementioned Bangladeshi immigrant, shares similar insights. He suggests that the willingness of immigrants to help one another is a superior model than the apparent go it alone ethos of some Americans. He writes that
“In mostly white, exurban communities that often see themselves as above the woes of inner cities, I found household after household where country music songs about family and church play but country-music values have fled: places where a rising generation is often being reared by grandparents because parents are addicted, imprisoned, broke or all three.
“In places bedeviled by anomie, immigrants from more family-centered and collectivist societies — Mexico, India, Colombia, Vietnam, Haiti, China — often arrive with an advantageous blend of individualist and communitarian traits.
“I say a blend, because while they come from communal societies, they were deserters. They may have been raised with family-first values, but often they were the ones to leave aging parents. It can be a powerful cocktail: a self-willed drive for success and, leavening it somewhat, a sacrificial devotion to family and tribe. Many, even as their lives grow more independent, serve their family oceans away by sending remittances.
“Mr. Bhuiyan seemed to embody this dualism. By back-home standards, he was a rugged individualist. But in America it was his takes-a-village embeddedness that enabled his revival: Immigrant friends gave him medicine, sofas to sleep on, free I.T. training and job referrals.
“…. the success of immigrants in the nation’s hurting places reminds us that the American dream can still work, but it helps to have people to lean on. Many immigrants get that, because where they come from, people are all you have. They recognize that solitude is an extravagance.
“American poverty is darkened by loneliness; poverty in so many poor countries I’ve visited is brightened only by community. Helping people gain other people to lean on — not just offering cheaper health care and food stamps, tax cuts and charter schools — seems essential to making this American dream work as well for its perennial flowers as its freshest seeds.”
Patrick Keefe, the author of The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (New York: Doubleday, 2009), a book about the illegal immigration of Chinese to America, illuminates the self-sacrifice of many immigrants. He notes that for many of the immigrants he interviewed
“the ultimate success or failure of a single act of emigration can be measured only in generations: if the individual who transplants herself or her family to the United States undertakes extraordinary, even irresponsible risks in order to do so… those lapses will eventually be justified by the upward mobility of her children or their children, and the notion that some later generation will be born in America and have no solid grasp of how it was precisely that their grandmother or great-grandmother first crossed the oceans but simply know that she did.” (p. 324)
Character matters for the case for open borders. Open borders would allow many wonderful people to thrive in the U.S. and contribute to it, without having to fear detention or deportation by immigration agents. And maybe some of their virtue would rub off on the native born Americans who have moral deficiencies.