With Friends Like These

The New York Times last month ran a series of viewpoints on immigration. Now, as much as finding ways to argue against restrictionists can be enlightening (and maybe fun as well) today I’ve set out on a different task: pointing out bad arguments/strategies coming from a more pro-immigration (though not quite a pro-open borders) angle. To that end, Gary Segura’s article “Path to Citizenship Must be Included” is the target for today.

In this piece, Dr. Segura sets out four “must have” points for any immigration reform bill in the United States. I’ll take these from the least problematic to the most (a clever ruse to get you to read the whole post). To that end, we’ll start with demand number two:

Requirements and penalties for seeking legal immigration status should not be so onerous or punitive that they render the reform pointless. High fines or “touchback’’ rules that require immigrants to return to their home countries before applying would render status adjustment unattainable for many. Any reform that does not actually improve the lives of those affected is not acceptable.

This demand more or less works from my perspective, and to show why let me restate it: “immigration reform that is effectively not immigration reform is pointless.”

Now this isn’t to say that gradualism isn’t acceptable. On the contrary, gradualism may be the only way to actually eventually achieve any kind of open borders policy. But if a reform results in the vast majority of currently illegal immigrants staying in that condition then there is little progress achieved while potentially slowing the pace of future reform. A bad reform bill might still convince people that there does not need to be immediate action right afterwards. The real key is what constitutes restrictions so heavy that the bill is no longer worthwhile. Some level of fines, though perhaps not ideal, could still be better than nothing. The 1986 Immigration Reform Act required back taxes and some fines for legalizing many illegal immigrants and yet legalized three million immigrants. While making the fines and limitations as limited as possible will help more immigrants and create closer steps to open borders, a “no-limitations-or-no-deal” stance could derail even otherwise moderate reform. Personally I might like to see immigrants legalized with as few fines or limitations as possible, but that doesn’t mean that legalizing several million immigrants isn’t worthwhile. For this point, my main concern is just to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good, a fault that seems to occur often in this piece.

Now for the next requirement.

“Dreamers” must be treated even more favorably. These exemplary young people fell out of status, or entered illegally, as minors in the care of their parents, but went on to live law-abiding lives. They have committed no infraction of their own and do not deserve to receive penalties and delays. They should be welcomed enthusiastically.

Ideally the age or the reason (so long as it’s legal) why someone chooses to come to this country should not matter. A young kid whose parents brought him to this country to get an education should face no more or less restrictions than a person looking for a job, reuniting with family, or who just wants to live next to a Texas barbecue joint. All of them should be allowed to move where they would like.

However, that being said no immigration reform in the United States that is currently being considered would open the borders in that way. As such considering the political realities this might be the best that can be done. As of September, polls have shown a significant majority in favor of the Dream Act. Since this kind of provision is unlikely to be a deal breaker, including it as a non-negotiable is a relatively safe move. Under circumstances with less public support for such a provision however, letting such kids stay with some fines (most likely paid by parents) is better than remaining illegal.

At this point the “must have” requirements start becoming increasingly problematic.

[A]ll families, including gay and lesbian families, must be included in the provisions of the bill. Some on the right will threaten to withhold support over this issue. But reform obtained at the expense of creating new inequality is a betrayal of our American principles.

This demand couples two separate issues together. My own stance (not necessarily the stance of anyone else on this site) on homosexual marriage is that I’m in favor (well, more accurately getting government out of the business of marriage definition) but this isn’t a site for gay rights advocacy. Tying these two issues together is both unnecessary and harmful to both causes. As Dr. Segura says this could create stronger resistance on the right. Half of the states in the country still ban same-sex marriage in their state constitutions. That’s enough resistance in the senate to block any immigration reform which requires recognition of same-sex relationships.

Would this create a “new inequality” that is “a betrayal of our American principles”? It’s hard to see how this would be a “new” inequality. Statutory bans of same-sex marriage started in 1973 and effective informal bans go back further. Indeed this is also not a “new” inequality for many of the immigrants as many source countries for immigrants not only do not recognize such unions, but may even go further and harshly punish homosexual acts. The idea that this is some novel inequality is clearly wrong and even if not recognizing same-sex relationships is not ideal, keeping millions in illegal status until that recognition is gained seems even worse. This demand is for the benefit of perhaps around 3-4% of the immigrant population (based on self-identification in the US as being LGBT, results that are similar to surveys conducted in other countries) while leaving 100% of the undocumented population in fear of deportation everyday. If getting a path to legalization for millions of undocumented workers is important then in immigration reform we should focus on that issue not on bringing in other unrelated or only loosely related issues.

However, I’ve saved the best (or worst) for last:

[F]or those here without documents but otherwise law abiding, it must provide both an adjustment of status and a meaningful, realistic path to U.S. citizenship. If what is offered, instead, is a path to status that does not afford the immigrant a chance to apply for citizenship through the normal process, it will create a permanent underclass of residents, vulnerable to exploitation, alienated from our institutions, and with little permanent stake in our society. No path to citizenship equals no deal.

This demand directly attacks the concept of keyhole solutions we here at openborder.info have often pushed. In particular this attacks the idea of a keyhole solution of allowing residency but not citizenship.

So let’s tackle this shall we? Is a path to citizenship necessary for a successful immigration reform? From the perspective of those worried about political externalities that answer is obviously no. If immigrants are going to elect a poorer quality of political leadership then a deal without a path to citizenship is a feature not a bug. But what about from the immigrants’ perspective? Is citizenship as vital as Dr. Segura argues it is?

The first thing to consider is the actions of the immigrants themselves. Checking voting turnout rates, Asians and Hispanics have rates that have significantly lagged behind both non-Hispanics white and non-Hispanic black rates since at least 1988.  Furthermore, consider the number of immigrants who have already come to this country not only without the chance to gain citizenship, but without even legal residency. Living in the United States is so advantageous for these immigrants that they view it as worthwhile even with the constant threat of deportation. Remove that fear and their lives will be greatly improved even without a path to citizenship. Whatever exploitation Dr. Segura fears immigrants will face without actual citizenship, the immigrants themselves show less concern for it.

As for the sense of alienation from our institutions, I sincerely doubt there is a situation more alienating than being considered to be inside the country illegally. If lack of citizenship alienates one from American institutions what must being illegal do? If the choice is between keeping undocumented immigrants in the shadows or making them legal residents there should be no doubt which is the better choice from a fear of alienation.

Finally, if immigrants have little permanent stake in our society is that by necessity a bad thing? Consider a scenario like this. An immigrant comes to the United States, works and saves up for twenty years, then goes home and retires. Such an immigrant might have no permanent stake in the United States at all. And yet, from the perspective of American society this might be ideal. That immigrant spent years working, helping to improve American society, and then when it was time for him to retire and potentially be a drain on the social safety net, he returned to his home country costing American tax payers nothing. With a government balance sheet that’s an excellent result while in the broader economy that immigrant helped grow the economy through his work and thus was still a win. Even from the immigrant’s perspective this is good as the immigrant chose the path that worked best for him (possibly because of lower cost of living in his home country, or possibly because of wanting to be with friends or family back home). Furthermore, there does not seem to be a chance of a removal of jus soli citizenship from the Constitution meaning any child born in the United States to an immigrant would automatically receive American citizenship. That could be a way to establish a stake in American society as well.

Ultimately, Dr. Segura’s requirements for an immigration bill mostly do better as ideal guidelines from his perspective. Needlessly driving a wedge between supporters of more immigration and social conservatives and keyhole solution supporters is just bad strategy. Not to mention the problems with the idea that removing the constant fear of deportation isn’t worth it without citizenship rights immigrants tend to under-utilize, or unless the federal government effectively decides to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act seems highly suspect to me. The most important issue more pro-immigration groups can push right now is that which gives immigrants the most benefit, allowing them to stay in the first place. There will be time to fight other battles if need be when that is secured.

Chris Hendrix is a Masters student in history in Atlanta, Georgia with an interest in the history of borders. See also:

Chris Hendrix’s personal statement
blog post introducing Chris Hendrix
all blog posts by Chris Hendrix

4 thoughts on “With Friends Like These”

  1. I get particularly irritated when immigration advocates oppose reforms that have essentially NO DOWNSIDE. I resist gradualism when it combines amnesty with “more enforcement,” which might mean fresh, grave injustices. But if it just means “only getting some of what we want,” it makes me angry when advocates oppose that. My question would be: suppose someone gets deported because your insistence on a path to citizenship, or recognition of gay couples, blocked an amnesty deal. What would you tell the mother, the daughter, the husband? How would you explain why you caused, not exactly intentionally but foreseeably, that deportation?

  2. I think a more charitable way of viewing this is that the list of things that Segura demands aren’t really things that he would consider absolutely necessary, but he (rightly or wrongly) believes that his side is in a position of strength, and can safely demand a lot of such stuff and still get its way. In such a situation, appearing inflexible and intransigent on certain issues might help him get more of what he wants.

    I don’t think Segura is correct. While there has been a recent change in the winds regarding “amnesty” and related stuff, the winds could change again in another direction. Holding back incremental improvements may mean that the pro-immigration-reform contingent fails to make use of the window of opportunity being offered by recent political events, and ends up having to agree to a worse compromise. However, perhaps I’m wrong about this, and demanding more is a good strategy.

    In some ways, demanding more can also be a way of bluffing strength, in a world where people use signaling and conspicuous displays of strength to determine which side has the stronger rhetorical and moral ground.

    UPDATE: Here’s an example of an article that makes explicit what I think is the implicit logic behind Segura’s analysis: http://crooksandliars.com/david-neiwert/coming-fight-immigration-reform-what

  3. Another point to remember is that history tends to laud more the people who uncompromisingly demand the full package, rather than the people who work to actually achieve incremental change, particularly once the full package has been implemented. For instance, my guess is that people today tend to view cold turkey abolitionists as more moral than people who propose keyhole solutions to slavery, like ending slavery and providing compensation to slaveholders. Similarly, opponents of Jim Crow legislation who also opposed some civil rights measures (such as mandatory non-segregation in privately run shops/restaurants open to the public, and forced busing, or affirmative action) would be viewed as morally compromised today by many people, compared to those who enthusiastically signed on to the entire package.

  4. Gary Segura’s article “Path to Citizenship Must be Included” is the target for today.

    Has anyone actually proposed a path to citizenship? All I’ve ever seen are proposals for SUPER-citizenship whereby the illegals wind up with far more privileges and immunities than the White people who built the country the illegals so badly want to live in.

    In other words a proposal for a path to citizenship means a proposal that ends affirmative action and preferential treatment for non-White immigrants. I have never seen such a proposal.

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