As an attorney with experience in immigration law, I have been watching some recent news developments with interest. Donald Trump, in his own irascible way, has brought immigration to the forefront of policy issues in the 2016 US election cycle. A recent shooting in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant sparked discussion about “sanctuary cities”. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees face a very complicated situation as they are forced out of an unstable homeland and try to seek asylum in Europe.
My opinion about immigration laws is that the whole system of quotas and border patrols is old-fashioned, and it is going to seem more and more outdated and impractical as time goes by. I come to this conclusion with both liberal and conservative arguments.
Immigration restrictions are a byproduct of nationalistic times. Nationalism was the paradigm of the late 2nd millennium. It meant that individuals identified with their nationality more strongly than their religion, race, or local king. Nationalism played a valuable role in deconstructing empires and freeing colonies for self-rule. However, it has a terrible dark side too. Nationalism was the psychological fuel for the world wars. It has lingered through the cold war and the war on terror, and it is the reason that the UN is ineffective at policing world conflicts. Nationalism taught us as young children that our country was the best, and as a corollary that other countrymen were undesirable and suspicious. It also resulted in immigration restrictions that were nakedly racist and eugenic.
Meanwhile, in practical reality, nobody can deny that the 3rd millennium world is increasingly global. Nations are learning the value of cooperating over competing. Large cities are a microcosm of the world. Corporations are multi-national, and the products you use daily are made here, there, and everywhere. There are only a handful of major languages in use anymore. Just as importantly, contact with foreigners helps us feel more in common with them. Ultimately, integration is good for peace.
So much for the liberal argument. One of the main tenets of conservative macroeconomics is that trade barriers are a harmful practice. The purpose of a quota, like a tariff, is to protect a special interest, but it does more harm than good outside of that zone. Free trade creates synergy. It allows Nation A with a productivity of 1 and Nation B with a productivity of 2 to combine economies for a total productivity of 4. Free trade consists of an easy exchange of goods, services, money, and people. In a world with freedom of movement, workers (including Americans) will find their way to jobs, money will find its way to capitalists, and the best products and services will find their way to consumers. Restrictions on trade — and that includes onerous immigration laws — inhibit this progress.
A few examples can demonstrate the paradoxical ideas we have about nationalism and immigration. We say that we value universal human rights, but we don’t allow each other to choose which country to live in. We impose strict quotas on how many immigrants can enter a country, but we allow that country’s poor families to have as many children as they want. We patrol our borders pretending that it keeps criminals out, while we know fully well that there are criminals at home. We complain that undocumented immigrants hurt the economy, and then refuse them the means to make productive contributions. American unions would complain vehemently about Michigan jobs going to Mexicans, but would find it perfectly okay for those same jobs to go to New Mexicans. Is there really a practical difference, or does it just come down to how we define “us” and “them”? Should we base economic decisions on the irrational emotions of self-identification?
One of the main arguments for immigration control is that it can help “keep the criminals out”. Francisco Sanchez, a known felon from Mexico, made a lot of news this year when he accidentally shot and killed Kate Steinle in San Francisco. It’s interesting that the widespread response was, “If he had been kept in Mexico, he wouldn’t have been there to shoot her” as opposed to “If he had been kept in prison, he wouldn’t have been there to shoot her.” The relevant fact about him is not where he was born, but that he was a repeat felon and a druggie.
Was Sanchez worse than US citizen Eric Rudolph, who traveled from Georgia to Alabama to detonate a bomb that killed a person? After all, Rudolph only crossed a state line. Were the Boston Marathon Bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, better than Sanchez because they were in the US legally? We should judge people by the acts they commit, not the arbitrary borders they cross to get there.
The US constitution grants citizenship to every child who is born here, yet federal law makes no accommodations to naturalize the child’s parents. In fact, visa sponsorship laws are deliberately written to prevent US born children from petitioning their foreign parents. Why the inconsistent treatment? It is designed to break up the families of young US citizens, or else to force those citizens out of the country. One way or the other, it just doesn’t make sense.
To put it bluntly, immigration restrictions date back to xenophobic times and are based on simple fear of the unknown. That fear has already proven itself unfounded in many cases. For most of American history, Chinese were all but banned from the US. Now, of course, Chinese nationals and their descendants are thoroughly integrated into US society, and by and large they are doing very well at school and work. 19th century sinophobes might be surprised to see that we’re still doing just fine.
This is not to say that immigration should be completely unregulated. Refugee crises like the one in Syria now should be managed by international organizations. Even ordinary immigration raises other legitimate concerns that require governmental attention, though they may not be the same talking points that get blood boiling in today’s debates.
The problem with “undocumented immigration” is not so much the immigration as the lack of documentation. When migrants sneak across a border, they become lost in the system. That can make it extremely difficult to find them if they cause trouble. Immigrants do not reach out when they need help, because they fear authorities. Imagine a new system where each person had a trans-national ID, or where it was easy to get registered into a new national database before crossing a border. (It shouldn’t be that hard with today’s technology!) If immigrants found it easy to travel internationally, they wouldn’t bother sneaking across borders. If they were easily able to find work, open bank accounts, buy houses, and report their income for taxes, they wouldn’t have to stay underground. If they found no jobs, they would feel free to return or move elsewhere without fear that they’d never be able to come back. And if it were easy to locate migrant criminals, they’d be brought to justice.
Rather than restricting entry into a country, it makes more sense to restrict entry into a densely populated area. The largest mass migration in history is the one occurring within developing nations right now, as young men move from the countryside to the cities looking for work. They are overwhelming the cities. It’s creating terrible problems with housing, traffic, pollution, and sewage. There are more itinerants than jobs, so we see huge expansive slums in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Delhi, and Cairo. Yet these are migrants from within the same country. Does that make it okay for them to invade their own cities? Not really. City growth should be managed with public health in mind. China does a better job of it, though it still suffers terrible congestion and pollution. Within the US, our tough immigration checks should not be in the empty plains of Texas but at the city lines of major metropolitan areas.
I don’t expect the entire philosophy of immigration policy to change overnight, or even in my lifetime. But with nationalism fading into globalism, these are the changes that I think need to be considered over the long term. It should be easier for persons to cross national borders and harder to move into dense cities, and it should be easier for governments to register migrants across borders. Families shouldn’t have to make choices to separate or uproot their children to a different country.
Maybe someday immigration policies will catch up to the realities of the 3rd millennium.
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