Given the President’s announcement yesterday about executive action regarding immigration and the Republican backlash already rising (as everyone knew it would), talking about immigration policy seems almost unavoidable.
Most of the coming war of words and votes and possibly vetoes will say little about the merits of the policy changes the President has attempted by executive order. The focus will be on questions of the extent and limits of presidential authority (one phrase popular with the press accuses the President of “imperial overreach”) and the political prudence or willfulness, not only of the President, but of the Republican Party in Congress, from the leaders to the rank and file.
Good press and blog fodder. Dangerous cocktail hour conversation.
I probably will spend some time with the policy and the legal opinions at some point, but I can’t help thinking we are failing to have the debate we most need to have.
To stimulate that debate, at least a little, I offer two contrasting images of our nation:
Left photo courtesy U.S. National Parks Service http://www.nps.gov/stli//images/20060817112944.gif
Right photo courtesy U.S. Border Patrol http://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/photo/11_bp011hires.jpg
The left image is of the bronze plaque that stands above the main entrance to the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. The plaque, installed in 1902, is of the poem, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus. The poem’s most famous lines are these:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The right image is of a section of the border fence built and maintained by the U.S. government along our border with Mexico.
The left image suggests a nation with its arms open wide. Indeed, Ms. Lazarus’ poem uses much stronger language than these familiar lines; the poem, written to help raise money for the statue’s pedestal, refers to the woman with the torch aloft as the “Mother of Exiles” and her torch as a beacon sending “world-wide welcome,” not to the wealthy or the powerful or the well-educated, not to the “high-value” immigrant, but to “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” (You can read the full text of her short poem here).
The right image suggests a nation at war, complete with the iconic Jeep who’s older relatives shuttled officers and soldiers in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The wall to the left evokes the Berlin Wall (which Soviets always maintained was to keep Westerners out, not Easterners in); the fence to the right (according to the Border Patrol website) is designed to protect Border Patrol agents from rocks thrown by Mexicans.
My simple, perhaps excessively blunt, point: we can’t be both.
Many of the millions of illegal immigrants in this country didn’t enter illegally because they otherwise would never have been allowed to immigrate to the U.S. Many come illegally because they perceive their needs and the opportunity of life in the U.S. to be more immediate, while it can take years of waiting to win one of the coveted legal immigration visas. Others, initially here legally on student or short-term work visas (or even tourist visas) stay on in violation of their legal status rather than risk not being able to get back in.
I’m not suggesting their actions are right. I’m simply describing how and why most of our illegal immigrants acquire their illegal status.
Most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are not fundamentally criminal in nature or behavior. Many, indeed, are just the opposite, doing everything they can to be law-abiding in part because of the fundamental flaw in their legal status. Given an opportunity to play by all the rules, many (most?) would welcome the chance to pay their taxes and, more generally, their dues to society, if only they truly could “breathe free” . . . which they can’t, because they are always one imprudent breath away from incarceration and deportation.
But we’ve seen what happens when a rumor spreads that, say, children will not be deported, no matter how they get here. That was the flood of unaccompanied minors earlier this year, a flood that endangered the children themselves (probably more than they were endangered back home) and overwhelmed our resources.
So if we open wide our arms . . . will our arms be wide enough to embrace all who wish to come?
The issue is complex. Sadly, the rhetoric rarely is.
But we have a choice, one we make by our actions, whatever our plaques may say.
Welcome, or war?