This is a depressing time to be an immigrant in the United States. In the White House, we have a fickle narcissist surrounded by a volatile rotating cast of xenophobes, nativist populists, and homeland security hawks. In Congress, we have an Ayn Rand-style Republican wing that despises the poor generally, and the immigrant poor especially: and, spearheading the efforts against them, the most ineffectual and untrustworthy Democratic leadership imaginable.
The Democrats have been screwing up on immigration for decades, and they’re showing no signs of changing course now. Their playbook on immigration, with some minor variations, has always gone something like this:
Republicans propose something completely demented and inhumane re. immigration.
Democrats ask for something slightly less demented and inhumane.
Democrats offer to increase border security.
Republicans agree to the slightly less horrifying version of their original plan, plus border security.
Democrats hail this as a political victory, and hint that their willingness to compromise will pave the way for more substantive immigration reforms in the future, which IT NEVER, EVER DOES.
This dreary pantomime has repeated itself over and over throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years. Time after time, Democrats have agreed to more border security and gotten virtually no concessions in return. We see it happening again now: Trump has proposed to build a gigantic, impenetrable border wall, slash refugee admissions, and revoke protections for the Dreamers, the single-most sympathetic and least controversial group of immigrants in the country. A more absurd and gratuitously cruel set of immigration proposals is hard to imagine. So the Democratic congressional leadership sat down with Trump, schmoozed him a bit over Chinese food, and, in exchange for a vague promise to “enshrine DACA protections in law”—which, taken literally, could well leave the Dreamers still vulnerable to deportation and without any path to citizenship, as is the case under the current DACA executive orders—agreed to more goddamn border security for the billionth time. They say they won’t allow “the wall” to be built, of course, but what they will end up agreeing to is likely to be even worse: aerial drones and motion sensors, a more heavily-armed Border Patrol, more and more immigration jails along the border. Hearing Schumer and Pelosi crow about this “deal” as a “major victory”—assuming Trump even follows through with it—is infuriating. To put it in biblical terms, the Democrats are constantly selling their birthright for messes of pottage, and then shamelessly standing in front of reporters in their pottage-smeared bibs, bragging about how they finished all of their supper.
But just because things are dismal now doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to plan for the future. How would we change our immigration system, if we ever had a competent Democratic leadership? We hear a lot of talk about “comprehensive immigration reform,” but not much about what the substance of the reforms would be. Historically, “comprehensive immigration reform” as advertised by Democratic lawmakers, has entailed beefed-up border security, status for Dreamers, and some squishily-defined “amnesty” (which may or may not include a “path to citizenship”) for certain other undocumented people who are currently present in the U.S. Up till this point, we’ve done a remarkable job with the border security piece, and made virtually no progress with the other two goals. It’s very clear that we must decisively abandon this bargaining model. Increased militarization of the border and more enforcement in the interior is in no sense a reasonable trade-off for “amnesty” for undocumented people who entered after an arbitrary cutoff date. That vague promise of “amnesty,” moreover, is just kicking the can down the road. Every single day, hundreds of people are crossing our land borders without documentation; every day, hundreds more are overstaying their visas. That’s the reality. So long as factors like violence, poverty, and family separation exist, people will continue trying to come to the U.S., and everyone who arrives after the amnesty cut-off date will be in the same situation as the undocumented population now. We need real reforms that won’t need to be redone again in ten years, that address the reality of how immigration flows actually work.
To do this, we need to think strategically about the problems in our current system, how to humanely fix those problems, and how to rally voters and legislators to care about the issue. This means getting left-leaning voters to understand why the “enforcement plus amnesty” model of reform, which sounds superficially reasonable to the uninformed, is actually a very bad idea. In a forthcoming series on the Current Affairs website, I’ll be putting forth ideas about some concrete immigration policy proposals that I think the left should consider rallying behind. Here, I want to talk more generally about how we might change the public conversation around immigration. My belief is that any immigration strategy that aims to be durable in the long term must make genuine attempts to win over at least some groups of presently immigration-anxious voters. This means taking seriously—up to a point—the instinctive objections that some people have to less restrictive immigration policies. There are, of course, a number of people who object to immigration for purely racist reasons, or because of totally irrational and baseless fears. There are also people who object to immigration for motives that are reasonable, or at any rate sound reasonable. Some of these people can be swayed, and we must attempt to sway them: not by making political concessions to their fears, but through good old-fashioned persuasion, and appeals to human decency.
GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE: what is the actual purpose of regulating immigration?
To many people, the idea that the government would regulate immigration is self-evident: of course you would need to make sure people weren’t just wandering in and out of the country whenever they pleased! To immigrants and immigration advocates who see on a daily basis what “regulation” looks like up close, feelings about this general mandate are much more troubled. But it’s certainly true that there’s little point in romanticizing the long millennia of human history when borders were effectively nonexistent. We are a pretty bloody species, and our annals are filled with tales of invasion, and migrations that morphed into invasions, and the subjugation of people with fewer resources, or more scruples, by enemies with bigger weapons who gave fewer damns. At the same time, to the extent that these atrocities happened more frequently in the past, it’s difficult to say that this was because there were fewer borders: there were a hell of a lot of other factors in play. In reality, it seems far more plausible that the ability to closely police borders and control migratory flows are a result, not the cause, of a nation’s surplus wealth and internal stability. The intensity of regulation and monitoring of immigration that we see now in the United States is certainly unprecedented in our history.
Nonetheless, borders are not going away anytime in the near future, and so we must deal with them. They are not all bad, necessarily. We can posit two reasonably humane purposes for the existence of regulated borders. One is purely administrative: borders define the particular unit of geographical space that a national or subnational government is responsible for, and so it’s important to have some idea of who is living in which territory at any given time. The second purpose is defensive: a border is the logical place where you would repel an aggressor. From these uses, we might posit two compelling reasons to restrict entry across a border. One would be if the state of internal affairs in your territory was so dire that additional population might trigger some kind of societal collapse. Another would be if you had convincing reason to believe that the person seeking to enter your territory intended to physically harm somebody within your borders. Obviously, these are speculative and subjective assessments, and would always need to be argued over; even in the best of all possible immigration systems, civil liberties watchdog groups would be needed to keep an eye on how any standards relating to these two purposes were being applied.
But what’s the point of talking about the purposes of borders in such an idealized and abstract way, you might ask? After all, there’s little immediate prospect of our throwing out our existing immigration system in its entirety and creating a new one from whole cloth. Nonetheless, it’s important to rhetorically highlight the legitimate goals of immigration regulation. The reasons why many people believe that immigration regulation is obviously necessary are tied to fears, which, if they were plausible—and in some contexts they are—would be legitimate reasons to restrict immigration. Armed invasions, terrorist massacres, and sudden economic collapse are all be very bad outcomes, and if there were ready means of preventing them, any sensible polity would do so. This is why appeals for a “strong border” sound inherently reasonable to many people.
One task of anybody seeking to craft better immigration policies, therefore, is to treat these public fears both seriously and realistically. This will then give us more credibility when we attempt to demonstrate that the vast majority of our current immigration policies are actually geared towards restricting the movements of peaceable people, forcibly removing people from their homes, and ripping people away from their families and shipping them across the globe. When it comes to the thornier problem of how to deal with would-be immigrants who seem as if they might be dangerous, or who, having entered the country, have committed some kind of violent crime, it’s much better to direct the debate towards figuring what policies would actually be practically effective in averting future violence—and publicly acknowledging the fact that violence in countries besides the U.S. is something we must care about, from both a moral and a global security perspective—rather than getting sidetracked into metaphysical questions about whether the person has the “right” to be in the U.S. or not.
BUILDING A VOTER BASE THAT SEES PROTECTIONS FOR IMMIGRANTS AS A MORAL IMPERATIVE
Immigration is an especially difficult issue to develop an organizing strategy around, because most immigrants—and certainly the most vulnerable classes of immigrants, for whom deportation is a constant threat—cannot vote. Among those immigrants who can vote, there’s a wide diversity of cultural and class backgrounds, meaning that their opinions on an optimum immigration policy might differ widely. Naturalized citizens who came to the U.S. by “legal” means often have limited sympathy, or even hostility, for immigrants who came here “illegally”; and naturalized citizens may favor increased immigration by certain groups of people (say, white-collar professionals), but not others (say, poor people with limited education). Political commentators often try to use massive, vaguely-delineated census categories like “the Latino vote” as a proxy for the number of people in the U.S. who are likely to treat a liberalized immigration policy as a primary voting concern, but this is a crude approximation at best. (Note, for example, that “the Asian vote” is never used as a proxy for a pro-immigration vote, even though there are just as many immigrants in the U.S. who hail from “Asia” as from “Latin America.”) Not all people who self-describe as “Latino” are interested in less restrictive immigration policies—nearly 30% of Latinos voted for Trump, and at least 50% of the Border Patrol is Latino—and even among those who are, there’s likely to be further diversity of opinion about which sorts of immigrants these policies should favor.
Non-voting immigrants can, and do, organize on their own behalf, but since they’re not a voting constituency, their ability to apply pressure on their legislators is even more limited than an average citizen’s. Working-class undocumented people theoretically have a lot of power, because so many of them work in areas like agriculture, construction, and domestic labor, where their loss would be quickly felt if they all went on strike—but organizing strikes on a national scale, when people are living under threat of deportation, is extremely hard. Ultimately, if there’s to be any hope of meaningful reform, more voting U.S. citizens—who, at the very least, need not worry about being whisked off to another country at a moment’s notice—must join the cause.
So how do we get more voters to support good immigration policy, or at any rate, not actively oppose it when it’s on the table? I think a big part of our approach ought to focus on working to generate more public empathy for the most vulnerable immigrants: namely, people fleeing violence and extreme poverty, and undocumented people, especially the undocumented poor. Creating empathy isn’t merely a stratagem to get people behind immigration reform in the short term: we must realize that no legal reforms will be durable unless they are accompanied by a real attitudinal shift on immigration. Immigration policies can be changed rapidly, and enforcement can be arbitrary, so immigrants will continue to be easy scapegoats for economic and social ills if we don’t make a serious attempt to push back against the mentality that differentiates people’s worth based on their place of birth. The U.S.’s legally irreproachable prerogative to manage its immigration policies in its own interest has produced morally monstrous results. Our deportation policies have destabilized entire countries, and resulted in the deaths or permanent exile of real human beings, many of whom are the parents, spouses, and children of current inhabitants of the U.S., who may be our neighbors, coworkers, employees, or friends.
Our immigration system is bewilderingly byzantine, and the significant majority of the U.S. population whose lives are not directly impacted by immigration laws know almost nothing about them. My own observation is that many people who are strongly in favor of restrictive immigration policies are unreflective individuals with a strong reverence for rule-following in the abstract. Asked to explain their views, they frequently fall back on stock phrases like “well, we can’t help everyone” or “we’re a nation of laws.” To some extent, this mindset can be disrupted by correcting people’s erroneous assumption that our immigration laws make any damn sense. For example, many Americans mistakenly believe that it’s possible for an ordinary, law-abiding person to immigrate to the U.S. if they simply fill out the correct paperwork, or that undocumented people apprehended in the U.S. can avoid deportation by showing good character. One highly-circulated news story in the wake of the 2016 election described the deportation of an undocumented immigrant named Roberto Bernstain, whose U.S. citizen wife and friends had voted for Trump, and were shocked when Roberto was subsequently targeted by ICE. These are people who might have been persuaded to vote differently if they had had a better command of the facts, if they had realized that there is very little mercy in the law for undocumented people, no matter how good a husband you are, or how much your children love you, or how long you’ve held down your job.
For other people, however, who have little direct contact with immigrants, these kinds of facts won’t have much personal context and are less likely to be compelling. Somehow, we need to find ways to make the struggles faced by immigrants feel real to non-immigrants. Creating relationships within communities between immigrants and non-immigrants can be effective. I’ve known several quite conservative people to take a sharp left turn on immigration because they lived and worked closely with undocumented people who became their good friends. For people who are already vaguely-disposed to favor less-restrictive immigration policies, but simply haven’t given the issue very much thought, they are likely to need even less of a nudge. Figuring out how to foster more face-to-face interactions between immigrants and non-immigrants is something that can be done on a municipal, even a neighborhood level; good strategies are best worked out by people operating on a local scale who know their neighbors and what appeals they are likely to respond to.
Film and narrative are also meaningful ways to create emotional engagement. Most people have hearts that can be touched, especially where, say, children are concerned. My feeling about left rhetoric in general is that we need to talk about children a lot more—the sooner everyone drops the hip cynical posery and goes into full-throated Save The Children mode, the better. We should all be yammering ceaselessly about children separated from their parents by deportation policies, children being torn from their homes and sent to countries they don’t even remember, children being picked up at the border and locked in detention centers, children who are trapped in violent homes while their relatives in the U.S. desperately try to send for them. There appears to be a real pessimism these days about our ability to change each other’s minds. But I don’t think we’re trying very hard, honestly. Facts certainly have an important place; but narrative and emotion are equally important. Most people want to think of themselves as good people. The trick is getting them to realize that a good person could not do otherwise than care about the plight of vulnerable immigrants.
ADDRESSING ECONOMIC FEARS ABOUT IMMIGRATION: Building solidarity between the citizen and undocumented working classes
The division between documented and undocumented laborers has been a huge problem for the left historically, and, I would argue, our failure to address the inseparability of labor and immigration policy—which are certainly inextricably linked in the minds of voters and in the rhetoric of savvy political operators—is one of the main reasons why the left is floundering pathetically even against a fragmented and morally bankrupt right. The fact is, there will never be decent jobs with robust worker protections while there is an undocumented “underclass” that employers can exploit under threat of deportation. It is also true that, at present, many of the economic labors that are most indispensable to our daily lives—the harvesting and distribution of food, the building of physical structures, the care of our children and elderly—are performed disproportionately by undocumented people (and a smaller number of seasonal, “low-skill” guest workers, who, though they are in the country on legal visas, are tied to one employer and have limited ability to seek redress for workplace abuses). If they were all suddenly to disappear, it’s not at all clear who would replace them.
Wage protections and security from deportation for undocumented people must be part of any credible left economic strategy. Lately, it’s been fashionable to make appeals to the macro-level economic benefits created by immigration, but I believe this is a mistaken approach. First, it’s far from clear that the “growth” supposedly generated by immigration is actually benefiting workers and their families. Second, it’s not effective, inasmuch as anybody who has a friend or family member who’s been laid off from a construction job isn’t going to care whether immigration benefits the economy in general. Third, the logical outcome of this sort of GDP-based calculus is the “points-based” immigration system that Trump is currently touting, where people are only permitted to immigrate if they are deemed likely to boost the U.S. economy in specific ways. This inherently leaves out vast swathes of people—especially poor people—who have very good reasons for wanting to immigrate.
A better argument is to emphasize the fact that workers, documented and undocumented, are vulnerable to exploitation; and that the best way to prevent undocumented workers from undercutting wages or working conditions isn’t by deporting them all en masse, but by shielding them from deportation and holding employers accountable for violating their rights. This kind of organizing is certainly occurring on a local scale in many places, but it hasn’t made much of an appearance in Democratic national rhetoric. The connection between the egregious level of exploitation suffered by undocumented and guest workers, and the lack of consistent protections for documented workers, must be made clear and explicit. If all workers cannot bargain together, because some of them live in fear of deportation, then there will never be decent work. Even if there’s no clear statistical connection between amount of immigration and layoffs, even if the number of workers who directly “lose their job” to immigrants are few, even if it’s been a long time since native-born Americans have done the exact kind of work that undocumented people have been forced into, I don’t think any of that matters. That an artificial division in the working class has been created by immigration status is very clear, and that this division would inhibit organizing is intuitively obvious.
In short, I think the left’s ability to push for meaningful immigration reform is entirely contingent on their ability to rebuild credibility with the poor and the working class. It’s crucial to explode, decisively, the right-wing narrative that immigration per se hurts native-born workers. This is important not just because the working class was part of the swing vote in the last election: after all, most Trump voters were middle- and upper-class people. But many of those upper- and middle-class people no doubt convinced themselves that they were white-knighting for the working class by opposing immigration, and we must do our best to deprive them utterly of that veneer for indulging their prejudices.
Additionally, while appeals to self-interest and class solidarity are important here, they won’t be effective unless they’re coupled with the fraternal, empathy-building approach. If we appeal to self-interest alone, there will always be people ready to point out that tougher immigration enforcement and an impenetrable border wall is an alternative way to prevent immigrants from undercutting native wages, one which also satisfies the American public’s inconsistent but weirdly intense appetite for Making Sure The Rules Are Followed. I often hear people on the left argue against The Wall or mass deportation with lines like “well, it would be stupidly expensive to deport all the undocumented immigrants” or “well, it would be virtually impossible to completely secure the entire border.” But if some monster like Trump adviser Kris Kobach ever runs for president—and given his gubernatorial ambitions and his impressively shiny Colgate smile, I’d say that could be in the cards—he’s going to characterize that deportation task force as an investment that will put money back in the pockets of American workers. Furthermore, I have no doubt he’ll find ways to make crossing the border horrifically difficult and high-risk, in a way that does indeed deter migration. Clearing the land of unauthorized immigrants would be difficult, to be sure, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for a sufficiently determined xenophobe. We should emphasize instead that immigrants are real people, and that separating them from their families or consigning them to lives of terror and insecurity is morally wrong.
ADDRESSING VIOLENCE-BASED FEARS ABOUT IMMIGRATION: Proactively explaining violence to the public and directing sympathy towards all its victims
Americans tend to have a lot of anxiety centered around immigration and violence. This takes three main forms: the fear of violence and organized crime spilling over the U.S.-Mexico border, the fear of terrorist attacks by Muslim immigrants, and the more generalized fear of falling victim to a violent crime committed by “someone who shouldn’t even be here.” All of these fears were highlighted extensively over the course of Trump’s campaign, and play a big behind-the-scenes role in his fluctuating policy positions on immigration. Chief of Staff John Kelly, for example, evidently believes that Mexico is on the verge of state collapse, and that we must clamp down on the southern border to avoid collateral damage.
I understand immigration activists’ desire to debunk inaccurate or deemphasize incidental connections between immigration and violence in the public imagination, given that the right is actively spreading hysterical misinformation on the subject. However, in writing off people’s fears that immigration could lead to violence as self-evidently ludicrous, I worry that the left actually makes the right’s claims seem more credible. Take Trump’s infamous reference to “bad hombres” while on the campaign trail. A lot of left-leaning people sniggered at this remark as ridiculous: they dismissed it as fear-mongering about immigrants generally, and made lots of “bad ombré” memes. And of course, the term “bad hombres” is absurd and racist, inasmuch as it suggests a connection between speaking Spanish and committing crimes. At the same time—and this is a context of which Trump’s supporters are abundantly aware—there are, in fact, incredibly violent criminal groups actively vying for territory along the southern border. This reality should concern us, too, because it’s a humanitarian emergency right on our doorstep that’s going almost completely unaddressed.
In the Mexican border towns of Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros, for example, death rates have spiked sharply this year, and Mexican journalists say that the area is more dangerous now than they’ve ever seen it. Whole families are massacred by cartels, down to little children, as acts of vengeance and as warnings to their enemies. A lot of the liberals I talk to seem to know almost nothing about this situation: after all, the New York Times isn’t running very many front-page stories about it. But you know who does have an on-site journalist down at the border, churning out blood-spattered reportage on a daily basis? Fucking Breitbart News. Conservatives know all about the situation on the border—framed within a very specific anti-immigration narrative, of course—because they see stories about it constantly. If Breitbart is reporting regularly on border happenings, trying to reinforce the “Mexicans = murderers” narrative, then the NYT should be reporting on it just as frequently, talking about the refugees this latest wave of cartel infighting is creating. We can point out who is actually suffering the most from this violence—not Americans, but Mexican residents and migrants trying to pass through Mexico—and demand that our government do more to protect people who need it.
The situation is similar when it comes to immigrants fleeing violence in Syria, and other places where ISIS and ideologically-similar groups are active. I think the only tactic that stands a chance of overcoming people’s fears about extremist violence by Muslim immigrants is building up sympathy for victims of violence and oppression in these countries, and trying to convince Americans that the ever-present risk of terrorism is small, relative to the incredible suffering these refugees are facing. In our desire to convince people they’re actually wrong to be afraid of terrorism (as opposed to convincing people that they need to conquer their fear of terrorism to serve a greater moral good), we sometimes resort to stupidly counterproductive arguments. One line I used to hear a lot was, “Don’t be scared of refugees! After all, the people who perpetrated 9/11 entered the U.S. legally, on tourist and business visas!” Nice work, guys, you just made a great argument for the Muslim Ban. With reference to incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Orlando nightclub shooting, there were a number of popular Facebook posts saying things like, “Well, this is no reason to be scared of immigrants, because these terrorists were American citizens!” That’s hardly the argumentative slam-dunk people seem to think it is. Because the next question is always, well, were they native-born or naturalized American citizens? And if they’re native-born, were their parents immigrants? You think what your audience is hearing is, “Oh, immigrants aren’t the problem,” but what they’re actually hearing is, “Oh no, we can’t give these people citizenship! They’re dangerous down to the third generation!”
The left has, in recent years, also relied very heavily on statistics purporting to show that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born people. I don’t think this is completely useless, inasmuch as it cuts against a pernicious stereotype that immigrants are naturally predisposed to crime; but it could get us into trouble down the road. First of all, there is nothing innate about “immigrants”—a gigantic and varied class of individuals—that makes them less likely to commit crimes than “native-born Americans.” We could easily see that convenient statistic flip at any time, for any number of random factors. Secondly, supposing somebody breaks down the crime statistics based on race, ethnicity, religion, or type of crime, and finds out that certain immigrant populations are over-represented? Do we really want to be implicitly encouraging demographic screenings for criminality? I think not.
I don’t think there’s any foolproof strategy for addressing these problems, but my general instinct is that we need better reporting and storytelling about the violence along our southern border and in refugee-producing countries, emphasizing the devastating impact that it has on the people who are directly affected by it, and presenting solutions for better protecting those people. (Babies, God damn it! I want to see more pictures of babies!) Especially when it comes to the violence on our southern border, we need to do a better job explaining how our militarization of the border has significantly contributed to the bloodbath we’re currently seeing. The overwhelming majority of people who cross the border unauthorized do so for the purpose of finding work or joining their families, but because we police these peaceable crossings so fiercely, this creates strong incentives for violent groups to battle for control over migration routes, hold migrants for ransom, and force them to pay off cartel-approved smugglers. Our drug policies also fuel criminal networks, of course, but the fact that we devote so many enforcement resources not just to stopping the entry of suspected cartel operatives and of arguably dangerous contraband, but also to stopping ordinary people who are carrying absolutely nothing, has escalated violence considerably.
On a foreign policy level, we need to take violence reduction in sending countries more seriously. At this point, there’s only so much we can do in places like Syria, but in countries closer to home, where the situation is less far-gone, we likely have more options. So far, most of our assistance has taken the form of sending big gobs of money (and, occasionally, Rudy Giuliani) to Mexico and Central America to help them further militarize their police forces, but—shockingly—this has mostly served to make things worse. In addition to treating the mass migration from high-violence regions as the serious refugee crisis it is, we also need to invest significant diplomatic energy towards fostering dialogue and brokering peace deals between regional actors, including between governments and criminal organizations like the cartels and the maras. Nobody wants to take this step, because supposedly, sitting down and talking with criminal groups gives them “legitimacy.” But these groups are already very, very legitimate to the people who live under their control, and getting atrocities to cease must be our immediate goal, above all else.
The question of how to deal with immigrants who commit violent crimes in the U.S. is an especially hard one. The “felons not families” rhetoric favored by the Democratic Party is bad for several reasons, one of which is that, under immigration law, the definition of an “aggravated felony” that will make a person ineligible for discretionary relief from deportation is wildly over-inclusive, encompassing everything from violent crimes like murder to non-violent crimes like drug offenses and check-forging. The law takes no cognizance of the person’s age (if they were tried as an adult) at the time when the crime was committed, whether they already served their prison sentence before they were apprehended by immigration, and whether they’ve been otherwise rehabilitated in society.
The other reason why “felons not families” is bad is because, in the case of immigrants who have recently committed violent crimes, deportation will serve neither to aid their rehabilitation or keep other potential victims safe, since the person may go on to commit similar acts of violence against people in the designated country of deportation. For this reason, I think that violent criminals shouldn’t be deported, but I recognize that it will probably be near-impossible to persuade the general public of this—and admittedly, given that our own criminal justice system is so dysfunctional, it’s not as if staying in the U.S. is likely to be a significantly more humane option as far as the criminals themselves are concerned. At the very least, if deportation is still on the table for violent offenders—because I think it should decidedly be off the table for everyone else—it should be explicitly imposed as a criminal punishment at sentencing. Right now, it’s considered a “civil” consequence of violating immigration law, and can be executed years after the offense, sometimes when a person has already long since served their jail time.
Prospects for reforming our immigration system have been gloomy for a long time, and aren’t showing signs of getting better anytime soon. But there is a bit of a silver lining. Under the Trump presidency, the general population of left-leaning people seem to care about immigration a lot more than they used to. Some of this outrage, it seems, is driven more by a personal dislike of Trump and his rhetorically uglier tone on immigration, rather than a substantive engagement on immigration issues—after all, Obama deported large numbers of people, and presided over a massive expansion of the immigration detention system that made the imprisonment even of asylum-seeking toddlers a matter of procedural course, but Obama was so damn likeable that most Democrats didn’t care very much. But I think there is a real opportunity, potentially, to capitalize on this wave of public sentiment and push for Democratic candidates to back more ambitious immigration reforms, much as they’ve begun to do with single-payer healthcare and minimum wage. If we have to endure three (or seven) more years of Trump, we should at least move to take advantage of the publicity he brings to immigration issues, and the extent to which his uncensored remarks reveal the deep ugliness of our current system, in a way that a more suave and traditional politician would likely manage to avoid.
But on the left, we also need to be ideologically bold, and work to remind each other of our moral responsibilities. It is not enough to have an insular domestic policy that does not take cognizance of the way U.S. actions affect other parts of the world. Immigration exemplifies this, by bringing the wider world’s problems—many of which we ourselves actively contribute to, others of which we have no self-interest in alleviating—right into our communities. The Sanders campaign showed that there’s scope for an inclusive, principled left-wing populism to achieve political success in the U.S. But it’s worth pointing out that the weakest parts of the Sanders campaign were immigration and foreign policy. The new populist strain of the right is, perhaps, the most dangerous element of the American political scene, because it manages to combine real grievances and unexamined contradictions in American politics with a particular kind of regressive racial scapegoating. We need to do a lot better going forward, and not avoid taking a firm stand on protecting immigrants out of fear of alienating voters, or out of a desire to more easily win other battles.
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