December 9, 2018


A New Moral Imagination on Immigration (Pramila Jayapal, NY Review of Books)

During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the demand for labor in this new, growing nation meant that almost anyone who arrived here was allowed into the country with just a physical exam--unless they fell into a few deeply exclusionary categories. Before 1921, the only immigration laws that existed were ones that restricted Chinese people from immigrating (repealed only in 1943), as well as excluding most other Asians and certain categories of people such as prostitutes, those with "dangerous and loathsome contagious disease," or "the insane." Later, in 1921 and 1924, quotas were established based on race and nationality, heavily favoring immigrants from Western Europe. 

But because there were few laws and little bureaucratic control over who came and stayed, undocumented immigration was the norm for generations. As much as "amnesty" has become a dirty word today, amnesties were applied to waves of European immigrants who were here without proper authorization. The 1929 Registry Act, for example, allowed "honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity" to register as permanent residents if they could prove they had been here since 1921 and were of "good moral character."  

It wasn't until 1965 that the national-origin quota system was abolished and replaced with a system whereby immigrants were admitted on the basis of relationships to immediate family members or employers. The last major overhaul of the immigration system to increase legal admissions caps, in 1990, focused largely on employment-based visas.

Complex and multifaceted as our history on immigration is, it is marked by two deep traditions that are at war with each other. One is inextricably bound up with bigotry, while the other is tied to the spirit of generosity and renewal of a country that is always being shaped by those who come here. This battle has to be fought in every generation, and it has never been easy. [...]

As America grows and ages, our economy needs immigrants to replenish America's work force as baby-boomers age. In the fast-growing industries of domestic care, home health aides, nursing assistants, and personal care aides, immigrants make up the vast majority of workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in those industries alone, from 2016 to 2026, the US will need workers to fill 1.2 million jobs. Yet our legal immigration system is groaning under the weight of outdated category caps that simply don't meet the needs of our economy or our people. The number of visas for nonagricultural workers (such as construction workers, housekeepers, or forest workers) is stuck at the 1990 level of 66,000 visas--even though our economy requires millions. Just last year, more than 3.9 million US citizens and permanent residents who had applied legally for their closest family members--parents, spouses, children, and siblings--were in an immigration processing "backlog" that could take decades to clear. (Contrary to the "chain migration" narrative, these immediate family members are the only ones eligible to migrate via the family-based system.)

There is also still bipartisan consensus that we must fulfill our moral and legal obligations (under US and international law) to take asylum seekers and refugees from around the world. Refugees and asylum seekers are often fleeing the very forces of oppression, war, and dictatorship that threaten the world's safety, including America's. In some cases, the United States has been complicit in propping up foreign leaders that become dictators, or in fostering economic conditions that lead to devastation. In all cases, consigning millions of people to refugee camps with little freedom, dire living conditions, and no hope of determining their own futures becomes a moral question for all nations, including those that seek to lead the world. Despite statements to the contrary from this White House, the US ranks only fiftieth in the world for welcoming refugees, and leaders from all faiths (including evangelicals) have emphasized the need to strengthen, not cut, our refugee resettlement program. 

It is critical that Americans understand that there currently is no orderly, functioning process for people to come to America. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, there were superficial, temporary fixes, such as legalizations or "amnesties" for those who were undocumented at the time. But without underlying reform so that the system functions, we were bound to end up in the same place again. Most Republicans--and too many Democrats--have given in to the simplistic narratives supplied by anti-immigrant forces, throwing billions of taxpayer dollars into mass deportations, a vast labyrinth of expensive private prisons, and a border that is already one of the most secure and militarized in the world. 

Posted by at December 9, 2018 1:27 PM