Confessions of a former immigration hawk

How I came to appreciate the messy human reality of immigration

Being wrong is the de-facto, if almost universally unacknowledged, vocation of the opinion columnist. Anyone who offers his views regularly in a public forum is bound to be wrong frequently, if not most of the time. But for obvious reasons it is considered a professional liability to admit this, and most of us go on subtly changing our minds without ever stopping to ask ourselves what happened.

The Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy of incarcerating all persons suspected of having entered this country illegally, and in the meantime holding their frightened children in metal hutches, strikes me as a suitable occasion for examining how I have come to change my mind about immigration, something that has happened almost without my noticing it in the space of, I suppose, three or four years.

The most curious thing about this transformation is that on paper my position has scarcely changed at all. I remain theoretically opposed to open borders, which I consider a tool of capital. I believe that at present immigration should be curtailed, except in the case of refugees. It seems to me indisputable that importing a vast supply of cheap labor to undercut the wages of American workers and put more money in the coffers of Fortune 500 companies and the bank accounts of upper-middle-class professionals, who cannot be expected to rear their own children or clean their own dwellings, is immoral. There is, I think, altogether too much woke posturing on the subject of immigration that really amounts to a vacuous apologia on behalf of economic spoliation. We cannot allow the entire population of Central America to become American citizens, though this fantasy is the unspoken premise of much popular anti-anti-immigration noise-making. And I insist on observing that Americans who believe they have a constitutional right to murder their children under certain medical conditions seem to me to have roughly zero credibility here.

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The difference now, I think, is that I hold all these views without finding myself capable of thinking that, in something like 90 or 99 cases out of 100, it would be anything but wicked to deport people who have entered this country by illegal means, or even to detain them under conditions that would separate them from their families. Certainly I cannot think of any circumstance under which I would think it acceptable to send a child who has been here for any length of time to another place where his or her life will be more miserable than it is likely to be otherwise. What I have become aware of is not a change in my convictions but an appreciation of the infinitely messy human reality of immigration. It has become simultaneously possible for me to denounce an untenable state of affairs — the landscaper-nanny-fast food-ag worker-tech visa industrial complex — and to refuse to hold any particular person responsible for it. And it is people, rather than abstractions, with which immigration policy is concerned.

Three or four years ago I think I would (I hope) ultimately have disapproved of the present policy that has horrified all right-thinking Americans. But with that smug double-think that makes journalists and politicians seem repulsive to ordinary decent people who judge questions simply on the basis of right and wrong, I would have also made a point of observing that something has got to be done about the issue. I might, alas, even have gone so far as to suggest that at the very least, the policy, however regrettable, might have the salutary effect of discouraging people from crossing the border in the future. It might (I can hear myself mumbling) have gotten rid of the "incentive," to employ the requisite economic-journalistic cant, in the same way the mass amnesty of the Obama administration's DACA executive order had strengthened it.

If I had, it would have been nonsense. The possibility of a better life for oneself and one's family is not an "incentive"; it is the foundation of all decent human relations, the dream of every father, mother, son, daughter, or sibling. A man who accepts a job at a lower wage than his newfound neighbor is a victim of rather than a party to exploitation; he does not, along with millions of others who find themselves in similar situations, belong to some poorly defined aggregate of human beings that can be designated as a "surplus" or as some other subspecies of creatures called "labor." Removing a toddler from the care of a mother who feeds her and changes her and tucks her in at night and teaches her to say her prayers is not a "deterrent"; it is an act of barbarism. There is no such thing as an "incentive" or a "surplus" or, heaven help us, a "deterrent" in the real world. These are meaningless terms. We employ them because for some reason we find it convenient to drain the blood out of the life we all share as human beings made wonderfully in the image of God.

Which is why, without having in any meaningful sense changed my mind, I will now say that detaining or deporting one family will not meaningfully improve the situation; not a single person's wages will increase, nor will even one venal Manhattanite power couple decide that they can pick up their own progeny from cello lessons from now on. What about 10 deportations or 100 or 1,000? Ten million? How much misery would ensue if we decided to "get serious" (to borrow another hawkish GOP talking point)? And to what end? If I and others were correct in our speculations, would the result — higher wages and a more just distribution of work — have justified the means? Whatever we decide to do about immigration in this country must be undertaken with an uncompromising commitment to the physical and metaphysical dignity of persons rather than a slavish devotion to our other supposed principles.

The more I think about it, the more I think that poor old Jeb Bush grasped this better than anyone. When he told a reporter in April 2014 that entering this country illegally was more often than not an "act of love," the painfully dorky younger brother of our 43rd president was teased endlessly. But the phrase stuck with me and I had not forgotten it more than a year later when a clip of the exchange was used in a crudely demagogic Trump campaign ad. I cannot say exactly when I first realized it, but I have known for a long time now that Jeb was right: To risk one's own well-being in order to provide better for one's family really is an act of love, whatever else it may be.

There are any number of reasonable views one might take about American immigration policy, but the idea that we should respond to acts of love with legalese and cages is so unspeakably vicious that it cannot be countenanced. I am glad that I can now say this without prevarication.

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