Recently, my family was mentioned in an article in the Washington Post Magazine about our dear Salvadoran friends, and their struggles associated with the impending wholesale cancellation of Temporary Protected (TPS) status. As the piece details, my friends stand to be kicked out of the country and forced to make the difficult choice of whether to leave their citizen children behind, or subject them to risk-filled futures in an unstable country. They are faced with this terrible decision because of the Trump administration’s policies, which have ranged from arbitrary to cruelly invidious—policies that have left many people rightly outraged.
The answer to this problem though, is not to be found in the growing calls on the Left to “abolish ICE.” The suggestion that we don’t need any border enforcement is as unrealistic as that rhetoric is politically self-defeating. Rather than making practical policy proposals in a sincere effort to solve immigration issues, the loudest voices on both sides of these issues seem content to simply signal purity to their respective bases. This problem is not new. It is a major symptom of the diseased state of our current national politics, and one that seems to have entered a dangerously acute phase in the Trumpist era. It is worth exploring in the case of our current immigration dispute.
On the far-Left, rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez includes abolishing ICE in her official campaign platform. Her intended message seems to be simply that she is a pro-immigrant humanitarian. That signal is no doubt clearly and positively received on the Left. But her absolutism, her failure to acknowledge that immigration may come with real costs, makes her message appear as a call for open borders to many. It is therefore no surprise that the “open borders” trope has become a favorite way for Trump’s base to caricature their opponents.
Meanwhile, Trump, and his imitators and enablers chant “build that wall.” He orders a travel ban from some majority Muslim countries (omitting Saudi Arabia, the primary source of the 9/11 terrorists), cruelly separates babies from their parents at the border and cancels TPS (all while staffing his club in Florida with temporary foreign workers). His purpose is devoid of any attempt to solve the problems presented by immigration or to capitalize on its potential benefits to our economy and culture; rather he is simply signaling that he is for white, red-blooded Americans and against cartoon brown-skinned terrorists, drug runners, criminals and rapists, who want to take American jobs.
Amidst all this identitarian signaling, there is no cool assessment of the facts. No practical policy solutions are offered. Voters are presented with a false choice: seal the border or do away with it completely. A stark example is Florida’s upcoming gubernatorial contest between Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis.
But we should not accept false choices. To move beyond them toward solving the challenges posed by immigration, we must demand more than tribal chest-beating from our leaders and candidates.
As citizens we have the sovereign right and the grave responsibility of deciding whom we will allow into our country and whom we will exclude. Our decisions will shape the future America in which we will live, and that we will leave to our children and the citizen children of the immigrants that join us. These decisions go to the core of what it means to be an American. Yet even amongst ourselves, we have never finally settled that question. Our Constitution is a masterpiece of compromise. Our civil war settled some of the reserved claims, but not all, and we still continue our long, internal negotiation today.
What we have reached is widespread agreement on a small, but critically important set of values that are necessary to keep that negotiation going, to keep the American experiment going. These are its very basic preconditions (even as partisan rhetoric in some quarters, Left and Right, continues to dispute them): freedom of speech and thought, freedom of religion, a free press, equality under law, separation of powers, peaceful transfer of power (forgive me if the reader finds the list incomplete but that only serves to illustrate the point). Acceptance of these values, or at least a willingness to accept them, ought to be a threshold criterion for immigrants seeking admission to our society, for if we can safeguard these values, then even as demographics shift, the paramount national characteristics that make the United States special, and allow it to endure, will continue to flourish.
How to evaluate a prospective citizen’s willingness to accept these core values in practice is a critical and difficult question that we must debate in good faith. Certainly some immigrants will fall short of the mark, and we can be justified in excluding them. For example, there is a kernel of truth in Trump’s absurdly overbroad travel ban: in some cultures, individuals on average hold values and express attitudes that are inconsistent with democracy. On average, individuals from Trump’s banned countries do trend toward rejecting our core values more than, say Canadians or Salvadorans might. That small obvious truth was not acknowledged openly either by President Obama, or by Secretary Clinton in her 2016 campaign. This failure to acknowledge inconvenient facts gave Trump the opportunity to play truth-teller to those who pined to hear this narrative, and now he and his media surrogates have taken this small truth and distorted it into a xenophobic nightmare. Rather than evaluating each individual immigrant on their own merits, our government now excludes whole nationalities on the basis of prejudice alone.
* * *
Hours after the first travel ban was announced on Jan. 30, 2017, I joined a crowd as it gathered on the east side of the Capitol Building, as the Democratic leadership crossed First Street Northeast to take turns addressing those assembled. The typical placards there bore slogans like: “No Human is Illegal” and “All Immigrants Are Welcome.” But at least one sign, held by my son, read: “Secular Muslim Immigrants Are Our Greatest Allies in the Fight Against Islamic Terrorism.” Street protests are not known for nuance. But we can do better in our public discourse, on social media and in the opinion pages. We should also hold our politicians to a higher standard in their campaigns.
Instead of signaling as loudly as possible one’s membership in a tribe, we need to make a habit of trying to discover the facts that bear on a set of issues, including immigration, and then demand that our elected officials use those facts to craft practical solutions. I know that this may sound like fantasy at a moment when some dispute the existence of truth altogether, but any other path leads to delusion and dysfunction. Additionally, failing to acknowledge facts that seem obvious to many, cedes space for extremists to enhance their signal using those unacknowledged facts as a springboard for more extreme rhetoric. Conversely, by emphasizing and acknowledging facts, we can deprive the extreme Left and the extreme Right of some of their power to persuade.
In the case of immigration, that means acknowledging that immigration does have costs. For example, immigrants do compete with citizens for jobs. The available empirical data suggests that immigration exerts downward pressure on wages and the employment rate of native-born workers, particularly unskilled labor and those without high school diplomas. The Trumpists have surely made too much of this, but they are able to do so in part because the Left refuses to acknowledge what seems to be an obvious fact.
A better and more honest strategy for the Left would be to address the costs of immigration squarely and then point out policies that can minimize them while preserving the corresponding benefits. Democrats should also point out that the wage and employment effects of immigration are probably relatively small (five percent over 20 years) and are probably offset in the aggregate by the growth in economic activity that results from immigration. They might also point out that the wage and employment effects of immigration are miniscule in comparison to the labor market effects of international trade and automation.
Immigration also has cultural costs, such as the burdens associated with providing schooling, healthcare, policing, and other services to populations of individuals who may be unable to communicate in English, and who range from being simply unfamiliar with our local customs to in some cases hostile to our core values. A rational immigration system would be designed to minimize these costs while maximizing the benefits that immigration provides. Building such a system requires a commitment to facts, not tribal fantasies and hysterical rhetoric.
In the case of Salvadorans in TPS, the cost-benefit analysis weighs heavily in favor of welcoming them to join us permanently. That Salvadoran TPS recipients have accepted our core values is well evidenced: they have established a two-decade long track record as law-abiding, tax-paying and productive members of our society. They have assimilated: 87 percent of TPS recipients speak some English and more than half speak English well, or speak no language other than English. They are active and integrated participants in our economy who own homes and have mortgages. Many are business owners.
They are also the parents of 192,700 native-born American citizen children. To those young Americans the importance of being with their parents cannot be overstated. To the rest of us, the benefits of having those children raised by their parents, instead of becoming wards of the State, or worse, is clear.
On average TPS recipients have committed less crime than native-born citizens. Each person in TPS has been subject to mandatory screening by USCIS every eighteen months during their time in the country, and part of that screening includes a criminal background check. Those who acquire a criminal record get deported. In short, the TPS recipients who are still here, twenty years later, are anything but criminals.
The fact is that we have already paid most of the social, cultural and economic costs of integrating these immigrants into our culture and economy. Now, after almost two decades, we are set to enjoy the long tail of benefits presented by this hard-working, largely integrated population of nascent citizens: productive labor, economic growth, entrepreneurship, and strong families. To kick them out now would be simply irrational. The same is true of DACA.
Instead of irrational tribalists, we need leaders committed to discovering the facts and to building practical policy solutions based on those facts. We don’t need to build a wall and we don’t need to abolish ICE. We need to commit to good faith discourse and demand that our leaders do the same. The current fact-free debate is tearing American families apart—families that deserve more than soundbites from politicians at both ends of the spectrum who seem to worry about little more than election season.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.