A small gray bird lives in a palm tree in my back yard. Every few minutes for the past several weeks, the bird flies straight toward a high window, then pecks at it with vigor and determination. So far the window holds. A friend asked me to write here about the immigration issue. Every time I focus on it, my mind returns to this bird.
There is something in the human heart that loves a home place, and something just as powerful that calls us to move on. I don’t know what paradise this indefatigable bird envisions on the other side of my window, but immigrants’ attraction to the United States is not so hard to fathom. After all, we boast constantly of our virtues and advantages, using every known communications medium. Most people come here because they hope to find a reasonable living—even a way to make a fortune—a modicum of freedom and safety, and very often, an opportunity for their children to have much more than they have managed to eke out of the world. They come here to get away from places where they cannot practice their religion or retain the fruits of their labor or sleep in safety in their own homes. These are the reasons my grandparents and parents made the long voyage with little more than hopes in their baggage; and also why people hurl themselves across the border today, as tireless as the bird whose thumps and pecks make me wince all day long.
Under the provisions of the immigration bill now being debated in Congress, neither my maternal grandparents nor my father would have been allowed into this country, since they utterly lacked the education, professional qualifications or material resources to earn a sufficient number of points in the proposed system. Presumably, I would not exist, or, based on my family history, the person who might have been me would have remained dormant in the DNA of a Russian girl who died during World War II.
Protests from immigrant groups have focused on this grievance (while protests from anti-immigrant groups oppose allowing the legitimization of the undocumented and demand increased border enforcement). A number of Democratic senators have now introduced amendments calling for increasing the number of available green cards, giving family ties more weight, and barring employers from using guest workers to facilitate mass lay-offs or circumvent the domestic labor market. Republicans have proposed beefing up border enforcement and limiting benefits to formerly undocumented workers who would be allowed to become legitimate with “Z” status under the proposed legislation, among other things.
From the perspective of my forebears or the bird outside my window, the limitation of immigration is a tragedy driven by the compassionless self-love of the prosperous. From the perspective of the people who fear their share of social goods will be diminished by having to split the commonwealth with a large number of new people culturally different from themselves (or for that matter, from the perspective of the people who live in my house and don’t want to find nests and feathers everywhere), limits on access are simply practical and necessary. The USA also faces other prospects which may diminish our exceptional level of economic privilege, and these subtly color the debate: the decline of the oil-based economy with its luxurious transportation styles, global warming with the attendant changes in inhabitable land-mass. Whether by choice or compulsion, the future is likely to diminish north American exceptionalism. Immigration offers by no means the largest of these potential impacts, but for legislative purposes and for ease of generating sound-bites, it is the handiest and easiest to manage.
Despite the alarmist assertions of anti-immigrationists, immigration has been a virtually unqualified boon to the nation as a whole, immeasurably enriching the life of our cities, heightening economic enterprise and productivity, bringing us so many people who have contributed in every sphere. For many of the immigrants, though, the blessing has been far more mixed. In principle, I believe in free and open borders; and in practice, I also see a nation’s capacity to absorb new residents is not unlimited. This is an issue in which so many contradictory truths are braided, it is almost impossible to imagine a resolution that would speak to them all.
So if I were this country’s fairy godmother, endowed with the magic wand of legislation, what would I do? You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a four-part program.
First, we need to hone in on our capacity to receive immigrants in a fashion that respects their human rights and offers them a reasonable, humane share of social goods. The conversation now is filled with questionable counter-assertions about carrying capacity. It won’t be easy to find trustworthy information and interpretation, but it seems necessary.
Second, we need to invest in humane programs to welcome, integrate and assist new immigrants, vastly reducing the clumsy everyday tragedy of the immigration story we are writing today.
Third, we need to expand immigration quotas and reform procedures to reflect the first two realities. I don’t object to giving skilled workers a minor advantage in some portion of the pool, but it can’t predominate, and in a democratic system, racial, gender or national origin preferences are also repugnant.
Fourth and foremost is to address the heart of the matter. If freedom and opportunity were available in the same places where people could live side-by-side with extended families in the landscapes of their hearts, in their own languages, in their own histories, many fewer would want to come here. Some of us would still be like the bird at my window—myself for one, having moved perhaps twenty times in my life so far—but not nearly so many.
The terrible thing about legislative politics is that they are almost always tinkering at the edges of social reality, pruning the furthest branches rather than addressing the root. Around the world, the United States is now seen as an enemy of self-determination and human rights abroad, even as this nation continues to symbolize individual opportunity. Relative to our size, wealth and power, we are doing almost nothing to improve conditions and opportunities for the vast numbers of people for whom some form of migration has become the only survival option. Indeed, many of our policies are worsening their lives and driving them from their homes. (The UN reports that the number of refugees is now increasing for the first time since 2002, due to our actions in Iraq.)
It’s not clear whether Congress’s horse-trading of amendments will sink the immigration bill, which having been crafted to balance some pretty incompatible interests, may collapse under the additional weight. Sooner or later, some highly imperfect bill is likely to pass. Whatever it turns out to be will not alter the truth that the most important things we can do to solve “the immigration problem” and honor those who came before us and made our place in this nation are to become a force for freedom and opportunity around the globe and to address our primary role in exacerbating the energy/global warming crisis.
Thump! Peck! There’s that bird again.