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← Our immigration conversation is broken -- here's how to have a better one

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Showing Revision 6 created 11/06/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. We often hear these days
    that the immigration system is broken.
  2. I want to make the case today that
    our immigration conversation is broken
  3. and to suggest some ways that, together,
    we might build a better one.
  4. In order to do that, I'm going
    to propose some new questions
  5. about immigration,
  6. the United States
  7. and the world,
  8. questions that might move the borders
    of the immigration debate.
  9. I'm not going to begin with the feverish
    argument that we're currently having,

  10. even as the lives and well-being
    of immigrants are being put at risk
  11. at the US border and far beyond it.
  12. Instead, I'm going to begin
    with me in graduate school
  13. in New Jersey in the mid-1990s,
    earnestly studying US history,
  14. which is what I currently teach
    as a professor at Vanderbilt University
  15. in Nashville, Tennessee.
  16. And when I wasn't studying,
  17. sometimes to avoid
    writing my dissertation,
  18. my friends and I would go into town
  19. to hand out neon-colored flyers,
    protesting legislation
  20. that was threatening to take away
    immigrants' rights.
  21. Our flyers were sincere,
    they were well-meaning,

  22. they were factually accurate ...
  23. But I realize now, they were also
    kind of a problem.
  24. Here's what they said:
  25. "Don't take away immigrant rights
    to public education,
  26. to medical services,
    to the social safety net.
  27. They work hard.
  28. They pay taxes.
  29. They're law-abiding.
  30. They use social services
    less than Americans do.
  31. They're eager to learn English,
  32. and their children serve
    in the US military all over the world."
  33. Now, these are, of course, arguments
    that we hear every day.
  34. Immigrants and their advocates use them
  35. as they confront those who would
    deny immigrants their rights
  36. or even exclude them from society.
  37. And up to a certain point,
    it makes perfect sense
  38. that these would be the kinds of claims
    that immigrants' defenders would turn to.
  39. But in the long term,
    and maybe even in the short term,

  40. I think these arguments
    can be counterproductive.
  41. Why?
  42. Because it's always an uphill battle
  43. to defend yourself
    on your opponent's terrain.
  44. And, unwittingly, the handouts
    my friends and I were handing out
  45. and the versions of these arguments
    that we hear today
  46. were actually playing
    the anti-immigrants game.
  47. We were playing that game
    in part by envisioning
  48. that immigrants were outsiders,
  49. rather than, as I'm hoping
    to suggest in a few minutes,
  50. people that are already,
    in important ways, on the inside.
  51. It's those who are hostile
    to immigrants, the nativists,
  52. who have succeeded
    in framing the immigration debate
  53. around three main questions.
  54. First, there's the question of whether
    immigrants can be useful tools.

  55. How can we use immigrants?
  56. Will they make us richer and stronger?
  57. The nativist answer
    to this question is no,
  58. immigrants have little
    or nothing to offer.
  59. The second question is whether
    immigrants are others.

  60. Can immigrants become more like us?
  61. Are they capable of becoming more like us?
  62. Are they capable of assimilating?
  63. Are they willing to assimilate?
  64. Here, again, the nativist answer is no,
  65. immigrants are permanently
    different from us and inferior to us.
  66. And the third question is whether
    immigrants are parasites.

  67. Are they dangerous to us?
    And will they drain our resources?
  68. Here, the nativist answer is yes and yes,
  69. immigrants pose a threat
    and they sap our wealth.
  70. I would suggest that these three questions
    and the nativist animus behind them
  71. have succeeded in framing the larger
    contours of the immigration debate.
  72. These questions are anti-immigrant
    and nativist at their core,
  73. built around a kind of hierarchical
    division of insiders and outsiders,
  74. us and them,
  75. in which only we matter,
  76. and they don't.
  77. And what gives these questions
    traction and power
  78. beyond the circle of committed nativists
  79. is the way they tap into an everyday,
    seemingly harmless sense
  80. of national belonging
  81. and activate it, heighten it
  82. and inflame it.
  83. Nativists commit themselves
    to making stark distinctions

  84. between insiders and outsiders.
  85. But the distinction itself is at the heart
    of the way nations define themselves.
  86. The fissures between inside and outside,
  87. which often run deepest
    along lines of race and religion,
  88. are always there to be
    deepened and exploited.
  89. And that potentially
    gives nativist approaches resonance
  90. far beyond those who consider
    themselves anti-immigrant,
  91. and remarkably, even among some
    who consider themselves pro-immigrant.
  92. So, for example,
    when Immigrants Act allies
  93. answer these questions
    the nativists are posing,
  94. they take them seriously.
  95. They legitimate those questions
    and, to some extent,
  96. the anti-immigrant assumptions
    that are behind them.
  97. When we take these questions seriously
    without even knowing it,
  98. we're reinforcing the closed,
    exclusionary borders
  99. of the immigration conversation.
  100. So how did we get here?

  101. How did these become the leading ways
    that we talk about immigration?
  102. Here, we need some backstory,
  103. which is where my history
    training comes in.
  104. During the first century of the US's
    status as an independent nation,
  105. it did very little to restrict
    immigration at the national level.
  106. In fact, many policymakers
    and employers worked hard
  107. to recruit immigrants
  108. to build up industry
  109. and to serve as settlers,
    to seize the continent.
  110. But after the Civil War,
  111. nativist voices rose
    in volume and in power.
  112. The Asian, Latin American,
    Caribbean and European immigrants
  113. who dug Americans' canals,
  114. cooked their dinners,
  115. fought their wars
  116. and put their children to bed at night
  117. were met with a new
    and intense xenophobia,
  118. which cast immigrants
    as permanent outsiders
  119. who should never be allowed
    to become insiders.
  120. By the mid-1920s, the nativists had won,

  121. erecting racist laws
  122. that closed out untold numbers
    of vulnerable immigrants and refugees.
  123. Immigrants and their allies
    did their best to fight back,
  124. but they found themselves
    on the defensive,
  125. caught in some ways
    in the nativists' frames.
  126. When nativists said
    that immigrants weren't useful,
  127. their allies said yes, they are.
  128. When nativists accused
    immigrants of being others,
  129. their allies promised
    that they would assimilate.
  130. When nativists charged that immigrants
    were dangerous parasites,
  131. their allies emphasized
    their loyalty, their obedience,
  132. their hard work and their thrift.
  133. Even as advocates welcomed immigrants,
  134. many still regarded immigrants
    as outsiders to be pitied, to be rescued,
  135. to be uplifted
  136. and to be tolerated,
  137. but never fully brought inside
    as equals in rights and respect.
  138. After World War II, and especially
    from the mid-1960s until really recently,

  139. immigrants and their allies
    turned the tide,
  140. overthrowing mid-20th century restriction
  141. and winning instead a new system
    that prioritized family reunification,
  142. the admission of refugees
  143. and the admission of those
    with special skills.
  144. But even then,
  145. they didn't succeed in fundamentally
    changing the terms of the debate,
  146. and so that framework endured,
  147. ready to be taken up again
    in our own convulsive moment.
  148. That conversation is broken.
  149. The old questions
    are harmful and divisive.
  150. So how do we get from that conversation

  151. to one that's more likely to get us
    closer to a world that is fairer,
  152. that is more just,
  153. that's more secure?
  154. I want to suggest that what we have to do
  155. is one of the hardest things
    that any society can do:
  156. to redraw the boundaries of who counts,
  157. of whose life, whose rights
  158. and whose thriving matters.
  159. We need to redraw the boundaries.
  160. We need to redraw the borders of us.
  161. In order to do that, we need to first
    take on a worldview that's widely held
  162. but also seriously flawed.
  163. According to that worldview,
  164. there's the inside of the national
    boundaries, inside the nation,
  165. which is where we live, work
    and mind our own business.
  166. And then there's the outside;
    there's everywhere else.
  167. According to this worldview,
    when immigrants cross into the nation,
  168. they're moving from
    the outside to the inside,
  169. but they remain outsiders.
  170. Any power or resources they receive
  171. are gifts from us rather than rights.
  172. Now, it's not hard to see why
    this is such a commonly held worldview.

  173. It's reinforced in everyday ways
    that we talk and act and behave,
  174. down to the bordered maps
    that we hang up in our schoolrooms.
  175. The problem with this worldview
    is that it just doesn't correspond
  176. to the way the world actually works,
  177. and the way it has worked in the past.
  178. Of course, American workers
    have built up wealth in society.
  179. But so have immigrants,
  180. particularly in parts of the American
    economy that are indispensable
  181. and where few Americans work,
    like agriculture.
  182. Since the nation's founding,
  183. Americans have been inside
    the American workforce.
  184. Of course, Americans have built up
    institutions in society
  185. that guarantee rights.
  186. But so have immigrants.
  187. They've been there during
    every major social movement,
  188. like civil rights and organized labor,
  189. that have fought to expand
    rights in society for everyone.
  190. So immigrants are already
    inside the struggle
  191. for rights, democracy and freedom.
  192. And finally, Americans
    and other citizens of the Global North

  193. haven't minded their own business,
  194. and they haven't stayed
    within their own borders.
  195. They haven't respected
    other nations' borders.
  196. They've gone out into the world
    with their armies,
  197. they've taken over
    territories and resources,
  198. and they've extracted enormous profits
    from many of the countries
  199. that immigrants are from.
  200. In this sense, many immigrants are
    actually already inside American power.
  201. With this different map
    of inside and outside in mind,
  202. the question isn't whether
    receiving countries
  203. are going to let immigrants in.
  204. They're already in.
  205. The question is whether
    the United States and other countries
  206. are going to give immigrants
    access to the rights and resources
  207. that their work, their activism
    and their home countries
  208. have already played
    a fundamental role in creating.
  209. With this new map in mind,
  210. we can turn to a set of tough,
    new, urgently needed questions,
  211. radically different from the ones
    we've asked before --
  212. questions that might change
    the borders of the immigration debate.
  213. Our three questions are
    about workers' rights,
  214. about responsibility
  215. and about equality.
  216. First, we need to be asking
    about workers' rights.

  217. How do existing policies make it harder
    for immigrants to defend themselves
  218. and easier for them to be exploited,
  219. driving down wages, rights
    and protections for everyone?
  220. When immigrants are threatened
    with roundups, detention and deportations,
  221. their employers know
    that they can be abused,
  222. that they can be told
    that if they fight back,
  223. they'll be turned over to ICE.
  224. When employers know
  225. that they can terrorize an immigrant
    with his lack of papers,
  226. it makes that worker hyper-exploitable,
  227. and that has impacts
    not only for immigrant workers
  228. but for all workers.
  229. Second, we need to ask questions
    about responsibility.

  230. What role have rich, powerful
    countries like the United States
  231. played in making it hard or impossible
  232. for immigrants to stay
    in their home countries?
  233. Picking up and moving from your country
    is difficult and dangerous,
  234. but many immigrants simply do not have
    the option of staying home
  235. if they want to survive.
  236. Wars, trade agreements
  237. and consumer habits
    rooted in the Global North
  238. play a major and devastating role here.
  239. What responsibilities
    do the United States,
  240. the European Union and China --
  241. the world's leading carbon emitters --
  242. have to the millions of people
    already uprooted by global warming?
  243. And third, we need to ask
    questions about equality.

  244. Global inequality is a wrenching,
    intensifying problem.
  245. Income and wealth gaps
    are widening around the world.
  246. Increasingly, what determines
    whether you're rich or poor,
  247. more than anything else,
  248. is what country you're born in,
  249. which might seem great
    if you're from a prosperous country.
  250. But it actually means
    a profoundly unjust distribution
  251. of the chances for a long,
    healthy, fulfilling life.
  252. When immigrants send money
    or goods home to their family,
  253. it plays a significant role
    in narrowing these gaps,
  254. if a very incomplete one.
  255. It does more than all
    of the foreign aid programs
  256. in the world combined.
  257. We began with the nativist questions,

  258. about immigrants as tools,
  259. as others
  260. and as parasites.
  261. Where might these new questions
    about worker rights,
  262. about responsibility
  263. and about equality
  264. take us?
  265. These questions reject pity,
    and they embrace justice.
  266. These questions reject
    the nativist and nationalist division
  267. of us versus them.
  268. They're going to help prepare us
    for problems that are coming
  269. and problems like global warming
    that are already upon us.
  270. It's not going to be easy to turn away
    from the questions that we've been asking

  271. towards this new set of questions.
  272. It's no small challenge
  273. to take on and broaden the borders of us.
  274. It will take wit,
    inventiveness and courage.
  275. The old questions have been
    with us for a long time,
  276. and they're not going
    to give way on their own,
  277. and they're not going
    to give way overnight.
  278. And even if we manage
    to change the questions,
  279. the answers are going to be complicated,
  280. and they're going to require
    sacrifices and tradeoffs.
  281. And in an unequal world, we're always
    going to have to pay attention
  282. to the question of who has the power
    to join the conversation
  283. and who doesn't.
  284. But the borders of the immigration debate
  285. can be moved.
  286. It's up to all of us to move them.
  287. Thank you.

  288. (Applause)