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

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Showing Revision 2 created 11/01/2019 by Joseph Geni.

  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 and the world,
  7. questions that might move the borders
    of the immigration debate.
  8. I'm not going to begin with the feverish
    argument that we're currently having,

  9. even as the lives and wellbeing
    of immigrants are being put at risk
  10. at the US borders and far beyond it.
  11. Instead I'm going to begin
    with me in graduate school
  12. in New Jersey in the mid-1990s
    earnestly studying US history,
  13. which is what I currently
    teach as a professor
  14. at Vanderbilt University
    in Nashville, Tennessee.
  15. And when I wasn't studying,
  16. sometimes to avoid
    writing my dissertation,
  17. my friends and I would go into town
  18. to hand out neon-colored flyers
  19. 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. They pay taxes.
  28. They're law-abiding.
  29. They use social services
    less than Americans do.
  30. They're eager to learn English,
  31. and their children serve
    in the US military all over the world."
  32. Now these are of course arguments
    that we hear every day.
  33. Immigrants and their advocates use them
  34. as they confront those who would
    deny immigrants their rights
  35. or even exclude them from society.
  36. And up to a certain point,
    it makes perfect sense
  37. that these would be the kinds of claims
    that immigrants' defenders would turn to.
  38. But in the long term,
    and maybe even in the short term,

  39. I think these arguments
    can be counterproductive.
  40. Why?
  41. Because it's always an uphill battle
  42. to defend yourself
    on your opponents' terrain,
  43. and, unwittingly,
  44. the handouts that my friends
    and I were handing out
  45. and the versions of these arguments
    that we hear today,
  46. we're 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 questions is whether
    immigrants are others.

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

  66. Are they dangerous to us?
    And will they drain our resources?
  67. Here, the nativist answer is yes and yes,
  68. immigrants pose a threat
    and they sap our wealth.
  69. I would suggest that these three questions
    and the nativist animus behind them
  70. have succeeded in framing the larger
    contours of the immigration debate.
  71. These questions are anti-immigrant
    and nativist at their core,
  72. built around a kind of hierarchical
    division of insiders and outsiders,
  73. us and them,
  74. in which only we matter and they don't.
  75. And what gives these questions
    traction and power
  76. beyond the circle of committed nativists
    is the way that they tap into
  77. an everyday, seemingly harmless
    sense of national belonging
  78. and activate it, heighten it,
  79. and inflame it.
  80. Nativists commit themselves
    to making stark distinctions
  81. between insiders and outsiders,
  82. but the distinction itself is at the heart
    of the way nations define themselves.
  83. The fissures between inside and outside,
  84. which often run deepest
    along lines of race and religion,
  85. are always there to be
    deepened and exploited.
  86. And that potentially
    gives nativist approaches resonance
  87. far beyond those who consider
    themselves anti-immigrant,
  88. and remarkably even among some
    who consider themselves pro-immigrant.
  89. So, for example,
  90. when immigrants' allies
  91. answer these questions
    the nativists are posing,
  92. they take them seriously.
  93. They legitimate those questions,
    and, to some extent,
  94. the anti-immigrant assumptions
    that are behind them.
  95. When we take these questions seriously
    without even knowing it,
  96. we're reinforcing the closed,
    exclusionary borders
  97. of the immigration conversation.
  98. So how did we get here?

  99. How did these become the leading ways
    that we talk about immigration?
  100. Here we need some backstory, which is
    where my history training comes in.
  101. During the first century
  102. of the US's status
    as an independent nation,
  103. it did very little to restrict
    immigration at the national level.
  104. In fact, many policymakers
    and employers worked hard
  105. to recruit immigrants
  106. to build up industry
  107. and to serve as settlers,
    to seize the continent.
  108. But after the Civil War,
  109. nativist voices rose
    in volume and in power.
  110. The Asian, Latin American,
    Caribbean and European immigrants
  111. who dug Americans' canals,
  112. cooked their dinners,
  113. fought their wars,
  114. and put their children to bed at night,
  115. were met with a new and intense xenophobia
  116. which cast immigrants
    as permanent outsiders
  117. who should never be allowed
    to become insiders.
  118. By the mid-1920s, the nativists had won,
  119. erecting racist laws
  120. that closed our untold numbers
    of vulnerable immigrants and refugees.
  121. Immigrants and their allies
    did their best to fight back,
  122. but they found themselves
    on the defensive,
  123. caught in some ways
    in the nativists' frames.
  124. When nativists said
    that immigrants weren't useful,
  125. their allies said yes, they are.
  126. When nativists accused
    immigrants of being others,
  127. their allies promised
    that they would assimilate.
  128. When nativists charged that immigrants
    were dangerous parasites,
  129. their allies emphasized
    their loyalty, their obedience,
  130. their hard work, and their thrift.
  131. Even as advocates welcomed immigrants,
  132. many still regarded
    immigrants as outsiders
  133. to be pitied, to be rescued,
  134. to be uplifted and to be tolerated,
  135. but never fully brought inside
    as equals in rights and respect.
  136. After World War II, and especially
    from the mid-1960s until really recently,

  137. immigrants and their allies
    turned the tide,
  138. overthrowing mid-20th century restriction
  139. and winning instead a new system
    that prioritized family reunification,
  140. the admission of refugees,
  141. and the admission of those
    with special skills.
  142. But even then,
  143. they didn't succeed in fundamentally
    changing the terms of the debate,
  144. and so that framework endured,
  145. ready to be taken up again
    in our own convulsive moment.
  146. That conversation is broken.

  147. The old questions
    are harmful and divisive.
  148. So how do we get from that conversation

  149. to one that's more likely to get us
    closer to a world that is fairer,
  150. that is more just,
  151. that's more secure?
  152. I want to suggest that what we have to do
  153. is one of the hardest thing
    that any society can do:
  154. to redraw the boundaries of who counts,
  155. of whose life, whose rights,
  156. and whose thriving matters.
  157. We need to redraw the boundaries.
  158. We need to redraw the borders of us.
  159. In order to do that, we need to first
    take on a worldview that's widely held
  160. but also seriously flawed.
  161. According to that worldview,
  162. there's the inside
    of the national boundaries,
  163. inside the nation which is where we
    live, work and mind our own business,
  164. and then there's the outside,
    there's everywhere else.
  165. According to this worldview,
    when immigrants cross into the nation,
  166. they're moving from
    the outside to the inside,
  167. but they remain outsiders.
  168. Any power or resources they receive
  169. are gifts from us rather than rights.
  170. Now it's not hard to see why
    this is such a commonly held worldview.
  171. It's reinforced in everyday way
    that we talk and act and behave
  172. down to the bordered maps
    that we hang up in our schoolrooms.
  173. The problem with this worldview
    is that it just doesn't correspond
  174. to the way the world actually works
    and the way it has worked in the past.
  175. Of course, American workers
    have built up wealth in society,

  176. but so have immigrants,
  177. particularly in parts of the American
    economy that are indispensable
  178. and where few Americans work,
    like agriculture.
  179. Since the nation's founding,
  180. Americans have been inside
    the American workforce.
  181. Of course, Americans have built up
    institutions and society
  182. that guaranteed rights,
  183. but so have immigrants.
  184. They've been there during
    every major social movement,
  185. like civil rights and organized labor,
  186. that have fought to expand
    rights and society for everyone.
  187. So immigrants are already inside
  188. the struggle for rights,
    democracy and freedom.
  189. And finally, Americans
    and other citizens of the Global North

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

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

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

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

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

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

  286. (Applause)