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

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    We often hear these days
    that the immigration system is broken.
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    I want to make the case today that
    our immigration conversation is broken
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    and to suggest some ways that, together,
    we might build a better one.
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    In order to do that, I'm going
    to propose some new questions
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    about immigration,
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    the United States
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    and the world,
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    questions that might move the borders
    of the immigration debate.
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    I'm not going to begin with the feverish
    argument that we're currently having,
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    even as the lives and well-being
    of immigrants are being put at risk
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    at the US border and far beyond it.
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    Instead, I'm going to begin
    with me in graduate school
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    in New Jersey in the mid-1990s,
    earnestly studying US history,
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    which is what I currently teach
    as a professor at Vanderbilt University
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    in Nashville, Tennessee.
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    And when I wasn't studying,
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    sometimes to avoid
    writing my dissertation,
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    my friends and I would go into town
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    to hand out neon-colored flyers,
    protesting legislation
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    that was threatening to take away
    immigrants' rights.
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    Our flyers were sincere,
    they were well-meaning,
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    they were factually accurate ...
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    But I realize now, they were also
    kind of a problem.
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    Here's what they said:
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    "Don't take away immigrant rights
    to public education,
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    to medical services,
    to the social safety net.
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    They work hard.
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    They pay taxes.
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    They're law-abiding.
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    They use social services
    less than Americans do.
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    They're eager to learn English,
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    and their children serve
    in the US military all over the world."
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    Now, these are, of course, arguments
    that we hear every day.
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    Immigrants and their advocates use them
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    as they confront those who would
    deny immigrants their rights
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    or even exclude them from society.
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    And up to a certain point,
    it makes perfect sense
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    that these would be the kinds of claims
    that immigrants' defenders would turn to.
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    But in the long term,
    and maybe even in the short term,
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    I think these arguments
    can be counterproductive.
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    Why?
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    Because it's always an uphill battle
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    to defend yourself
    on your opponent's terrain.
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    And, unwittingly, the handouts
    my friends and I were handing out
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    and the versions of these arguments
    that we hear today
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    were actually playing
    the anti-immigrants game.
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    We were playing that game
    in part by envisioning
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    that immigrants were outsiders,
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    rather than, as I'm hoping
    to suggest in a few minutes,
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    people that are already,
    in important ways, on the inside.
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    It's those who are hostile
    to immigrants, the nativists,
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    who have succeeded
    in framing the immigration debate
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    around three main questions.
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    First, there's the question of whether
    immigrants can be useful tools.
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    How can we use immigrants?
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    Will they make us richer and stronger?
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    The nativist answer
    to this question is no,
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    immigrants have little
    or nothing to offer.
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    The second question is whether
    immigrants are others.
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    Can immigrants become more like us?
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    Are they capable of becoming more like us?
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    Are they capable of assimilating?
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    Are they willing to assimilate?
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    Here, again, the nativist answer is no,
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    immigrants are permanently
    different from us and inferior to us.
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    And the third question is whether
    immigrants are parasites.
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    Are they dangerous to us?
    And will they drain our resources?
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    Here, the nativist answer is yes and yes,
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    immigrants pose a threat
    and they sap our wealth.
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    I would suggest that these three questions
    and the nativist animus behind them
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    have succeeded in framing the larger
    contours of the immigration debate.
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    These questions are anti-immigrant
    and nativist at their core,
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    built around a kind of hierarchical
    division of insiders and outsiders,
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    us and them,
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    in which only we matter,
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    and they don't.
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    And what gives these questions
    traction and power
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    beyond the circle of committed nativists
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    is the way they tap into an everyday,
    seemingly harmless sense
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    of national belonging
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    and activate it, heighten it
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    and inflame it.
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    Nativists commit themselves
    to making stark distinctions
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    between insiders and outsiders.
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    But the distinction itself is at the heart
    of the way nations define themselves.
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    The fissures between inside and outside,
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    which often run deepest
    along lines of race and religion,
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    are always there to be
    deepened and exploited.
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    And that potentially
    gives nativist approaches resonance
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    far beyond those who consider
    themselves anti-immigrant,
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    and remarkably, even among some
    who consider themselves pro-immigrant.
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    So, for example,
    when Immigrants Act allies
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    answer these questions
    the nativists are posing,
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    they take them seriously.
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    They legitimate those questions
    and, to some extent,
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    the anti-immigrant assumptions
    that are behind them.
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    When we take these questions seriously
    without even knowing it,
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    we're reinforcing the closed,
    exclusionary borders
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    of the immigration conversation.
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    So how did we get here?
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    How did these become the leading ways
    that we talk about immigration?
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    Here, we need some backstory,
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    which is where my history
    training comes in.
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    During the first century of the US's
    status as an independent nation,
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    it did very little to restrict
    immigration at the national level.
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    In fact, many policymakers
    and employers worked hard
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    to recruit immigrants
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    to build up industry
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    and to serve as settlers,
    to seize the continent.
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    But after the Civil War,
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    nativist voices rose
    in volume and in power.
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    The Asian, Latin American,
    Caribbean and European immigrants
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    who dug Americans' canals,
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    cooked their dinners,
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    fought their wars
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    and put their children to bed at night
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    were met with a new
    and intense xenophobia,
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    which cast immigrants
    as permanent outsiders
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    who should never be allowed
    to become insiders.
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    By the mid-1920s, the nativists had won,
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    erecting racist laws
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    that closed out untold numbers
    of vulnerable immigrants and refugees.
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    Immigrants and their allies
    did their best to fight back,
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    but they found themselves
    on the defensive,
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    caught in some ways
    in the nativists' frames.
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    When nativists said
    that immigrants weren't useful,
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    their allies said yes, they are.
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    When nativists accused
    immigrants of being others,
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    their allies promised
    that they would assimilate.
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    When nativists charged that immigrants
    were dangerous parasites,
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    their allies emphasized
    their loyalty, their obedience,
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    their hard work and their thrift.
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    Even as advocates welcomed immigrants,
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    many still regarded immigrants
    as outsiders to be pitied, to be rescued,
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    to be uplifted
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    and to be tolerated,
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    but never fully brought inside
    as equals in rights and respect.
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    After World War II, and especially
    from the mid-1960s until really recently,
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    immigrants and their allies
    turned the tide,
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    overthrowing mid-20th century restriction
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    and winning instead a new system
    that prioritized family reunification,
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    the admission of refugees
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    and the admission of those
    with special skills.
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    But even then,
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    they didn't succeed in fundamentally
    changing the terms of the debate,
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    and so that framework endured,
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    ready to be taken up again
    in our own convulsive moment.
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    That conversation is broken.
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    The old questions
    are harmful and divisive.
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    So how do we get from that conversation
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    to one that's more likely to get us
    closer to a world that is fairer,
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    that is more just,
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    that's more secure?
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    I want to suggest that what we have to do
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    is one of the hardest things
    that any society can do:
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    to redraw the boundaries of who counts,
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    of whose life, whose rights
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    and whose thriving matters.
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    We need to redraw the boundaries.
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    We need to redraw the borders of us.
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    In order to do that, we need to first
    take on a worldview that's widely held
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    but also seriously flawed.
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    According to that worldview,
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    there's the inside of the national
    boundaries, inside the nation,
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    which is where we live, work
    and mind our own business.
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    And then there's the outside;
    there's everywhere else.
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    According to this worldview,
    when immigrants cross into the nation,
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    they're moving from
    the outside to the inside,
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    but they remain outsiders.
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    Any power or resources they receive
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    are gifts from us rather than rights.
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    Now, it's not hard to see why
    this is such a commonly held worldview.
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    It's reinforced in everyday ways
    that we talk and act and behave,
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    down to the bordered maps
    that we hang up in our schoolrooms.
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    The problem with this worldview
    is that it just doesn't correspond
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    to the way the world actually works,
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    and the way it has worked in the past.
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    Of course, American workers
    have built up wealth in society.
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    But so have immigrants,
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    particularly in parts of the American
    economy that are indispensable
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    and where few Americans work,
    like agriculture.
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    Since the nation's founding,
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    Americans have been inside
    the American workforce.
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    Of course, Americans have built up
    institutions in society
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    that guarantee rights.
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    But so have immigrants.
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    They've been there during
    every major social movement,
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    like civil rights and organized labor,
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    that have fought to expand
    rights in society for everyone.
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    So immigrants are already
    inside the struggle
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    for rights, democracy and freedom.
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    And finally, Americans
    and other citizens of the Global North
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    haven't minded their own business,
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    and they haven't stayed
    within their own borders.
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    They haven't respected
    other nations' borders.
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    They've gone out into the world
    with their armies,
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    they've taken over
    territories and resources,
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    and they've extracted enormous profits
    from many of the countries
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    that immigrants are from.
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    In this sense, many immigrants are
    actually already inside American power.
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    With this different map
    of inside and outside in mind,
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    the question isn't whether
    receiving countries
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    are going to let immigrants in.
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    They're already in.
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    The question is whether
    the United States and other countries
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    are going to give immigrants
    access to the rights and resources
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    that their work, their activism
    and their home countries
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    have already played
    a fundamental role in creating.
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    With this new map in mind,
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    we can turn to a set of tough,
    new, urgently needed questions,
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    radically different from the ones
    we've asked before --
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    questions that might change
    the borders of the immigration debate.
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    Our three questions are
    about workers' rights,
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    about responsibility
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    and about equality.
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    First, we need to be asking
    about workers' rights.
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    How do existing policies make it harder
    for immigrants to defend themselves
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    and easier for them to be exploited,
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    driving down wages, rights
    and protections for everyone?
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    When immigrants are threatened
    with roundups, detention and deportations,
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    their employers know
    that they can be abused,
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    that they can be told
    that if they fight back,
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    they'll be turned over to ICE.
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    When employers know
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    that they can terrorize an immigrant
    with his lack of papers,
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    it makes that worker hyper-exploitable,
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    and that has impacts
    not only for immigrant workers
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    but for all workers.
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    Second, we need to ask questions
    about responsibility.
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    What role have rich, powerful
    countries like the United States
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    played in making it hard or impossible
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    for immigrants to stay
    in their home countries?
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    Picking up and moving from your country
    is difficult and dangerous,
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    but many immigrants simply do not have
    the option of staying home
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    if they want to survive.
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    Wars, trade agreements
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    and consumer habits
    rooted in the Global North
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    play a major and devastating role here.
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    What responsibilities
    do the United States,
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    the European Union and China --
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    the world's leading carbon emitters --
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    have to the millions of people
    already uprooted by global warming?
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    And third, we need to ask
    questions about equality.
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    Global inequality is a wrenching,
    intensifying problem.
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    Income and wealth gaps
    are widening around the world.
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    Increasingly, what determines
    whether you're rich or poor,
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    more than anything else,
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    is what country you're born in,
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    which might seem great
    if you're from a prosperous country.
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    But it actually means
    a profoundly unjust distribution
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    of the chances for a long,
    healthy, fulfilling life.
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    When immigrants send money
    or goods home to their family,
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    it plays a significant role
    in narrowing these gaps,
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    if a very incomplete one.
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    It does more than all
    of the foreign aid programs
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    in the world combined.
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    We began with the nativist questions,
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    about immigrants as tools,
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    as others
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    and as parasites.
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    Where might these new questions
    about worker rights,
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    about responsibility
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    and about equality
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    take us?
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    These questions reject pity,
    and they embrace justice.
  • 15:10 - 15:14
    These questions reject
    the nativist and nationalist division
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    of us versus them.
  • 15:15 - 15:18
    They're going to help prepare us
    for problems that are coming
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    and problems like global warming
    that are already upon us.
  • 15:23 - 15:27
    It's not going to be easy to turn away
    from the questions that we've been asking
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    towards this new set of questions.
  • 15:30 - 15:32
    It's no small challenge
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    to take on and broaden the borders of us.
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    It will take wit,
    inventiveness and courage.
  • 15:41 - 15:44
    The old questions have been
    with us for a long time,
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    and they're not going
    to give way on their own,
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    and they're not going
    to give way overnight.
  • 15:50 - 15:52
    And even if we manage
    to change the questions,
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    the answers are going to be complicated,
  • 15:54 - 15:57
    and they're going to require
    sacrifices and tradeoffs.
  • 15:58 - 16:02
    And in an unequal world, we're always
    going to have to pay attention
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    to the question of who has the power
    to join the conversation
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    and who doesn't.
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    But the borders of the immigration debate
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    can be moved.
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    It's up to all of us to move them.
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    Thank you.
  • 16:16 - 16:19
    (Applause)
Title:
Our immigration conversation is broken -- here's how to have a better one
Speaker:
Paul A. Kramer
Description:

more » « less
Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
16:31

English subtitles

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