Identity Politics and Immigration

I am pro immigration.

I wrote a chapter in my book about immigration being a consistent political boogeyman throughout American history. I wrote an article in Playboy (yes they really have articles) about the reality of the underlying fears about immigration.

Spoiler alert: they’re ethnocentric.

Economically, culturally and morally, allowing people to come to America, assimilate and add to our culture is a societal positive. The American pie is not fixed. Our native population is aging. Our birth rate is too low. Immigration is a non-optional part of a thriving, growing, prosperous and free 21st Century America.

I live within clear view of our southern border with Mexico. I’ve observed, researched and written at length about immigration and I’ve come to a clear and unambiguous conclusion. America is not in the midst of an immigration crisis. Not in any observable way.

Full stop.

We are, however, in the midst of a political crisis. And our current immigration laws and border security make it worse.

For the last fifty or so years, the progressive political agenda has been to advocate for equality of opportunity and increased access for marginalized populations of Americans.  The conservative political agenda has been to advocate for decreased regulation, free trade and lower taxation to advance corporate interests. Working-class America, specifically white working class America, once represented by the the pro-union progressive labor agenda that predated the progressive shift towards advocacy for marginalized Americans, found themselves without political representation. They became, politically invisible.

And then, on the heels of deep economic crisis, someone noticed them.

Someone who wasn’t afraid to appeal to their specific in group characteristics. Someone who couldn’t be persuaded that advocating for that group, over others, in light of our country’s long and troubling past of the oppression of those others, was taboo. And now, we’ve got a political debate with identity politics on both sides of the ledger. A fixed pie, fight over the scraps, we win only when you lose political sickness.

The current administration didn’t cause it. But they know how to use it. And their temperament is uniquely suited for the kind of fight they’ve picked. It’s a fight that can’t be won; only marketed.

They have their targets.

The media leans left because that’s who pays to consume their content. Deep studies confirm their slant and their motivation. It’s not nefarious. It’s simply the market they’re in. Coastal, metropolitan areas insist on political correctness because we have to figure out how to live with different people and it’s better if we’re not pissing each other off all the time. Academia is full of left leaning academics because that’s who self selects into that profession.

And one other thing.

We have a two thousand-mile border with an entire hemisphere of poor people who come from homelands accurately characterized by extreme crime, drug trafficking and even communism. Presently our southern border is semi-porous. Our laws are extremely difficult to enforce. And we have 11Million people who have entered our country illegally and stayed.

We are not in crisis. But we’ve got some things to address.

Regardless of how you feel about immigration, it’s fair to concede there’s work to be done. We won’t do it though, because it’s a wellspring for identity politics. As long as we’ve got this sickness, we’re going to be having unproductive conversations about immigration.

Caravans of thousands of people should not be let across our border. It’s actually one of the president’s stated charters not to allow it to happen. They also don’t need to be exaggerated or sensationalized at campaign rallies when they’re a thousand miles away and walking slowly away from violence and poverty in plain daylight.

Allowing for stronger border security and enforcement, within bounds of human decency (a wall is fine…caged kids isn’t) and providing a path to citizenship for those already in our country is a solution that meets both sides “stated” goals.

That we won’t ever attain either of those goals is a function of our political sickness.

If we can’t say border security, without confusing it with racism, we can’t solve problems. If caging children because we don’t care a Goddamn about anyone outside of the people who look like the people in our base, then people are going to credibly claim that what we mean by border security is caging children, and then they’ll be justified in calling us racist. And we’ll go round and round and grind our political will to do hard things down to the nub.

And the parts of the world who don’t embrace our principles of western liberalism will rejoice at our relative weakness.

One of the things I learned serving in places where people actually were fighting and killing each other is that if you draw rings around groups of people and make it a fight between the rings, all it takes to win is the biggest ring. And by win, I mean get the biggest slice of a fixed or dwindling pie that won’t grow for fear of strengthening the other rings.  The small rings don’t join forces against the big ring. It doesn’t work that way. They eventually just fight over what’s left over among themselves.

The only way out is to find the ring we can draw around all of us.  It used to be the promise of the American dream. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For the most productive times in America, that’s what we’ve been about.

When I started thinking about immigration as an issue, I originally believed it to be a fringe concern. One thrown on top of a populist rant to add some emotion. The fears aren’t grounded in reality after all. It’s marketing. Like rolling out Christmas decorations in the mall before Halloween. It’s annoying that someone thinks we’re stupid enough to buy into it and be influenced by the mania. But it’s not a real problem.

What I didn’t realize was how central to our political debate it is. In areas where border security is much more difficult, and laws are much more complicated like in the European Union, immigration as a central, defining political issue is producing extreme right wing candidates and political movements.

I’d like to see a candidate run on strong border security to ensure we maintain control over who/what enters our country but also insists on humane treatment of and a path to citizenship for those already in our country.

I understand why a Republican can’t beat that drum.

By why can’t a Democrat?