The Moral Nuances of Immigration

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Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

I’m concerned about the immigration/border issues (who isn’t?). There’s the human suffering. The truly terrible plight of the poor and vulnerable from countries of the Northern Triangle. And just the overwhelming complexity of the issues — amplified by partisan gridlock in Congress.

Could immigration become the Achilles heel for the Biden presidency? Biden has started well — and we, as a nation, very much need that strong start to continue. Biden came in with a plan on the pandemic, and is pretty much exceeding expectations, while communicating, “we’re on top of this.” The “American Rescue Plan” added to the sense of competence and resolve. No backing down. Taking a risk, but gaining passage. Inevitably, there will be stories of funds wasted and corruption, but the chances seem good that the overall gamble will pay off.

What’s striking about the immigration “crisis” is first, that it was foreseeable and second, the Biden team — which had a clear plan and strong sense of direction on the pandemic — seems fuzzy and overwhelmed by issues at the border. Blaming the Trump administration, as Biden did at his first press conference this week, has a  basis in reality, but still it sounds like making excuses. Biden didn’t spend a lot of time and energy faulting Trump on the pandemic once he was in office. He got on with getting the job done. The same is needed on border/ immigration issues.

The temptation, given how inhumane the Trump policies were and how nasty Trump’s rhetoric was, is to swing to the opposite extreme, something that most of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination were falling over themselves to do in their 2019 debates. It was such attractive moral high-ground that Democrats didn’t notice how exposed their position was. Here’s Andrew Sullivan on “What Biden Doesn’t Get About Immigration” and in his Weekly Dish on March 26.

But when you read much of the mainstream press, the entire emphasis is on how racist immigration enforcement inherently is, how cruel it is to prevent anyone from immigrating, how the US is ultimately responsible for the shitty governance in much of central America, how we need to abolish or defund ICE, and how we should focus mainly on how to admit as many people as humanely and as quickly as possible. And as this message percolates, not only does it encourage ever more illegal immigration, and ever more human suffering, it freaks out voters of all races and parties who begin to sense (rightly in my view) a de facto open borders policy.

For all Trump’s gratuitous nastiness, there are — as with other of his issues (e.g. China) — real things at stake here. Framing this as xenophobia/racism vs. compassion/humanity is too simple. I previously wrote an earlier post on this issue in which I also cited Sullivan as well as the NYT columnist, Tom Edsall, both of whom drew upon the work of Eric Kaufmann. But first Edsall, in 2019, quoting from the study, “Prius or Pickup”:

Marc Hetherington — a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and the co-author of ‘Prius or Pickup?’ — believes Democrats may be walking into a trap [on immigration]. Hetherington wrote, ‘Liberal Democrats don’t seem to realize they are out of step with the rest of the American public when it comes to immigration and racial attitudes.

What’s behind those attitudes? Sullivan drew on Eric Kaufmann and his book Whiteshift for a more complex answer to the question.

Maybe this [immigration] is, in fact, the single most powerful force in Western politics. That’s the really engaging thesis of Eric Kaufmann, whose new book, Whiteshift, is by far the most thorough and scholarly treatment of the politics of white majorities I’ve read.

Kaufmann is a professor at Birkbeck, University of London; a Canadian born in Hong Kong and living in England, one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Latino, he passes as ‘white.’ And what’s so refreshing is that Kaufmann is not afraid to go there. He’s candid about race and identity — and how they fit into any immigration debate — and argues that much of the right’s gains (for decades, in fact) have come from a white majority witnessing its own decline and even disappearance, and freaking out.

In this, Kaufmann echoes in some ways the critique of the left: that all that’s really going on right now is white fear of a nonwhite future. But that’s a whole lot going on!

But Kaufmann suggests that simply labeling this conservative shift as racist may obscure understanding. Back to Sullivan:

The difference is that where the left regards ‘whiteness’ as a form of unending oppression, Kaufmann sees the potential for a kind of inclusive liberation. Yes, white racism is still around. Perhaps a good deal. And it’s vital to call that out. [Our awareness of white racism has been much heightened since I originally posted this in 2019 — Robinson comment])

But what Kaufmann insists on is that much of the resistance to mass immigration is not so much racist as merely conservative, emerging not from generalized loathing of others but from attachment to one’s own in times of rapid change. He makes a distinction between ‘racism’ and ‘racial self-interest,’ the first abhorrent, the second understandable . . . I learned from Kaufmann’s book, for example, that in the 1990s, Congress granted five territories — including American Samoa, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands — the right to control immigration to maintain their ethnic majorities.

Kaufmann/ Sullivan are suggesting that we need a more nuanced attitude of people’s views of immigration. That what I am tempted to dub “racist” may be a more natural human tendency in times of rapid change to have an “attachment to one’s own.” I understand that, given our history, some will find this a distinction without a difference.

My hope is that the Biden administration will demonstrate the leadership on this issue that it has on the pandemic. In many respects, Biden as President has been more left of center than anyone expected. On the issue of immigration, he may need to re-discover his inner centrist, while demonstrating the clarity and leadership he showed on COVID.

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

1 COMMENT

  1. Well presented.
    The “Catch 22” is that the Democratic Party believes they are Moralists missing the point of your message of self-preservation (nationalism), their way of life.
    Isn’t Brexit another example of this dilemma ?

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