Immigration, It’s Complicated

After Monday’s agreement that ended the partial government shutdown, Republicans and Democrats have seventeen days to arrive at an immigration deal that both protects the approximately 800,000 beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, a.k.a, DACA, and addresses concerns about border security and other immigration policy issues.

It’s an issue that Christians should engage with and also one about which they can, within certain limits, disagree. But only if we take the time to understand the issue, if not thoroughly, at least well enough to separate facts from talking points and rhetoric.

What follows are some definitions and outlines of current law, followed by the political, economic, and, finally, cultural context that shapes them.

DACA, not the same as Vaca (Spanish for “cow”)

I linked to Wikipedia’s article on DACA. Here’s a link to Vox’s explainer of the program. Simply put, to be eligible for DACA, you must have been born on or after June 16, 1981 entered the United before your sixteenth birthday and resided here continuously since June 15, 2007. You must have completed high school or served in the armed forces. And you can’t have been convicted of felony or a serious misdemeanor.

DACA doesn’t provide a “path to citizenship” or make you eligible for federal benefits or student aid.

DACA, at least notionally, enjoys broad bipartisan support. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, a conservative Republican, has introduced a bill to make DACA’s protections permanent. When he introduced the bill he said that “we as Americans do not hold children legally accountable for the actions of their parents.”

The support is so broad that it’s difficult to name a political leader who doesn’t, at least notionally, support it. Thus, Dave the Swede (not his real name) is confident that a deal on DACA will get done. I’m not as optimistic, if no other reason than that, in recent weeks, some ugly rhetoric has muddied the waters.

Chain (of Fools) Migration

Exhibit A is the expression “chain migration.” It’s Orwellian Newspeak that misappropriates an expression from social science for the purpose of, frankly, dehumanizing its object.

Chain migration,” in social science is “a term used by demographers . . .to refer to the social process by which immigrants from a particular town follow others from that town to a particular destination city or neighborhood.” It’s the process that explains why so many people in western Michigan are of Dutch descent. It explains why so many people in Minnesota are of Norwegian or Swedish descent. And it’s why so many people in Central Florida have the last name “Rivera.”

None of this has anything to do with immigration law. Puerto Rican migrants are already native-born American citizens, after all. What some are calling “chain migration” is actually “family reunification,” which is a matter of immigration law.

(We are) Family Reunification

To get a handle on this subject, and legal immigration as a whole, we need to get a little nerdy and throw some numbers around. Under current law, the United States admits 675,000 permanent immigrants every year. Of these, up to 480,000 can be relatives of lawful permanent residents and American citizens. This is what people are referring to when they speak of the “family reunification preference” of U.S. immigration law.

That 480,000 cap doesn’t not include spouses, minor children, and parents, i.e., the immediate family, of lawful permanent residents and American citizens. (This is the principal reason why, although the legal cap is set at 675,000 per year, the number of people legally admitted is actually around 1 million.)

Last bit of nerdiness: Lawful permanent residents and U.S. citizens can sponsor, in descending order of preference:

  • The unmarried adult (21 or older) children of U.S. citizens
  • The unmarried adult children of U.S. permanent residents
  • The adult married children of U.S. citizens, and
  • The siblings of adult U.S. citizens

Unlike the immediate family of permanent residents and U.S. citizens, people in these categories are subject to a quota. That means that, even if they met the criteria, they’re placed in the proverbial line where their wait can last decades. It’s worth noting that U.S. law makes the idea of “anchor babies” a myth. A U.S. citizen cannot sponsor their parents until they turn twenty-one and their parent must reside outside of the US between 3 and 10 years before their adult child can sponsor them. As an immigration strategy, it makes as much sense as one of the gadgets Wile E. Coyote purchased from ACME to catch the Road Runner.

Oh Canada!

There are many advocates of de-emphasizing family reunification – for instance, limiting reunification to the immigrant’s immediate family – in favor of more skilled immigration. The go-to example is Canada’s merit-based system.

This is a conversation worth having. No one can accuse Canadians of “xenophobia” – Canada takes in, relative to population, a much higher number of legal immigrants every year than America. Its percentage of foreign-born resident is twice that of the United States. And it’s hard to argue with stuff this this: “Two of the last three governors-general — Canada’s ceremonial heads of state — were born abroad (one in Haiti and one in Hong Kong), and the current cabinet has more Sikhs (four) than the cabinet of India.”

My biggest misgivings about proposals for changes along Canadian lines have to do with demographics. As a recent Breakpoint broadcast told listeners, our fertility rate has dropped to 1.77 children per woman. There, John Stonestreet and Shane Morris told listeners, “this is bad news for our economy, our culture, and our future as a nation.”

For purposes of this discussion, the bottom line is this: like all countries with sub-replacement fertility rates (2.1 children per woman) we will have to import workers, especially as our society ages. And we are aging, fast. To quote, well, myself, “In 2016, there were approximately 46 million Americans over 65 – by 2060, it’s estimated there will be 98 million. What’s more, the kind of workers we are likely to need aren’t only “high-skill/high-wage” ones. It’s the kind of people who are willing to do the jobs we value the least but will increasingly need the most: home health aides and personal care workers, especially considering that our aging will be accompanied by loneliness: “By 2060, ‘the share of non-Hispanic whites without any living close kin [is projected to] double. The share of non-Hispanic blacks without close kin is expected to more than triple.’”

Given our demographic future, it’s possible to be too picky or selective when it comes to immigration. This is even more true if proposals to move towards a more merit-based system are accompanied by to substantially reduce the number of permanent immigrants.

It is this demographic reality, and not some Davos-inspired disdain for hoi polloi, why much of the notorious “establishment” favors fairly high immigration rates. They know the numbers. They also know that no one has come up with a way to reverse drops in fertility rates in a statistically significant way.

The Problem of “Merit.”

Finally, there is something problematic, and frankly off-putting, about the idea of “merit” itself. It assumes that we possess some God-like power, to put it bluntly, to identify which potential immigrant is most likely to benefit the United States in the long-term.

There’s ample reason to be skeptical of such a claim. A century ago, eastern European Jews would have ranked at or near the bottom of anyone’s assessment of merit. Immigration restrictionists claimed to have evidence of their inferior intelligence. Today, that assessment strikes us as ridiculous and even obscene. The descendants of those “undesirable,” as they were called at the time, immigrants have made an incalculable contribution to American life.

The reason it’s off-putting is sitting a few feet behind me as I write this, my son. He has no “merit,” as that term is popularly understood to speak of. The list of things he will never do, things that our culture consider as indispensable to the “good life,” and making a contribution to society, is very long. Fortunately, he was born in Washington, D.C. to American citizen parents, so his life doesn’t have to be evaluated for merit.

What’s more, for the Christian, life is about more than economics and academic credentials. A good society is more than the sum of its gross domestic product.

Now, this may be sentimental but it’s not, at least for the Christian, immaterial. To insist otherwise is to agree with Machiavelli that political morality and personal morality are independent of each other. It’s to say that Abraham Kuyper was wrong and there are lots of squares inches where Christ doesn’t say “mine,” but, instead, “whatever works for you.”

None of this requires any particular policy outcome. What it does require is understanding what’s at stake, the potential risks of a specific proposal, and, the most important thing a Christian brings to the discussion: the insistence that we are talking about people made in the image of God, no matter where they were born.


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