America is a country that equally loves and hates immigration. With public opinion on this issue being divided, it does not look Americans will reach a consensus on what is good for the country, anytime soon. If history is any indicator, then this question has not been settled in the last three hundred years. So, as urgent as this matter is – and I do believe that immigration reform should take place – I think we need to step back and look at this issue for what it is – a deeply rooted one, that is intertwined with the very identity of America. Is America really a ‘melting pot’ of cultures and people? Or is it not? There is no right answer to this question, as it is a normative one, whose meaning will be defined and re-defined by every generation. I would argue that it is impossible to determine this purely on the basis of polls, public opinions or even voting, because this question is about values and normative assumptions about what constitutes America.
By this, I mean that there is no ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ way to go about immigration reform in the U.S. I believe the best way to think about this issue is to think of it as an ethical value, rather than as a ‘rational’ one, that would either benefit or harm America’s economy. President Obama’s recent moves to allow millions of undocumented workers is not a new story, in the sense of being totally novel, but one that is part of a struggle between nativists who did not want to dilute the character of America versus liberals, who believed that the melting pot of America should be kept open to all, who wanted to be a part of it. As this article in the New York Times points, one key piece of the Executive Order may allow up to five million undocumented workers to work in the U.S. with work permits and not fear being deported. The benefits of this measure could be potentially limited to those who have lived in the country for more than ten years, the report added. This brings us to the question of why immigration continues to be such a big issue? Why is it so divisive and what is the history of this discourse?
Since the early 19th century, this has been the pattern of existence for most Americans. While the immigrants have changed – from Irish in the early nineteenth century to Asians, Arabs and now Latinos. The anti-immigration sentiment has been based on fear. This is a dominant theme that emerges time and again. This could be a fear of several things: Fear of lack of resources, vanishing jobs, ‘dangerous criminals’ and fear of ‘diluting the true identity’ of what it means to be an American have all been invoked, from the early 19th century onwards. While we are witnessing anti-immigrant sentiment against Latinos and Muslims now; the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Arabs to South Asians have faced this in the past.
Latino immigration and fear of the ‘foreigner’
While President Obama has been slow to push for comprehensive immigration reform, given the nature of divisive politics in Washington D.C., there is indication that he will issue an Executive Order, soon. This is meant to allow for greater access and mobility for undocumented workers, who are predominantly from Mexico, but also come from Latin American countries.
Nativists argued for banning the Irish from entering the U.S. in the 19th century and then later in the 20th century, the same arguments were propounded against Arabs and those from Asia. As Wuthnow suggests, we must critically examine the mythos that make up America – that is a land of opportunities, or that it is really a religious place. These myths are not helpful, and can do more harm, he suggests and goes on to say “For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” Any such examination should take into account that we are becoming more individualistic, as a society and this needs to give way to a more collective way of thinking, he suggests. So, is the anti-immigration sentiment a purely rational decision of individuals deciding to keep those not ‘fit’ to be part of the U.S. out, while allowing others to come in? Or is there something more to it? Can we explain this through purely rational choice paradigm or do we need more than that?
So, while it is important to examine the narratives on which America is built, it is also crucial for us to look at the narratives and myths about the immigrants themselves. I would argue that this is equally important, if one were to arrive at some approximation of ‘truth’. While several studies have shown that immigration is good for America, there are an equal number of them that would point to the opposite – that immigrants are harmful to our economy, they take away jobs from deserving Americans etc. This sort of ‘instrumental rationality’ of measuring everything from a purely ‘scientific’ perspective is not helpful. In social sciences, we need more ‘value rationality’, as suggested by Flyvberg (2001) and others. This means that we actually go beyond purely epistemic or quantitative analysis and make normative, ethical judgments about issues – whether an issue is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our society.
As Wuthnow argues, renewal of America – as an idea – is not purely about material conditions, though economy is always part of the political discourse, but rather about where people feel the country is headed. This is evident in the mid-term elections that concluded, where a majority of voters did not recognize Obama’s achievements in reducing unemployment, budget deficit etc. and instead voted for the Republicans. How does this fit into the arguments that I have made thus far? It confirms in some ways what Flyvbjerg says that people do not make ‘rational’ choices but rather those that are based on normative choices. So, in our analysis of issues like immigration, climate change etc. perhaps we must be open to including judgment and decisions made in the manner of a ‘virtuoso social and political actor’, as Flyvbjerg suggests, rather than just focusing on the rules of the game. Rules are often now followed and are often broken, when it comes to practical, everyday life – a fact that ‘rational’ social science does not take into account.