A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that started about the Handmaid’s Tale and ended up a reaction to the Attorney General using Romans 13 to justify the zero-tolerance policy implemented on our southern border, and by extension its effective separation of children from their parents. I don’t get a lot of comments on my blog (read into that what you will), but I did get a private Facebook message from someone.
This person – a childhood neighbor, fellow Christian, lover of beauty and creativity, and in my humble estimation an all-around good and generous egg – asked my thoughts on a couple questions.
- What do think would happen if hundreds of thousands of Americans decided to enter some other country without “papers” (for lack of a better word)?
- What if a child born in the United States (parents from another country) decided to leave the USA and take up residence in the Country of his or her parents?
These questions are sincere and important and immediately sent my mind spinning in a dozen directions. I want to answer (and expound on) them sincerely and respectfully. I am grateful to her for thoughtful engagement.
The author of The Handmaid’s Tale – the source material for the television series which was the genesis of my original sidetracked post – actually does tackle the idea of a sudden onslaught of refugees from the (former) United States into Canada. The Canadians accept anyone who can make it across the border. The hope of these refugees is to eventually to reclaim and resettle to their homes, but there is no indication that will be soon. However the question was what do I think would happen. Try as I might I can’t come to a more solid answer than … it depends.
But on what?
First, it depends on the destination country.
Different nations have different philosophies and policies around immigration, refugees, and asylum. The legal distinction among those classes is important. Germany, for instance, doesn’t admit just anyone outside the European Union as a migrant for economic or personal reasons, but it has been famously accepting millions of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Italy, on the other hand, has been less willing to accept such refugees. Both countries are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention – as is the United States, but only per amendments as of the 1967 Protocol which actually expands the definition of refugee – but all interpret their corresponding responsibilities differently.
Second, it would depend on the reason.
The United States is a wealthy nation offering more economic and personal security than most countries typically known for displaced refugees. Were that to change (a la The Handmaid’s Tale) due to natural disaster, civil war, economic collapse, or other circumstances, and if such changes created groups of people who were endangered with no recourse through the national government, U.S. refugees would probably be received as sympathetically as other refugees. But – and this is a big but – the last couple centuries of history of the U.S. as an extension of Western European development is that of the colonizer far more than of the oppressed. Native Americans brought to the brink of extinction, enslaved African Americans, and Japanese Americans interned during World War II would have certainly qualified as refugees from the United States under the definition of the Refugee Convention, but when we picture the possibility of “Americans” approaching foreign borders is that really who we’re thinking of? Under present circumstances, an approaching horde of Americans of Western European descent seems more likely to be seizing than fleeing. God forbid our fortune changes, but unless it does, people leaving the United States in droves is a far different scenario than people fleeing countries which have descended into violent narco-states ruled by murderous gangs.
Third, and this may seem like part of the first but I think it’s important enough to warrant its own consideration – what has been the extralegal, “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” history between the United States and the country in question?
Has it recently changed? For decades the U.S. has largely looked the other way when migrants from Mexico and other nations provided cheap labor to shore up industries like construction, hospitality and agriculture because no one wants to pay fifteen dollars per pound for apples picked at the legal minimum wage. As immigration authorities clamp down on such labor, many farmers are struggling to deal with labor shortages. This relationship has been symbiotic for many years. It hasn’t changed because of economics or danger, but because of politics. It seems to me the concern about “the illegals” has grown proportionately not with the number of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. (the net is actually negative), but with the so-called “browning of America” – the increasingly large portion of legal, permanent (and native) Latinx residents as compared to whites.
It’d be disingenuous not to note the number of non-Mexican Latinx immigrants is increasing, but a large portion of those are seeking refugee or asylee status. If United States residents started migrating in large numbers to a country where we had been welcomed under the table for years and that country experienced an economic downturn, I expect we’d be far less welcome than we were when the country needed us to continue its flow of cheap products. Even if we weren’t taking the jobs people wanted, we’d be scapegoats. Xenophobia is ever only waiting for the right conditions to reveal itself. Populist movements in the U.S. and Europe are largely about the fear of foreigners changing the cultural and literal complexion of a nation.
BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM
I don’t necessarily have to speculate about answers to the second question. There are at least a dozen countries that will grant you citizenship if you can prove your parents (and in some cases grandparents) were born as citizens of that country. Other nations would treat you as they treated anyone else who wanted to migrate.
To me, the more interesting part of the question is how we think of borders.
Particularly the borders of the United States. When Europeans began settling North America, the continent was already populated with people and their established territories. Borders didn’t seem to matter much to us as we acquired land through war and genocide. When we annexed Texas and invaded Mexico to expand into territory they would not willingly cede to us, we weren’t too worried about the sovereignty of borders. Until 1882 – nearly a century after the establishment of the US Constitution – there were no immigration laws. There were requirements for citizenship and naturalization, but when we were expanding westward and needed labor, whether people crossed our borders didn’t seem to matter much to us. The first U.S. immigration law – the Chinese Exclusion Act – was not because we wanted the limit the total number of immigrants, but because of the fear of the “Yellow Peril” – that is, Chinese people overwhelming our European heritage – as if somehow Europeans were more deserving of the land we’d stolen than were the Chinese. Other groups were excluded for various reasons, including health, literacy, and anarchist political activity. But we weren’t so worried about borders: we were worried about non-white people.
It wasn’t until 1921 – 134 years after the establishment of the nation – that we began instituting immigration quotas which roughly resembled the ethnic composition of the country at the time. (As an aside, that means anyone claiming their family immigrated “legally” before that time is making a moot point; everyone but Asians were allowed in through established ports of entry).
So what changed during those years?
There are many reasons for secure borders, but those didn’t change. What did change was that we outgrew the sense that we were in a state of constant expansion and unlimited resources. Stretched from coast to coast, bound on the North and South, we realized our limits of geography and resources and decided we didn’t want to share them with just anybody who showed up on the continent.
We basically shut down immigration during the Great Depression, and actually coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to repatriate to Mexico. Not the Irish or Germans or English mind you – only the people who were native and who’s ancestors were here before the Europeans and just happened to involuntarily end up on our side of the border after the Mexican-American war.
People wanting to come to America were no longer seen as fellow pioneers in the Great American Experiment, but as threats. The quality of people outside our borders had not changed, but our jealousy of our resources had. Outside a slight concession to refugee resettlement in the 1980s, the focus of our immigration policy has been on maintaining employment and ethnic mix.
Now that we’ve got ours, borders matter to us.
Of course the economy is of national concern, but we need immigrants to maintain the economy. That makes the deciding factor ethnicity. There are plenty of successful people from countries which are mostly non-white, but in my experience proponents of “merit-based” systems rarely use them as examples, and are instead quick to point to mostly wealthy white countries which people have little desire to leave anyway. Our quotas and other immigration policies make implicit judgments about worthiness based on where people are from. Our talk of “merit-based” immigration is also disingenuous to the American ideal: no longer are we here for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free… but come on in if you’ve already made it big!
To me that doesn’t seem very “all men are created equal.”
It doesn’t seem very Christian.
It doesn’t seem very American Dream.
How many of us are here because our ancestors fled something?
How many wouldn’t make the cut today under the same circumstances?
How many railed against the discrimination and persecution they experienced here?
How are we more deserving of this stolen land than people facing the same situations?
THE QUESTION BEHIND THE QUESTIONS
Thinking about immigration as a matter of justice requires thinking about a much larger story than what is legal or illegal, convenient or inconvenient, or profitable or not profitable at this moment in history. Before I get to what I think is the big question behind the original two questions, I want to make a few things clear:
- I don’t believe in lawless, open borders; I don’t personally know anyone who does.
- I do believe we need to recognize the basic human dignity of everyone – not just citizens.
- I don’t have a problem with prosecuting and deporting criminals.
- I do have a problem with indefinitely separating and/or detaining children and families.
That last point shifted the focus of my prior blog post, which in turn raised the questions addressed in this one. My post was about exploiting scripture to defend the indefensible, and how that is neither conservative nor liberal but dangerously fundamentalist. I specifically didn’t advocate any policy, yet it raised policy-related questions for at least one reader. And the connecting thread between these questions was a deeper question…
What would other countries do?
My short answer to this question behind the questions is: I don’t think it matters.
I want us as a nation to do what is right and merciful, regardless of whether other nations would reciprocate. I’m not going to pretend I personally have the prescription for what is right, but it’s certainly something better than what we have now. As a Christian – as a human being – I can’t look at something as artificial and shifting and arbitrary and historically cruel as a border to restrict my compassion. I’m not advocating for some liberal theocracy (that would be hypocritical), but I think if Christianity does influence American politics it should be through values like mercy and sacrifice.
Make no mistake, I love my country. Heck, it allows me the freedom to write critiques of it, which in this world is no small thing! But loving something doesn’t mean excusing everything it’s done or is doing. That’s flag-waving tribalism, which leads to stagnation, collapse, and – at its worst – genocide. We need to be vigilant about avoiding tribalism, about valuing or devaluing others based on their ethnicity, and about dehumanizing notions à la Manifest Destiny.
We may not have any more opportunities for geographic expansion, but we can still be pioneers of justice and dignity, even when it requires sacrifice. At its heart, that will be what keeps us a nation worth seeking.
Note: Regarding the history of U.S. immigration law, I drew heavily from this Wikipedia article. Yeah it’s Wiki, but they’re all sourced.