My thoughts on Trump's thoughts on immigration, August 2016

Even though I am an immigrant myself, I haven't really given the politics of immigration much thought for most of my life. I left England in 1965 and came to the US as a graduate student. By the time I had my degree, I was married to an American and felt a strong emotional attachment to the US and very little inclination to return to the gray skies and perpetual drizzle of my youth in the UK. Given my marital situation, there was no impediment to my getting a green card and eventually US citizenship.

Now, however, immigration has become a Burning Issue that everyone is weighing in on, so I'm going to do the same. In partitcular, I'm going to look at certain remarks made by Trump about immigration which have made him a pariah among the left. (Although in truth, the left as well as much of the establishment right had pretty much written him off as a serious candidate as soon as he announced.) My general feeling about Trump's comments on these issues is that there is nothing absurd about them - that they are consistent with the way immigration has been treated in the past. In doing this, I must make it clear that I am not endorsing Trump or Hillary in the coming election; I have a low opinion of both of them as potential presidents of the US and am not planning to vote for either.

The three Trumpian trumpetings that have prompted my thoughts are:

  1. The existing immigration laws should be enforced. [I.e. borders should be secured and illegal immigrants deported.]
  2. Legal immigration should be reduced so that the percentage of immigrants in the US is closer to its historical norm
  3. Immigration of Moslems should be suspended until we are sure we can manage it safely

First, let me start with the question of whether there should be any effective restrictions at all on crossing the border. No, say the open borders faction, which traditionally has been associated with the libertarian movement, although more recently it seems to have come into favor on the left, as a counterweight to proposed immigration restrictions seen as ungenerous and possibly racist. The libertarian ideal was recently expressed clearly by Judge Napolitano, who said "If I have a friend living in Florence who'd like to come visit me, I don't see why the Federal government should have a say in it." In other words, freedom of movement which we count a right under the Constitution should not stop at the border.

However, this is a rare case where I have to part company with the good Judge. It sounds to me like utopian lunacy to say that we should not control our borders at all. In a perfect world in which everyone is nice, there are no national conflicts, there are no floods of nice people suddenly deciding that they would like to live in the US, there are never any illegal substances or diseases like ebola that could be introduced into the US, etc., etc., then I'd have to rethink my position. But in this day and age - no way.

My prime concern is security. In time of war, the enemy has an obvious interest in sneaking agitators and saboteurs and spies into the country. I have trouble really believing that anyone would favor an open border under those circumstances. When we are not at war, we are often conducting something a little less than a war, such as a Cold War, or a War on Terror, or a War on Drugs. In fact, during all my time in the US, there has never been a moment when were weren't at some kind of war or other. Do the security concerns that are so compelling during a conflict like WW II apply equally to these not-really-wars?

The war on drugs has been mostly fought at the border and for obvious reasons. If you could drive a truck-load of the finest cocaine up from Columbia to New York City without any kind of border check, I would consider the war on drugs pretty much lost. The government could still try to obstruct sales to the final user, but I think the drug landscape would be radically different from what it is today. (Now, this example is a bit of a red herring on my part because I do not approve of allowing the Federal government to prevent us from consuming stuff on the grounds that it might not be good for us - hence, winning the war on drugs is not something I favor. On the other hand, I'd still like to have trucks stopped at the border to see if they contain, say, nuclear weapons.)

How about the war on terror? To me, this is not much different from the case of a hot war. Should IS be able to march a division of terrorists to do harm to the US over the border without any restrictions? I would say obviously not; if we are to stop them from doing mischief in the US, the border is our first and best shot at turning them away. This is not to say that we should expect the border checks to guarantee our security - many of the 9-11 terrorists entered the country either legally or apparently without too much trouble illegally. But billions of dollars have been spent since then on making the border more secure, and I think it would be foolish to abolish all restrictions just because those restrictions will never be perfectly effective.

Even Bernie Sanders, most of whose policy prescriptions for the US give me the heebie-jeebies, spoke out against open borders, saying: "I think from a moral responsibility we've got to work with the rest of the world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don't do that by making people in this country even poorer." This is really an additional argument against open borders - we've got something good going here and let's not screw it up by sharing it with other people. Put that way, it sounds harsh, but isn't that what it means to be a nation?

All right, I shall take it that my piercing insights in the the last few paragraphs have laid to rest any nonsense about open borders for the US. (Note: this doesn't mean that I condemn the Schengen Agreement in Europe, which allows free travel within most of the countries in the EU - rather like the states of the US. It should further be noted that the Schengen Agreement provides for strict enforcement of border controls between the Schengen zone and other countries outside the zone.) The nation must have an immigration policy that is enforced, and now all we have to do is to determine what that policy should be.

First, let us look at the economic impact of immigration. Immigration undoubtedly has an economic impact on the US. Any flow of immigrants concentrated in a particular geographic area and level of job skills will cause some hardship to existing workers in that area and line of work. For example, if there is a flood of immigration of Central Americans into California who compete mostly for work as agricultural laborers, it will affect that market for agricultural laborers, depressing wages and causing some of the existing workers to lose their jobs. Perhaps they can get another job, but these would be the jobs they had previously rejected in favor of the agricultural laboring job, so they will be at a lasting disadvantage. Trump is ridiculed by the left for making these economic effects of immigration a major part of his platform but it is hard to deny that they exist. Opponents bring out economic studies showing some overall benefits to immigration, but overall benefits can mask real hardships that may be endured by some sectors of the economy. The economic costs of immigration, especially illegal immigration, are likely to be borne primarily by the poor, including previous immigrants, but Trump gets no love for his position from the left. My take on it is that we should make an effort to balance the pot of immigrants so that it comes closer to the mix of skills represented in the US, so that no one sector gets harmed. (Sorry, rich limousine liberals who just want to have access to cheap immigrant labor to mow their lawns and wash their clothes.)

Immigration raises cultural issues that again pit the left and the libertarians against Trump; I am on neither side exclusively, but I am particularly antagonized by the argument that immigration promotes diversity, which is by definition good. Yes, immigration promotes diversity, but the mindless embrace of diversity in the context of immigration is surely nonsense. Diversity popped up a while back as a code word for racial integration. Universities must promote diversity, it was said, although the main diversity that was pursued was the admission of more black and hispanic students. Larchmont (where we used to live) needs to be more diverse, we were told, and the remedy should be to build Section 8 housing - attracting more prosperous families from France or Japan to buy million dollar houses in Larchmont was not what anyone had in mind. But now the search for diversity has acquired an international meaning, allowing it to be used to promote certain kinds of immigration. Not immigration from Europe, which would not be diverse enough to count; instead, immigration from Africa or the Middle East.

I like my country, I like my culture. Furthermore I enjoy visiting other countries and experiencing their cultures. I am not a xenophobe. Louise and I visited Toni in Cameroon and saw some of the Cameroonian culture. Some of it was very attractive, other parts less so, but I felt enriched for having experienced it. This being said, I don't really want to live in Cameroon - it is hard for me to imagine that I would be able to make enough like-minded friends to allow me to feel comfortable there. And I don't want Cameroon to move to Austin either, for the exact same reason. At the risk of bringing down the wrath of the diversity gods upon my head, I would like to make what seems to me an obvious and uncontrovertible point. Given a choice, folks like to live around other folks who are somewhat like them. Not too totally Stepford wives identical, but not too different either; just enough to be interesting but not so different as to cause anxiety. It seems to me that immigration policy should accommodate these wishes, not belittle them.

One aspect of the cultural issues surrounding immigration of course is religion, which has been a particular hot button in this election cycle. My impression is that the US is now generally pretty tolerant of religious diversity, despite anti-semitism and anti-catholic sentiment in the past. However, today's issue is all about Islam. Is this because the practice of that religion is particularly hard for Americans to stomach? I don't think so, although seeing women wearing the niqab can be quite startling if you are not used to it. Many Americans have objections to the status of women under Islam and I have some serious reservations about many Moslems' attitude towards the first amendment. But after all, the roots of Islam are intertwined with those of Christianity; it's not like the practice of the religion requires eating babies.

However, we all know what the problem is - Islamic extremism, even if President Obama cannot bring himself to say those words. I won't try to give a complete list of atrocities committed by Islamic extremists, but here are a few of the highlights: the attack on the USS Cole; the African Embassy bombings; the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; IS public beheadings of numerous Syrian soldiers, several American journalists, a French moutaineering guide, 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian masons and a Syrian archaeologist; the Boston Marathon bombing; the Charlie Hebdo massacre; the Bataclan Theater massacre in Paris; the Nice truck massacre; the Brussels bombings; the San Bernardino shootings; the Orlando club shootings - all done in the name of Islam. A reasonable reaction to this might be to conclude that some part of Islam is at war with the West, not using aircraft carriers and missiles but relatively low-tech weapons that succeed admirably in causing death and destruction in ways calculated to terrorize the population. It is certainly true that not all the one billion Moslems world-wide are part of that war, but it seems like the ones who are part of that war can be found pretty much every place where Moslems live, including France, Germany, Belgium and the US.

How should this affect our immigration policy? Trump has suggested that we stop all Moslem immigration until we feel confident that we can identify and turn away potential terrorists. This suggestion has been met with a combination of outrage and scorn. Various arguments have been made to point out the folly in the suggestion. Here are my characterizations of the main ones.

It may not surprise you to discover that I don't think much of these arguments.

Is it un-American to use criteria (such as religion) to ration immigration into the country, even though those criteria are imperfect predictors of bad behavior? In the early years of the US, immigration was restricted to white people of good character and the racial restriction was not removed until 1870. In the 19th century, the controversial immigrants were the ones from China and legal restrictions on Chinese immigration eventually turned into a total ban. In the 20th century, Congress enacted a set of quotas that favored immigrants from Europe. The 1965 Immigration Act scrapped national origin quotas and replaced them with job skills requirements. In every case, the intent was to further the interests of America, as seen at the time. Banning potential terrorists right now seems a reasonable thing to do; since Moslems have mostly cornered the market on international terrorism, this means focussing our attention disproportially on them. However, I believe that our PC training has addled our brains. What is a potential terrorist? Do we have to catch a glimpse of his suicide vest before we can stop him? Should we ignore the fact that he is part of a high risk group - young, male and Moslem? By all means, let us use other criteria if they are available - friend of a known radical, a poster of extremist hate messages on Facebook - but in any case we should surely use whatever information is available to determine his suitability for immigration.

I am reminded of a passage in a Chinese movie I am particularly fond of, The Bride with White Hair. The clan is at war and our hero is in charge of the walled town where the clan is headquartered. A sentry comes to him and says that one hundred refugees have arrived at the gates and are seeking shelter. Our hero is more of a lover than a fighter and tells the sentry to admit them. An army officer hears his order and countermands it, telling the sentry to kill them all. Our hero argues with him, pointing out that, while it may be true that their enemies would like to sneak in spies and saboteurs, this group looks OK. The officer says that in time of war, it is better to kill 99 honest men than to risk letting one enemy in. Wow! Made me think! I'm certainly not advocating we kill all asylum seekers, but I do think that it is better to refuse many deserving applicants than to risk admitting a few bad apples into the country.

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