Immigration: Political and Cultural Considerations

Posted on November 18, 2013 by


Once again the issue of immigration is upon us, whether we are ready for it or not.  In Washington, phone calls and e-mails are beginning to pile up in congressional offices.  Politicians are being lobbied hard.  The President is chomping at the bit to sign a bill.  Pro-immigration groups are beginning to exert pressure on everyone who has some stake.  And even though the House of Representatives has indicated its unwillingness to take up a bill this Fall, the issue is not likely to disappear.  Therefore it is time to address the issue again, just a few days after my colleague Mark Smith wrote a fine piece on the issues and following the introductory post by Richard Tison on the theological issues surrounding immigration.  In a series of posts, some of us will be addressing the cultural/political, economic and theological implications of immigration, beginning today with the cultural and political issues.  Of course to do this, we have to make some assumptions about what such legislation might look like. So let’s do that first.  Most proponents and many opponents speak of the need for “comprehensive immigration reform.”  It appears that for most this means a relatively easy and legal pathway to citizenship, including some process by which those illegal immigrants already here are able to remain here under certain circumstances (Caveat: Despite the 18-0 resolution by the Student Senate of the University of California at Berkeley or Cal Berkeley to ban the term “illegal immigration, I will continue to use it, as it is in fact accurate.  But thanks for the advice Cal students)   Conservatives will add the necessity of border security, or at least some sort of screening for those who wish to come to the United States or to remain here.  That is still pretty vague and will remain so until Congress begins to cobble together (the best word I can think of–Congress has long since stopped doing anything coherent) a bill for President Obama.  We can take the theological foundations as given, though I have some disagreements with my colleague on interpretation.  In the interest of transparency, my two basic theological presuppositions are: (1) Scripture allows the “alien and stranger” (equivalent of immigrant) to come into a nation; (2) provided he or she abides by all the laws of that nation.  How we go about implementing those two principles is a matter of prudence, though it may include background checks, border security, imprisonment for violation of laws, deportation of illegals who do not adhere to the legal process for citizenship, etc.

     Here we will look at possible political and cultural effects of a comprehensive law, assuming a form similar to the above.  Many Republicans and also Democrats (privately) believe that more open immigration would increase the demographic of people who vote for Democrats, essentially dooming the Republican Party specifically and conservatism generally.  There is a point to that argument.  If most immigrants presently come from Mexico for example, we know that the Mexican government has leaned leftward, toward Social Democracy at best, for a long time.  We would rationally expect then that most Mexican-Americans would vote for a party whose ideology matched theirs most closely–the Democrats.  Evidence does seem to point in that direction, but it is still not overwhelming and even if it was, this by itself does not make the case to deny new immigrants or bar existing ones from citizenship.  I will take this issue up again under the culture heading below. Nevertheless, I am not trying to minimize the political threat from immigration when most immigrants, from nearly anywhere in the world, come from nations in which the state plays a very large role.  This is in one sense the argument of “American exceptionalism” in a modified form—the belief here that America has had since its founding a unique institutional structure and a unique set of values centered on self-sufficiency and independence, translating into limited government, free markets and personal responsibility.  Is it possible a huge influx of immigrants would threaten that exceptionalism?  Certainly it is.  We as a people must decide the level of that threat and whether it is worth preserving this value.  It could be argued (correctly, and for the last eighty years) that we are already moving in that statist direction, but would new immigration policy accelerate the drift?  I don’t know, but it is worthy of careful consideration.

     As to culture, it has been argued that in admitting so many immigrants, the essential cultural essence of the United States would be diluted if not destroyed.  This is going back to the exceptionalism issue and is a very touchy one.  And to begin I would like to distinguish between culture and civilization.  I argue that culture is all the distinctive set of customs, celebrations, traditions, music, art, etc. that make one group different from another–even language would fit here.  And this is not a danger to any nation. It in fact can enrich it, as it has the United States, even in its early decades.  Civilization on the other hand is a set of values that makes a nation, well, civilized.  It includes a particular political system, a legal system, the practice of passing on the past to the future, religion, etc.  The particulars, the content, of these elements make a huge difference in whether a nation can long prosper, let alone even survive.  And the particulars are not just a matter of indifference or cultural relativism.  For example, it is the blessing of the Western heritage to have a strong rule of law as well as a well-defined system of enforceable property rights.  Nations without these fall easily into corruption and violence.  So on civilization, we can hardly compromise.  The question is, do current and future immigrants and illegals possess a sense that these values are important?  Or has their own experience made them indifferent or even contemptuous of such values?  I cannot answer these questions with certainty, but there should be no doubt of their importance, far ahead of many other considerations.  I dare say, to take Mexico as an example, that that nation has little history of the kind of constitutionalism, rule of law, checks and balances, and individual rights that we have here.  Would it then surprise us if immigrants cared little about such limiting notions?  I think this is where the issue lies.  I am not suggesting that we should cut off immigration.  Everything in me wants to support a very free and legal border.  But we must think about assimilation at the level of the fundamental values of civilization.  Is there a way to have relatively open borders and to adopt means to assimilate at the same time, again, at the fundamental level of civilizational values?  Even if there were, do we have the political will to undertake such a controversial task?  Or is it considered some kind of indoctrination? 

     The “doomsday” aspects of what I have said are by no means certain.  But they merit serious attention because they might conceivably occur.  If they did, the unique nature of the United States would be compromised possibly beyond recovery.  On the other hand, a consequentialist view, as I have taken here, is only one perspective.  One might take an ethical view, rooted in the Christian Scriptures.  Would that perspective then lead to the requirement of “open borders” (properly understood) or the option for that policy?  And what might be the economic consequences?  These questions are worthy of our attention.

Posted in: Immigration