Immigrants, Migrants and Vagrants

Every time I hear the words, “We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws”, I am reminded of just how far along the road to idiocy we have traveled. That statement is as asinine a truism as ever left a politician’s lips, almost akin to telling someone that just because they are wearing their shirt doesn’t mean they should forget their pants. But, given our recent proclivity in tolerating official pap, this fresh accretion to the daily public discourse should occasion no surprise. In any case, enough emotion and vested interest are seeped into the immigration debate that one needs to make an effort to rescue the basic issues, which are, in fact, quite straightforward.

That the US is a nation of immigrants is largely true, but not in the sense the argument is usually deployed. After all, the US is hardly unique for being peopled by men and women from other lands: the Sri Lankan Tamils came from South India, the majority Sinhalese themselves came from northern India. England was settled by people from what are now Germany and France. In America itself, the native Americans came from Asia. South East Asia is full of people of Chinese descent. Arabs, Afghans, Persians, Greeks, all settled in India over the centuries.

This simplistic formula, wielded often as a clinching argument for not worrying overly about immigration, ignores the difference between immigration and migration. We have to remember that ‘Immigration’, as different from ‘migration’, presupposes a process, and a set of laws. The days when you could migrate anywhere as you pleased are long gone. Once there are international boundaries, you can only migrate within your own borders.

This difference is what nation states are all about. It is the law that prescribes procedures according to which people may enter, stay, gain citizenship, etc. So, to say it correctly, we are a nation of immigrants because we are a nation of laws. The laws under gird, and are thus more basic than, immigration. We can have a country without immigration, but not one without laws. And while it does happen that a person or two might unintentionally stray across a border every now and then, no one seriously argues that 12 million people were vagrants who absentmindedly found themselves on the other side of the border one morning.

There are three ways in which one can be inside a country legally — as a guest, as an immigrant, or as a citizen. In all these cases the country (supposedly) knows you are there. Anyone who is in the country by some other means is by definition illegal (technically, at least). Whether the person is hard-working or lazy, thrifty or profligate, has family values or not, none of this is germane (Graham Greene was not allowed into this country, for heaven’s sake, forbidden by some law!).

When the law is weak, argue the facts, when the facts are weak, argue the law, as every young attorney is told. The law being unambiguous (you cannot work in the USA without an authorization), the opponents of immigration reform seek refuge in that oldest of American pablum’s — pragmatism. We have to recognize the fact that 12 million people are here illegally, they say in awe. And they contribute to the economy, they are vital to so many industries, they add, reverently. This is like telling a traffic cop that he should ignore your driving without a license because you are on your way to an important meeting. America was known for its uniform respect for the law, but this is one more casualty of our decline.

But all of us are complicit, my friend protests, confessing frankly that he had never asked the guy who painted his home if his two helpers were, er, legal. Let us say we are. Well? I was once told that the pizza business in some states was controlled entirely by the mafia. Since I like pizza, should I now oppose the FBI going after the mafia? How far does this ridiculous line of argument go?

It is a tedious task. So was tackling the depression, or fighting the cold war, all daunting enterprises. So are activities like elections, courtroom trials and preserving the rights of the accused. Do we jettison these too? If the number of 12 million seems staggering, do remember that we have over 100 million automobile drivers in this country, all of whom are issued driving licenses, and conform to a traffic system whose logistical sophistication is the envy of the world. Let us not underestimate ourselves, nor overstate the problem. What is needed is political awareness, and a will to sovereignty.

For, have no doubt, a country that cannot enforce its borders is a country no longer. A blind acquiescence of the concept of immigration anytime, anywhere, without suitable forethought, is a far more pernicious threat than the downing of the World Trade Center. Illegal migration is a direct challenge to a nation’s sovereignty, pure and simple. To throw epithets like racist, fascist, heartless, etc. at all those who hold this view, is no different than President Bush (representing the mother of all illegal squatting — the vagrant in the White House) condemning those who protest his warrant less wiretapping felony as soft on terrorism. One cannot in good faith support the enforcement of some laws and not others, especially if one is doing so in the noble cause of reducing the cost of one’s consumer instincts.

These basic premises should be form the basis upon which other considerations of pragmatism, personal stories, and compassion, may apply. To confuse the main issues of sovereignty and the rule of law with any subsidiary logic would be an act of imbecility as monumental as the many others we’ve committed in the past quarter century.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com.




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/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

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