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Getting It Right on Immigration

As the 2020 presidential campaign intensifies in the coming weeks and months, we’ll see candidates and pundits airing a wide variety of proposals on immigration policy. We’ll get recommendations on border security, asylum, detention, the status of the Dreamers, the status of the 11 million people living in the U.S. without documentation, and the role of ICE, to name just a few issues. But will the recommendations be grounded in reality? Will candidates and commentators represent what’s truly going on?

Author and columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s recent forayinto border security issues is worth considering in light of these questions. Describing himself as “pro-immigration,” Friedman strongly criticizes Donald Trump’s immigration policies, and he makes some suggestions that are reasonable on face value. But because he fails to present a broader vision of the real issues at stake – issues bearing on the future of our democracy – he ultimately subverts his own argument. The failure is significant because the kind of argument Friedman offers is one that many people will consider realistic and sensible.

In early April, Friedman visited the San Ysidro Port of Entry at California’s border with Tijuana, Mexico. Accompanied by Border Patrol agents, he gained a first-hand look at the enormous pressures being placed on our southern border, where 190,000 “family units” were apprehended since this past October, up from 40,000 a year ago. (A family unit, in the government’s lexicon, consists of a parent or guardian accompanying a child under 18).

As a result of his border experience, Friedman came away “more certain than ever that we have a real immigration crisis and the solution is a “high wall with a big gate – but a smart gate.” In making this statement, he essentially argued that we should accept immigrants “at a rate at which they can be properly absorbed into our society,” and that we should favor visa seekers who bring skills, knowledge, and talents that benefit the nation. Being firm and selective in this way, Friedman maintained, will steer us away from the “unstrategic, far-too random, chaotic immigration ‘system’ we have now.”

Friedman argues for foreign aid that will help stabilize imperiled nations, giving greater assurance of safety and livelihood to tens of thousands of people who’d otherwise be motivated to migrate. And, he says, we should “expand our immigration court system to quickly welcome those who deserve asylum and repatriate those who don’t.” Above all, he wishes to convey a pro-immigration position that affirms the valuable role that immigration has played, and continues to play, in strengthening the nation.

Certainly a number of Friedman’s ideas are sound, e.g. maintaining aid to imperiled nations like Honduras and Guatemala, and expanding the immigration court system; such ideas should be part of any comprehensive immigration policy. But by dealing with the border in isolation from other immigration issues, Friedman fails to recognize the big picture: that Trump’s immigration policies represent a concerted assault on democracy. The administration’s promotion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census, for example, is expected by the Census Bureau’s own experts to exert a chilling effect on families and households that include a noncitizen.

The Bureau’s experts estimate that about 5.8 percent of these households, representing approximately 6.5 million people, would not respond to a questionnaire that included a question about citizenship. Such a change would dramatically impact the distribution of power in Congress, shifting representation away from areas with significant immigrant populations and effectively disenfranchising voters and non-voters alike.

This drive to disenfranchise, to isolate and marginalize, is not new for Trump or his allies. There was, of course, the race-baiting that punctuated his presidential campaign and still colors his pronouncements and actions as president. There are also the executive orders that appeared early in his presidency, orders that made anyone without documents, not just convicted criminals, subject to raids, detention, and deportation.

The pattern has been clear: criminalize the migrant. Normalize a demonic image of migrant men and women, and exclude them from the benefits of American society. Poison the political atmosphere so as to render exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, pathways to citizenship for millions of people, none of them criminals.

If a good part of democracy means having a place at the table, having a significant say in the co-creation of our collective destiny, then Trump’s game is not only to expel the Other from the table but to throw him or her out of the room. Only the elites and their base are to remain. By presenting the issues without reference to other key pieces of immigration policy, Friedman fails to identify the broader threats that Trump’s policies pose to our democracy. In the weeks and months ahead, these threats will need to be called out and answered.

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