View from Australia: Land of immigrants

By Jonathan Bradley

The New Republic has a great article up by Sahil Mahtani, an Indonesian who studied in the United States and was unable to stay there. It's a lucid and wide-ranging take on the problems with the American immigration system, and it's well worth your time. A sample:

To put it simply, while there were many Americans of French descent already in the United States, they had comparatively few relatives available and willing to migrate, whereas the small number of Thai in America were linked to millions of other Thai seeking to emigrate. The reason this miscalculation was important is not because we ought to prefer European immigrants to Asian ones. Rather, if policymakers had understood the concept of “chain migration,” they might have ditched the family reunification system entirely in favor of a more meritocratic or humanitarian one. Instead, the country was saddled with an immigration policy that neither sought out the most skilled applicants nor recognized its historic obligation to the needy of the world (“give us your tired, your poor”), opting instead to cater to the special interests of some of its citizens.

As Mahtani indicates, there's little in the way of a coherent philosophy underpinning America's immigration system; rather, it's the result of piecemeal changes derived from "a process of bureaucratic improvisation that fails to serve the country’s interests." The reason this is unusual, however, is that culturally, the United States has a very clear idea of its philosophy on immigration.

US citizens who are not Native Americans — and those who are usually get somehow forgotten in the country's popular memory — all know that at some point in the past, their ancestors lived somewhere else. Whether through choice or by force, those ancestors came to America, and, so the story goes, found freedom and prosperity in a new land defined by values unique to their new society. Americans — even those voraciously opposed to illegal immigration — tend to feel positively feeling about legal immigration. There is an overwhelming sense in American culture that the country has got where it is today by being an open and welcoming absorber of foreign cultures and that it continues today to be a beacon of opportunity to those around the world.

The truth is, as Mahtani lays out, somewhat different. America is not the free and welcoming destination its citizens imagine it to be. Americans have very little idea of how extraordinarily difficult it is to legally migrate to their nation, particularly if you don't already have a close relation living there. It's not that the queues are long, though they are that. It's that for many people, the queues are not even ones they can join. A miniscule number of would-be immigrants enter each year through a lottery system. A few more are permitted entry because they have such extraordinary talents or professional experience that employers are willing to go through a long and complex sponsorship process. And someone wealthy enough to invest a million dollars — or five hundred thousand in some areas with high unemployment — can also win entry. But none of these are paths available to someone like Mahtani, a recent graduate who is looking to build a career rather than cap one off. 

Some of the more perceptive US politicians and policy analysts are beginning to realise that it's a bad idea to educate bright and ambitious students at American universities, and then send them back to their own country to make use of their experience there rather than in America. But they should also appreciate that such a practice is antithetical to the kind of society Americans imagine themselves to be a part of.

Part of the problem is that the issue of illegal immigration is so charged that reforms to the legal migration system don't even get a look in. Also at The New Republic, Ed Kilgore theorises that the single most important issue in the Republican primary this year is illegal immigration:

We have been monotonously told that this election is about the economy and the federal budget, not social issues, and in any event Republicans understand the general election risk of alienating Hispanic voters. But with the smoking ruins of Rick Perry’s candidacy still on display, it’s far past time to reassess both of those assumptions: Immigration remains a key issue to millions of Republican caucus and primary voters—in spite of, not because of, the economy—and they will not accept candidates taking the “wrong” position on the matter for the sake of electability.

I don't think immigration is quite as important to the GOP as Kilgore suggests, but that doesn't mean it isn't pretty important. After all, where the party's most recent president and its most recent presidential candidate saw reaching out to Latinos as an important method of expanding Republican support, the GOP is now so on the nose in the Hispanic community that the Obama campaign thinks it may have a shot in Arizona next year. And Republican extremism on this issue is also changing, for some people, the view America has of itself as a land of immigrants.

Opposition to immigration throughout American history has always been a struggle over who should be considered American and who shouldn't. The country's history is a steady process of expanding the definition of who in the popular imagination may rightfully consider themself an American. From the country's earliest days when Americanness was understood to be synonymous with being white, Anglo Saxon, and Protestant, the US steadily absorbed Catholics, Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, and Asians into the definition of "American." The country is currently undergoing the same process with Latinos, and part of the backlash to that process is a nativist attempt to preserve the existing idea of Americanness and halt its ongoing expansion.

Recently, this has manifested itself in an attempt to end birthright citizenship. That's an idea that current Republican presidential contender-du-jour Newt Gingrich has embraced with his supposedly breakthrough plan on immigration. Gingrich's plan would create an expanded guest worker program and it would also seek to prevent children born in America to guest workers from receiving citizenship. This would have the result of creating an underclass of people who have never been anything but American, but would not be permitted American citizenship — a circumstance irreconcilable with the famed national creed that all men are equal. Rather than permit Americanness to be a fluid and ever-expanding concept, it would freeze the national identity in place and create a set of people who only know America but can never be a part of it.

That would be a fundamental change to the kind of country America sees itself as: open, all-inclusive, and meritocratic. Of the many reasons the United States must resolve its illegal immigration dilemma, one of the most crucial is so that it doesn't evolve into a place it doesn't imagine itself to be. And one of the many reasons it must solve its legal immigration problem is so that it can better become the place it imagines itself to be: a global beacon for the talented and ambitious.

2 December 2011