Immigration: More Like Love, or Cookies?

I have two blogging resolutions for this year.

The first is to write about immigration more often.  It’s an issue that matters hugely to me – as far as I’m concerned, it’s the trillion-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk, the thing that’s so obvious and so important that I sometimes can’t believe we’re even talking about other stuff first.  And also, conveniently, it’s something I actually know a bit about.  I got out of the habit of writing about it because I used to litigate immigration cases a lot more often, and out of an abundance of caution, (and, okay, an abundance of superstition, too), I felt that I shouldn’t write about issues that were part of active cases.  But now I’m older, and wiser, and spend less time on litigation, so there’s no reason to hold back.

The second resolution is to try to be more positive, at least occasionally.  I know, you come here for the snark – If you wanted earnestness, you’d be reading Invisible Children’s blog instead.  But a casual reader of this blog could easily get the impression that the only things in life I enjoy are Glenna Gordon’s photographs and making New York Times reporters cry, which is perhaps a bit narrow, as public personas go.  And I have a vague theory that if I spring a surprise positivity attack on people who disagree with me, maybe they’ll be so shocked that they let their guards down, leaving them vulnerable to my winning logic.  Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

So, for today’s post, I thought I’d try to kill both birds with one stone.  Namely, I’m going to write about immigration, and I’m going to do it in a positive way! Maybe! I will try! But this is already quite painful!

Ow.

Anyway, to circle back to the by-now-quite-confusing title: I’ve noticed, in talking to people about immigration, that there is a significant discrepancy between the way immigration proponents and immigration skeptics think about sharing a country.  Immigration skeptics tend to think that sharing a country is like sharing a cookie.  Every time you share it with someone, everyone else has a little less, including you.  Immigration proponents, on the other hand, think that sharing a cookie is like sharing love – the more you give, the more you have.  Or, the more immigrants we allow to join our country, the more awesome country there is for everyone to enjoy.  (And with better food.)

In case there’s any doubt, I’m on Team Love.  Not only do I think that immigration is the right thing to do for altruistic reasons – such as enabling people to escape persecution, or poverty, or cultural norms that crush human potential into a crumpled ball and give it to the cat to play with – but also because it makes rich countries better.  People are productive assets.  If you allow them to live in an environment that maximizes their potential, they will do amazing things.  And when someone else goes to the trouble of founding Google, we’re all better off.

I do understand where Team Cookie is coming from, though.  Immigration means change, and change is scary.  And there are some resources – like admission to a fancy college, for instance – that are limited.  The more immigrants there are applying, the harder it will be for your kids to get in.  At a macro level, that’s not a bad thing.  It’s pretty awesome for America that the smartest young people in the world are willing to not only come here, but pay our universities six-figure sums of money in order to do so.  But if your son has slaved his way through school, only to be fobbed off with admission to UCLA instead of Berkeley, it stings a little.

But I don’t think that’s really the problem.  People can get over having to go to UCLA.  I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a person who was anti-immigration because of an encounter with a specific immigrant they couldn’t compete with. That’s because in this culture, we respect competition when we’re actually faced with it – when was the last time you heard someone complain that Yao Ming was doing a job that should have gone to an American?  (Or, presumably, several Americans stacked on top of one another.)

The welfare state is another commonly-mentioned cookie: if we allow immigrants to come here, won’t they just swamp our public services?  Personally, I find the premise of this argument extremely unconvincing – immigrants expand the population and the tax base, and create jobs, bolstering our economy’s ability to fund a social safety net. (Undocumented immigrants already subsidize social security to the tune of billions of dollars.)

But, perhaps more importantly, whether or not to allow immigrants to come to this country, and whether or not to allow them free access to the welfare state, are separate questions.  (If you look closely, you will see that they are made up of not-same sets of words! Really!)   If the burden on the welfare state is the real issue, there are a variety of orderly and reasonable solutions to that problem. Off the top of my head, for instance, we could deny immigrants eligibility for most social welfare programs until they become citizens (we already do this, btw), and/or have immigrants, or groups of sponsors, post a bond to cover the cost of the services our culture finds it illegitimate to deny, such as emergency-room care.  Or, to put it more simply, if this is a money problem, why don’t we try solving it with money before we try solving it by shooting ourselves in the pockets?

So what is Team Love to do to convince Team Cookie?  Would they, if presented with sufficient quantities of research and logic and heart-wrenching photos of the children who could be saved by allowing them access to opportunity, change their minds?

Or is the real problem something else? Something that is hard to describe, because the English language has no word for “nostalgia for a lost future in which progress would just solve one’s own problems, not other people’s”?

Amanda Taub

16 Comments

  1. I think you’re missing the point. Most people don’t have a problem with immigration. They have a problem with illegal immigration. And it is an issue.

    Just so you don’t think I’m spouting off some right-wing polticial philosphy, I’ll give you some background.

    I’m an American who has immigrated to another country. For personal and family reasons, not because I’m anti-American. It took me two years and over $10,000 to get my visa. Once I got to the country I’m in now, I was on a temporary visa for a year, during which I was denied most basic rights citizens of the country had. I was able to work and get health care, but wasn’t allowed any other type of benefit.

    I was, however, allowed to pay the same taxes that everyone else was paying.

    After a year I applied for a Permanent Residence visa. Some functionary decieded to deny my visa because I hadn’t take a literacy test to prove I could read, write and speak English. Of course, when I called the Immigration Office to ask what I needed to do, I was told, “don’t worry about the test, you’re American, of course you speak English”.

    So I had to appeal the decision to a tune of another $3,000 and appear before an Immigration Judge, during which I was asked if I wanted an interpreter for the hearing.

    So I’m completely opposed to illegal immigration and giving them any kind of benefits that they’ve done nothing to earn.

    The point is, it took me years and a lot of money to move legally to the country I’m in now, while being denied basic rights that I was paying taxes for the citizens to get.

    Why shouldn’t everyone else have to do the same thing?

    • Dear Ron,
      Is this some sort of test of my newfound resolve to be positive? Because just so we’re clear, I said occasionally.
      I don’t think you are “spouting right-wing political philosophy,” but I do think you’re being a spiteful jerk. I’m sorry that you had an unpleasant experience with the bureaucracy of your adopted country, but wanting to make sure that other people don’t get to have a nicer time than you in any given area of life doesn’t really seem like a rock-solid policy argument to me.
      Thanks for reading, though! (That was me being positive.)
      – Amanda

      • You know, if you don’t allowing dissenting opinions on your blog, then all you have to do is delete the comment.

        Resorting to name-calling and insults doesn’t make you a better person, or do anything to prove your point is right.

        There are other worlds and other opinions out there, and sometimes they’re right and you’re wrong. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

        The failure to understand another persons point-of-view, even if disagreed with, is what leads to intolerance and bigotry. I thought that was what you were fighting against?

  2. Thanks so much for this post! I volunteer with refugees during their first month here, and I’ve had more than one “tell-me-what-you-do” conversation turn towards “why-am-I-paying-for-that?” conversation. I think the love/cookies comparison is spot on.

  3. Hi Amanda,
    Thank you for this post – I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, as it concerns me personally. I came to the US as a student with the dream/hope to get the educational experience I need to work in the field of international development. After graduation, I decided to apply for OPT because, after all, so many of the largest non-profit organizations working in my field are based in this country. I thought (now I know I was rather naive) that after getting a job somewhere and proving that I know what I’m doing and work hard, I will be able to get a long-term position (read: sponsored H1B visa). Unfortunately, that is how it works only sometimes. I was, in fact, offered a job only to have the offer taken back because I’m “not qualified enough because I’m not an American” (coming from either the lawyer of the organization, or their HR person).
    I’m not bitter, I know the economy is tough for everyone. But the point is – I was allowed to come here, you (as in the tax payers/Americans/people who pay for tuition at my American alma mater) paid for my education (I had a scholarship so I did not pay anything) and when the time comes for me to get a job, pay taxes, pay you back and contribute to this economy and society, I get kicked out (figuratively speaking). This is very uneconomical, in my opinion. And well, I might not be such a great contribution to this economy, but there are so many people who have brilliant business ideas and who can’t start them here because it’s really hard for foreigners. I believe that this country is losing by letting those people go.

    • Ok, so name calling isn’t always the best way to get people to open their hearts and listen to what you’re saying, but, “spiteful jerk” is just so descriptive and, seemingly accurate.

      “The playground monitor wouldn’t let me play on the swings, so why should anyone else get to?” . Sounds like the country where Ron moved to has some crappy, and unfair playground monitors, but the argument to promote this style of monitoring, just to keep it “fair” is definitely coming from a fear “cookie” place and not a love place.

      • Wow, once again, attacking me without even bothering to talk to me. Glad to know you can read my mind and now what I think, and how I think.

        I might be a ”spiteful jerk’, but it is the upmost in arrogance to assume you know my background.

        This does not make you the better person.

  4. Hey – thanks for a positive post and for not just disparaging those who might disagree. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on illegal immigration vs immigration. While related, they are different. Two issues – how do we address the many illegals? How do we find ways to reduce the influx of illegals. I think both liberals and conservatives totally miss it on this one. The rhetoric seems to allow a choice of “ship ’em all back” on the one hand or “awww, just give ’em a hug and a passport” on the other. Is there any indication that we have anyone in leadership who is able to address this issue with common sense, compassion, and rule of law?

  5. And what shall we say if we find that immigration is like neither a cookie nor like love?

    I teach adult ESL in New York City and most of my friends and neighbors here are immigrants (some documented and some not). For some of my friends living in the US has indeed offered great opportunities, for others it has been quite difficult and sometimes heart-breaking.

    I have also previously lived in Congo, where the vast majority of people I ran into, particularly young people, were desperate to know how I could help them find a way into the US. There is no doubt that America is a great dream for many people around the world.

    And I do believe that immigration in general makes this country better, and most certainly improves the food substantially.

    My concern is the effect this immigration has on the countries that are left behind. Whole towns in Mexico have seen their young male population disappear, to go work in the US and send back money. In Congo, many of my most educated students are now studying here in the US or in other countries. And though they talk about returning to build a better Congo, the reality is that many will not return.

    Yes, it is true that these issues should be addressed not by limiting people’s ability to travel, but by improving the standard of living across the globe. But still, in describing immigration as something which benefits both immigrants and host countries, I think it is only fair to mention that someone is still on the losing end of the proposition, the countries (and often families) that are left behind.

    • You make a very good point that is often forgotten in the discussion – what is left behind. I lived 10 years in Kazakhstan where in the 90’s we saw people eager to leave the country for the USA, Canada, Europe, Middle East. They lost around 2 million people to immigration in the 10 years after the USSR ended. Many of those were educated people who could get the visas and get jobs outside, resulting in a brain drain. We had people frequently asking us to help them immigrate and our answer was always, “we didn’t come to Kazakhstan to see the brightest and best leave the country.” Plus we knew that their view of the USA was a few notches above reality! I wish it were possible for people to travel with fewer restrictions across the world – I believe that would go a long way toward better understanding across the nations. But xenophobia better serves the power interests within each country.

  6. Always happy to be in any category that includes making NYT reporters cry.

    And, just want you to pause for a second and notice that you made “Undocumented immigrants already subsidize social security to the tune of billions of dollars,” a PARENTHETICAL statement. I mean, really??

  7. @Ron,

    Think about what she’s saying. What I took away from your post is roughly as follows:

    “I had a crappy experience, therefore I will:
    A) advocate reforming immigration policies so that NO ONE ELSE has to go through what I did, because it was unfair and cruel, or
    B) advocate making EVERYONE ELSE go through what I did, because that would enforce equal cruelty across the board.”

    You chose option B. “Spiteful” is pretty much on the head of the nail.

    • Dave,

      Why don’t you let Amanda speak for herself. She’s perfectly capable of stating her opinion.

      You putting words into my mouth and trying to explain what I mean when you have no clue is kind of arrogant. If you want to know what my opinion is, try asking. Don’t tell me what it is. I already know.

  8. I really enjoyed this post because of the positive outlook that was put on immigration instead of the negative outlook that I usually see. I agree that immigration is not as bad as everyone seems to think and that it can benefit our country. I really liked the view of immigration as a competition for Americans because I have never heard immigration spoken of in that way. I agree that Americans like competition and as long as we can compete with the immigrants we are fine with them coming here. The real problem starts when Americans start to think they can no longer compete with the immigrants. When Americans start to think they are “losing” to the immigrants, that is when they start to get mad and say that they should not be here taking our jobs or our children’s places in schools. The one thing I do not agree with is when it says that immigrants are expanding our tax base. There are so many illegal immigrants in America who can get away with not paying taxes that I do not see how they are helping the tax base expand. There is also another problem that I saw that was not mentioned in the blog, and that is illegal immigrants. I feel that Americans are more likely to accept immigrants if they know that they are legal and paying taxes like everybody else.

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