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  • We often hear these days that the immigration system is broken.

  • I want to make the case today that our immigration conversation is broken

  • and to suggest some ways that, together, we might build a better one.

  • In order to do that, I'm going to propose some new questions

  • about immigration,

  • the United States

  • and the world,

  • questions that might move the borders of the immigration debate.

  • I'm not going to begin with the feverish argument that we're currently having,

  • even as the lives and well-being of immigrants are being put at risk

  • at the US border and far beyond it.

  • Instead, I'm going to begin with me in graduate school

  • in New Jersey in the mid-1990s, earnestly studying US history,

  • which is what I currently teach as a professor at Vanderbilt University

  • in Nashville, Tennessee.

  • And when I wasn't studying,

  • sometimes to avoid writing my dissertation,

  • my friends and I would go into town

  • to hand out neon-colored flyers, protesting legislation

  • that was threatening to take away immigrants' rights.

  • Our flyers were sincere, they were well-meaning,

  • they were factually accurate ...

  • But I realize now, they were also kind of a problem.

  • Here's what they said:

  • "Don't take away immigrant rights to public education,

  • to medical services, to the social safety net.

  • They work hard.

  • They pay taxes.

  • They're law-abiding.

  • They use social services less than Americans do.

  • They're eager to learn English,

  • and their children serve in the US military all over the world."

  • Now, these are, of course, arguments that we hear every day.

  • Immigrants and their advocates use them

  • as they confront those who would deny immigrants their rights

  • or even exclude them from society.

  • And up to a certain point, it makes perfect sense

  • that these would be the kinds of claims that immigrants' defenders would turn to.

  • But in the long term, and maybe even in the short term,

  • I think these arguments can be counterproductive.

  • Why?

  • Because it's always an uphill battle

  • to defend yourself on your opponent's terrain.

  • And, unwittingly, the handouts my friends and I were handing out

  • and the versions of these arguments that we hear today

  • were actually playing the anti-immigrants game.

  • We were playing that game in part by envisioning

  • that immigrants were outsiders,

  • rather than, as I'm hoping to suggest in a few minutes,

  • people that are already, in important ways, on the inside.

  • It's those who are hostile to immigrants, the nativists,

  • who have succeeded in framing the immigration debate

  • around three main questions.

  • First, there's the question of whether immigrants can be useful tools.

  • How can we use immigrants?

  • Will they make us richer and stronger?

  • The nativist answer to this question is no,

  • immigrants have little or nothing to offer.

  • The second question is whether immigrants are others.

  • Can immigrants become more like us?

  • Are they capable of becoming more like us?

  • Are they capable of assimilating?

  • Are they willing to assimilate?

  • Here, again, the nativist answer is no,

  • immigrants are permanently different from us and inferior to us.

  • And the third question is whether immigrants are parasites.

  • Are they dangerous to us? And will they drain our resources?

  • Here, the nativist answer is yes and yes,

  • immigrants pose a threat and they sap our wealth.

  • I would suggest that these three questions and the nativist animus behind them

  • have succeeded in framing the larger contours of the immigration debate.

  • These questions are anti-immigrant and nativist at their core,

  • built around a kind of hierarchical division of insiders and outsiders,

  • us and them,

  • in which only we matter,

  • and they don't.

  • And what gives these questions traction and power

  • beyond the circle of committed nativists

  • is the way they tap into an everyday, seemingly harmless sense

  • of national belonging

  • and activate it, heighten it

  • and inflame it.

  • Nativists commit themselves to making stark distinctions

  • between insiders and outsiders.

  • But the distinction itself is at the heart of the way nations define themselves.

  • The fissures between inside and outside,

  • which often run deepest along lines of race and religion,

  • are always there to be deepened and exploited.

  • And that potentially gives nativist approaches resonance

  • far beyond those who consider themselves anti-immigrant,

  • and remarkably, even among some who consider themselves pro-immigrant.

  • So, for example, when Immigrants Act allies

  • answer these questions the nativists are posing,

  • they take them seriously.

  • They legitimate those questions and, to some extent,

  • the anti-immigrant assumptions that are behind them.

  • When we take these questions seriously without even knowing it,

  • we're reinforcing the closed, exclusionary borders

  • of the immigration conversation.

  • So how did we get here?

  • How did these become the leading ways that we talk about immigration?

  • Here, we need some backstory,

  • which is where my history training comes in.

  • During the first century of the US's status as an independent nation,

  • it did very little to restrict immigration at the national level.

  • In fact, many policymakers and employers worked hard

  • to recruit immigrants

  • to build up industry

  • and to serve as settlers, to seize the continent.

  • But after the Civil War,

  • nativist voices rose in volume and in power.

  • The Asian, Latin American, Caribbean and European immigrants

  • who dug Americans' canals,

  • cooked their dinners,

  • fought their wars

  • and put their children to bed at night

  • were met with a new and intense xenophobia,

  • which cast immigrants as permanent outsiders

  • who should never be allowed to become insiders.

  • By the mid-1920s, the nativists had won,

  • erecting racist laws

  • that closed out untold numbers of vulnerable immigrants and refugees.

  • Immigrants and their allies did their best to fight back,

  • but they found themselves on the defensive,

  • caught in some ways in the nativists' frames.

  • When nativists said that immigrants weren't useful,

  • their allies said yes, they are.

  • When nativists accused immigrants of being others,

  • their allies promised that they would assimilate.

  • When nativists charged that immigrants were dangerous parasites,

  • their allies emphasized their loyalty, their obedience,

  • their hard work and their thrift.

  • Even as advocates welcomed immigrants,

  • many still regarded immigrants as outsiders to be pitied, to be rescued,

  • to be uplifted

  • and to be tolerated,

  • but never fully brought inside as equals in rights and respect.

  • After World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s until really recently,

  • immigrants and their allies turned the tide,

  • overthrowing mid-20th century restriction

  • and winning instead a new system that prioritized family reunification,

  • the admission of refugees

  • and the admission of those with special skills.

  • But even then,

  • they didn't succeed in fundamentally changing the terms of the debate,

  • and so that framework endured,

  • ready to be taken up again in our own convulsive moment.

  • That conversation is broken.

  • The old questions are harmful and divisive.

  • So how do we get from that conversation

  • to one that's more likely to get us closer to a world that is fairer,

  • that is more just,

  • that's more secure?

  • I want to suggest that what we have to do

  • is one of the hardest things that any society can do:

  • to redraw the boundaries of who counts,

  • of whose life, whose rights

  • and whose thriving matters.

  • We need to redraw the boundaries.

  • We need to redraw the borders of us.

  • In order to do that, we need to first take on a worldview that's widely held

  • but also seriously flawed.

  • According to that worldview,

  • there's the inside of the national boundaries, inside the nation,

  • which is where we live, work and mind our own business.

  • And then there's the outside; there's everywhere else.

  • According to this worldview, when immigrants cross into the nation,

  • they're moving from the outside to the inside,

  • but they remain outsiders.

  • Any power or resources they receive

  • are gifts from us rather than rights.

  • Now, it's not hard to see why this is such a commonly held worldview.

  • It's reinforced in everyday ways that we talk and act and behave,

  • down to the bordered maps that we hang up in our schoolrooms.

  • The problem with this worldview is that it just doesn't correspond

  • to the way the world actually works,

  • and the way it has worked in the past.

  • Of course, American workers have built up wealth in society.

  • But so have immigrants,

  • particularly in parts of the American economy that are indispensable

  • and where few Americans work, like agriculture.

  • Since the nation's founding,

  • Americans have been inside the American workforce.

  • Of course, Americans have built up institutions in society

  • that guarantee rights.

  • But so have immigrants.

  • They've been there during every major social movement,

  • like civil rights and organized labor,

  • that have fought to expand rights in society for everyone.

  • So immigrants are already inside the struggle

  • for rights, democracy and freedom.

  • And finally, Americans and other citizens of the Global North

  • haven't minded their own business,

  • and they haven't stayed within their own borders.

  • They haven't respected other nations' borders.

  • They've gone out into the world with their armies,

  • they've taken over territories and resources,

  • and they've extracted enormous profits from many of the countries

  • that immigrants are from.

  • In this sense, many immigrants are actually already inside American power.

  • With this different map of inside and outside in mind,

  • the question isn't whether receiving countries

  • are going to let immigrants in.

  • They're already in.

  • The question is whether the United States and other countries

  • are going to give immigrants access to the rights and resources

  • that their work, their activism and their home countries

  • have already played a fundamental role in creating.

  • With this new map in mind,

  • we can turn to a set of tough, new, urgently needed questions,

  • radically different from the ones we've asked before --

  • questions that might change the borders of the immigration debate.

  • Our three questions are about workers' rights,

  • about responsibility

  • and about equality.

  • First, we need to be asking about workers' rights.

  • How do existing policies make it harder for immigrants to defend themselves

  • and easier for them to be exploited,

  • driving down wages, rights and protections for everyone?

  • When immigrants are threatened with roundups, detention and deportations,

  • their employers know that they can be abused,

  • that they can be told that if they fight back,

  • they'll be turned over to ICE.

  • When employers know

  • that they can terrorize an immigrant with his lack of papers,

  • it makes that worker hyper-exploitable,

  • and that has impacts not only for immigrant workers

  • but for all workers.

  • Second, we need to ask questions about responsibility.

  • What role have rich, powerful countries like the United States

  • played in making it hard or impossible

  • for immigrants to stay in their home countries?

  • Picking up and moving from your country is difficult and dangerous,

  • but many immigrants simply do not have the option of staying home

  • if they want to survive.

  • Wars, trade agreements

  • and consumer habits rooted in the Global North

  • play a major and devastating role here.

  • What responsibilities do the United States,

  • the European Union and China --

  • the world's leading carbon emitters --

  • have to the millions of people already uprooted by global warming?

  • And third, we need to ask questions about equality.

  • Global inequality is a wrenching, intensifying problem.

  • Income and wealth gaps are widening around the world.

  • Increasingly, what determines whether you're rich or poor,

  • more than anything else,

  • is what country you're born in,

  • which might seem great if you're from a prosperous country.

  • But it actually means a profoundly unjust distribution

  • of the chances for a long, healthy, fulfilling life.

  • When immigrants send money or goods home to their family,

  • it plays a significant role in narrowing these gaps,

  • if a very incomplete one.

  • It does more than all of the foreign aid programs

  • in the world combined.

  • We began with the nativist questions,