Removing "The Righteous Mind" from the Immigration Debate

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on April 13, 2012

In his fascinating new book, The Righteous Mind, University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt probes the issue of why "we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness." If I were teaching a course on U.S. immigration policy, it would be at the top of the reading list.

Now Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy has written an important essay in which he takes a look at the ideological divide over Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

Once again Barry shows the independence of mind that made him the lone CIR advocate who condemned the campaign of smear and character assassination directed against restrictionist groups by the National Council of La Raza, America's Voice, and others beginning in 2008. (We investigated that campaign in "Immigration and the SPLC: How the Southern Poverty Law Center Invented a Smear, Served La Raza, Manipulated the Press, and Duped its Donors" and examined its principal funder in "The Carnegie Corporation and Immigration: How a Noble Vision Lost Its Way").

Barry's purpose is to suggest a revamped strategy for the organizations that promote CIR, with support from liberal foundations: He names the big three funders: Carnegie, Ford, and Atlantic Philanthropies.

Barry says the advocacy groups should rethink their emphasis on "immigrant rights", asserting that in the debate that led up to the 2007 defeat of CIR in the Senate, it was not tactically wise of them to imply that "unauthorized immigrants had a right to legal residency in the country". He also disapproves of the effort to link immigrant rights to the U.S. civil rights movement; the latter, he notes, was distinctively different because it was an effort to end discrimination against American citizens.

Barry makes no mention of Jonathan Haidt. But he would understand Haidt's observation that when a group becomes fixated by "sacred values" it tends to become a "tribal-moral community" so convinced of its righteousness that it is incapable of comprehending a dissenting view.

The ideological rigidity of the immigrant-rights organizations, Barry writes, has had the effect of "making compromises, pragmatic reform positions, and outreach beyond the immigrant-rights community increasingly difficult." Of course it was that rigidity, mated with millions of dollars from the Carnegie Corporation, that produced the vicious smear campaign. Carnegie program manager Geraldine Mannion personifies Haidt's tribal moralism as she pursues the Carnegie mission to do "real and permanent good."

CIR advocates, Barry suggests, should downplay their alliances with such special interests as labor unions with large immigrant memberships, immigration lawyers, businesses out to expand the labor supply, and the Democratic Party.

Barry notes that such advocacy groups as the National Immigration Forum, the Center for Community Change, and the National Council of La Raza "are closely associated with the Democratic Party through groups such as the Center for American Progress and NDN." (NDN is the "New Democratic Network".)

Barry writes: "These organizations explicitly link immigration reform with the objective of establishing what they have variously described as the 'new Democratic majority' and the 'permanent Democratic majority.'" Such alliances, he says, make it difficult "to make a persuasive argument that immigration reform is nonpartisan."

Describing FAIR, the Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA as "the leading restrictionist institutes", Barry notes that in the CIR debate they "consistently stressed their concerns about the impact of mass immigration on the welfare of Americans, thereby pitting the rights and concerns of American citizens against the diffuse and dubious rights of nonvoting immigrants, many of whom had no legal standing to remain in the country."

Barry sees this invocation of a broad-based national interest as key to the success of restrictionist organizations in opposing CIR. He advises CIR advocates to pursue the same strategy.

CIR advocates, Barry writes, should move beyond their narrow, ideologically bound circles in order to build a "coalition grounded in a vision of what's good for America – apart from special interests and political interests". An organization of this kind "would hail our history as 'a nation of immigrants' but at the same time [assert] that for the good of the nation immigration flows need to be limited and prioritized."

"Limited and prioritized" are not words that fall lightly from the lips of the expansionist CIR advocates. As they demonstrated with the smear campaign, they have so sacralized immigration that they tend to disdain any effort to limit it as grounded in racism and xenophobia.

But the concepts of limits and priorities were essential to the reform programs proposed by two presidential commissions on immigration reform that explicitly sought immigration reforms in the national interest.

Those commissions were directed by two civil rights icons: the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh during the Carter and Reagan administrations and the late Rep. Barbara Jordan during the Clinton administration.

Unfortunately, Barry's essay makes no reference to either. But they exemplify the tolerant and humble spirit of compromise that Jonathan Haidt identifies as essential to the resolution of our most divisive problems. The tribal moralists on both sides of the CIR debate should study them.