Department of Unhelpful Immigration Metaphors (1): "The System is Broken"

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 3, 2010

Anyone who spends more than a few minutes on immigration matters will soon realize that the debate abounds in shallow metaphors whose cant recitation suggests knowing knowledge, but are actually meant to substitute for thought and analysis.

The case in point today is the assertion that "the system is broken." That phrase is a metaphor of choice for political office holders and pundits of varied partisan views. Recently New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch testified before Congress on the need to fix "our broken system of immigration." Former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama agree: "The system is broken." Pundits write pieces entitled "How to fix our broken immigration system."

There is then clearly a consensus on the metaphor, but that should not be mistaken for an agreement on any substantive issues. Nor for that matter should we assume that the metaphor tells us anything particular or even useful about our immigration system and what's wrong with it.

Consider first what a metaphor is. Typical dictionary definitions describe it as (1) a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in "A mighty fortress is our God," or (2) something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.

It is clear that "the system is broken" cannot be understand as part of the first, primary understanding or usage of that the term since the phase doesn't contain a comparative term: broken as compared to what?

So it is in the second sense of the term that the "broken" metaphor is used, as "something to represent something else; emblem; symbol." And here we can begin to see the trouble with that phrase. What is that something else that is being represented?

The best answer to that question is that the "system is broken metaphor" reflects an combined set of assumptions operating as assertions that: (1) the current system isn't working as intended, (2) that its current operation is causing major and avoidable social, economic, and political problems, (3) that (obviously) what is "broken" must be fixed, and (4) that the way to fix the broken system is through "comprehensive immigration reform."

In fact a closer analysis of these assumptions suggests that the first and fourth assertions are factually incorrect, and that only the second assertion has a great deal of empirical evidence to support.

The current system is working as intended in so far as it reflects congressional policy to base the American immigration system primarily on the principle of family reunification and to ensure a loose immigration enforcement policy. That dual focus may result in many consequent problems: there are not enough spaces for skilled workers, the system creates enormous backlogs, there are not enough spaces for those who want to come so immigrants come into the country illegally, it is relatively easy for undocumented immigrants to work here, and so on. All these may be consequences of the ways in which the system was structured, but it cannot be seriously argued that this policy was not the explicit intent of Congress.

This is important to understand because to the extent that the current immigration policy structure created the problems that are now the basis for calls to fix "the broken system," we had better be clear about what lies at the core of our immigration dilemmas.

As to the assertion/assumption that the only way to fix our "broken system" is to undertake "comprehensive immigration reform," another metaphorical favorite, as with so many now-hackneyed immigration phrases, it depends what you mean by the term. And it will be no surprise that understandings differ.

The "system is broken" metaphor actually tells us very little. It doesn't say what is broken or why and how it became broken. Without those understandings "reform" is likely to falter. Nor does it supply any comparative analysis of what alternatives might, or might not, work given that basic, necessary, and preliminary analysis.

In the end, it is simply a rhetorical meme used by those whose strategy is to use a phrase so vague that it can appear to reflect a consensus. But that consensus is illusionary. Beneath that metaphor lies a shifting landscape that is coalescing around a quite different set of policy positions that have one basic theme: enforce our immigration laws.