Department of Unhelpful Immigration Metaphors (3): 'Comprehensive Immigration Reform'

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 4, 2010

Rounding out the top three favorite unhelpful immigration metaphors, along with "the system is broken" and "out of the shadows" is "comprehensive immigration reform." That phrase carries with a double metaphorical imperative.

It is "comprehensive" which Webster's defines as "covering completely or broadly." It lists its antonyms as "imperfect, incomplete or partial." Who could be against comprehensiveness, especially when its definitional alternatives are defined as spotty in their efforts or results?

The opposite of comprehensive is "imperfect, incomplete and partial," but these outcomes are to be avoided only to the extent that you assume that "comprehensive immigration reform" will deliver all that it promises, which is unlikely to be true, or that the "reform" that it promises will not result in other, equally large problems – which remains to be seen.

To state the obvious: just because an immigration proposal comprehensively takes on many issues, does not mean that it will do so well. Indeed, historical experience suggests that the larger the legislative and administrative undertaking in matters of culture and politics, the more room there is for something to go wrong. Government itself is a blunt, not a nimble, instrument of cultural, social, and political intervention. And government's record developing and implementing large-scale experiments leaves little grounds for optimism that it will fare any better in "comprehensive immigration reform" than it did with erasing poverty in the 1960s or living up to the promises it used to sell the government's recent health care legislation.

Moreover, "comprehensive immigration reform" is not just about "broad" or "complete" coverage of policy issues. "Comprehensive" is an adjective used to underscore that it is doing double duty in its service in the support of "reform." Who could be against such efforts?

Anyone who thought for a minute about the real meaning of those words and the assumptions embedded in them might well pause and ask him or herself whether they were necessarily true. They aren't.

A very large and immediate issue with such terms is that for those who repetitively use them they have a very distinct, but not necessarily widely shared, meaning. To take but one example, a group in favor of "comprehensive immigration reform" assures us that such bills "are a direct response to the overwhelming public demand for solutions to our broken immigration system." In one of their position papers, in a section on E-Verify entitled "Repairing our Broken Immigration System," another group advocated allowing E-Verify to go forward, but only if there is a "pathway to legalization" and then only for new hires. Those already on the books, whether legally entitled to work or not, would be given a pass.

This advocacy group's view of "comprehensive immigration reform" is, in essence, to hold enforcement hostage to legalization. Their motto could fairly be described as "No enforcement without amnesty." It is very unlikely that this is what Americans have in mind when these are asked if they would support a "pathway to citizenship."

Of course legalization advocates' talk of "comprehensiveness" claims the mantle of addressing immigration issues "completely or broadly," in line with the dictionary definition, but this is not accurate. Actually, "comprehensive immigration reform" as it is most often formulated by legalization advocates, is really quite narrow.

For the most part it focuses on just two issues: workplace enforcement and legalization of undocumented immigrant issues. Leaving aside for the moment how honestly and effectively various proposals do so, one thing is abundantly clear.

There are many very important issues that advocates' proposals for "comprehensive immigration reform" do not address. They do not address the issue of immigration diversity and finding a way to help ensure that most of our immigrants do not come from a single ethnic group, geographical location, or cultural tradition. If diversity is a legitimate value for American society, shouldn't it be one for immigration policy as well?

And perhaps most telling in its omission, "comprehensive" advocates say nothing, absolutely nothing, about any limits to immigration. Theirs is a policy world where immigration numbers can expand without consequence. They want more skilled workers. They want more refugees. They want America's immigration doors to open wider for families to reunite. And they want temporary workers programs whose participants will, eventually, be able to become permanent residents.

Far from dealing with America's immigration issues "completely or broadly," comprehensive avoids dealing at all with several core immigration issues. Perhaps we should give "comprehensive immigration reform" a name more in keeping with its realities: avoidant immigration reform.

It seems fairly clear that "comprehensive immigration reform" is meant to provide rhetorical cover to a very narrow view of immigration reform and the specific preferences for comprehensive legalization of approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants.

That is a position that people can and do hold and they are legitimately entitled to do so, of course. But they could at least be more direct and straightforward in their preferences and not hide behind misleading and inaccurate metaphors.