Paradigm Shift: Updating Immigration Policy's 'Conventional Wisdom'

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on August 26, 2010

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn revolutionized his field with the 1962 publication of a seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it he argued that science, no less than other forms of human effort, proceeded on the basis of its own received beliefs. These beliefs formed the foundation of what was deemed acceptable scientific practice and provided as well the basic framework for examining science's results. What then developed was the practice and reward of so-called "normal science" that took place almost entirely within and according to the rules of the dominant paradigm.

These organizing beliefs were fiercely held, and defended, as a matter of faith by supporters. When in place, the dominant paradigm continued, even as the weight of accumulating evidence suggested that it was inadequate and needed to be revised or abandoned, until that evidence became too overwhelming for even believers to completely ignore.

The parallel to the conventional wisdom about immigration is obvious. Since at least the ill-fated "grand bargain" embedded in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act immigration debates have been premised on a set of strongly held and fiercely defended assumptions. They are:

  1. Immigration is a good thing and therefore the more of it the better;

  2. America should be open to all immigrants and therefore any policy that makes distinctions or expresses a policy preference beyond family reunification is suspect;

  3. Illegal immigrants come here to build a better life for themselves and their families, and therefore serious efforts to enforce this country's immigration laws are, at a basic level, fundamentally unfair and unjust;

  4. Immigrants have in the past always "become Americans," therefore little in the way of new policies to help immigrants to do so, are needed;

  5. Immigrants have a right to keep their culture, their languages, and their outlooks and can still be every bit as American as a Mayflower descendent so long as they believe in the American "creed."

True believers in these assumptions and their allies in the government, media, and those who benefit from having cheap labor have defended these beliefs with all the heart-felt certainty of devout members of a religious order confronting pagans or heretics.

Yet, like Kuhn's "Scientific Revolutions" that come about because accumulating counter-evidence has become too obvious to ignore, the immigration conventional wisdom paradigm is breaking down under the accumulating weight of new evidence, new thinking, and above all the increasingly strong and clear voice of ordinary Americans.

The United States is in the middle of a major paradigm shift in its immigration thinking. What was "settled" is no longer assumed. What was "given" is being questioned. And what was off-limits is now being discussed.

This paradigm shift is far from complete and its results far from certain. Nonetheless, we can discern its major assumptions, and the basis on which new thinking about American immigration and immigrant-integration policy is likely to proceed:

  1. Immigration is a good thing. However, there should be a fair and frank discussion of whether overall immigrant numbers should continue to grow, and if so, by how much, and on what basis;

  2. America should be open to all legal immigrants. However, every country including the United States has the right and the responsibility to have an immigration policy consistent with its overall national needs;

  3. Illegal immigrants come here to build a better life for themselves and their families. However, their wishes, while understandable, cannot be the basis for failing to enforce the immigration policies that the American people, through their elected representatives and political process have enacted as law;

  4. Immigrants have in the past always "become Americans." However, modern circumstances have changed and in important ways have weakened the factors that led to this outcome in the past. Therefore, new policies that encourage immigrant attachment to their new country are both prudent and necessary;

  5. Immigrants have a right to keep their culture, their languages, and their outlooks. However, they also have an obligation and responsibility to learn and live by the American culture they choose to live in, and that means learning English, living according to America's cultural foundation (the Protestant Ethic, without the religion), and hopefully appreciating all that America offers as the first step in building a real emotional attachment.

Paradigm shifts are neither easy nor peaceful. And no one should underestimate the fervency with which the old immigration paradigm is held, or the tenacity with which it will be defended.

Nonetheless, the debate has been joined and the question now is not only to demonstrate the declining adequacy of the old immigration paradigm, but also to continue to develop viable, effective, and reasonable immigrant policy alternatives that can gain the consensual support of the American people.