An Immigration Debate Without Immigrants?

By Stephen Steinlight on May 20, 2009

Skirmishing over semantics is such a recurrent component of the immigration debate it seems scarcely worth mentioning. The pro-amnesty, open-borders side eschews the term "illegal alien" and describes all who enter the U.S. legally or illegally as "immigrants." Their policy opponents are equally careful to avoid terminology that serves as euphemisms for lawbreaking, hence their detestation of the coinage "undocumented worker." As George Orwell reminds us in "Politics and the English Language," improving our language is a prerequisite to improving our political thought. That axiom applies to how we speak and write about immigration policy. This is true of a core component of the issue we have mistakenly subsumed under the label "immigration policy." To paraphrase Orwell when he says – "Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?" – how can we fix the problem we’re debating if we’re so confused about its essence we're mislabeling it?

While noting our skirmishing over politically loaded terminology regarding immigration hardly amounts to fresh insight, a more fundamental linguistic issue has apparently escaped our attention, and giving it some thought may contribute to the discourse. We've been so busy debating immigration policy and so keen to see our preferred policy solutions prevail we've lost sight of the fact that debating immigration or making immigration policy requires the presence of bona fide immigrants. Yet, if we're able to observe a large segment of the largest so-called "immigrant" cohort in the U.S. objectively – Mexicans – it is inarguably the case that a high percentage does not meet any dictionary's definition. With minor distinctions, all dictionaries define an immigrant as, "a person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another."

I'd rather not be mimicking the little girl in Hans Christian Anderson's tale who tells the Emperor he's been swindled and is standing stark naked – it feels presumptuous and nothing short of embarrassing to point out the self-evident; however, a huge subset, perhaps half, perhaps a majority of this group are simply not immigrants. A far more accurate term is "transnational migrant workers." It is the situation of transnational migrant workers we need to address, not immigrants. Calling things by their right names would at the very least help by removing all the nostalgic and sentimental emotional baggage that presently encumbers discussion, along with the indefensible and ahistorical analogies drawn between today's transnational migrants and real immigrants, past and present.

In a recent story about the sharp drop in Mexican emigration to the U.S. in the New York Times, we learn our deep economic downturn – likely in combination with enhanced law enforcement – have caused approximately 25% fewer Mexicans to come to the U.S. than a year ago, a drop of some 226,000 persons. Policy analysts quoted in the article disagree whether its economics alone or economics plus enforcement. CIS's Steven Camarota takes the latter position, taking account both of the increase in ICE raids and the addition of 17,500 border agents, as well as the self-deportation of nearly 12% of the illegal population from August 2007 to May 2008 (a trend which began before the start of the current economic downturn). But no one disputes the decline in new arrivals. Some Mexicans living at home are quoted as saying they're surprised more of their countrymen have not returned. But several factors are impediments: the ongoing economic crisis in Mexico and the increasing difficulty of crossing and re-crossing the border (until recently a routine aspect of life for a great many members of the Mexican illegal population) because of increased law enforcement as well as the current exorbitant cost for border-smugglers to take someone from the Mexican side of the border to Los Angeles, now averaging between $3,000-$5,000 a trip. In addition to the modest resources of those in Mexico who would like to make the trip, the downturn in the U.S. economy makes it far more difficult for family members currently here to help pay the smugglers.

Being an "immigrant" means being a person who has made a deliberate decision to leave one country and move permanently to another. The definition carries with it the notion of a single, irrevocable choice. That definition does not fit a population whose presence in this country is hardly understood by its members as "permanent;" instead, it is understood as conditioned on transitory economic trends. Discussions with Mexicans on both sides of the border focus exclusively on the current economy. At no point in the Times article does a single Mexican living in the U.S. reference any connection to American culture, values, or feelings of loyalty to the country, membership in the society or polity. At no point does anyone interviewed volunteer that they would "miss" the United States. There is a very strong sense of Mexican identity, whether one is currently residing in the U.S. or in Mexico. Not one of the Mexicans interviewed offers so much as a passing genuflection to having become assimilated or acculturated while in the US or that those years in the U.S. or accumulated experiences would constitute a bar to repatriating to Mexico. If those interviewed for this story are representative, they have no connection to the U.S. at all that goes beyond the cash nexus.

Those Mexicans currently residing in the United States who have no intention of naturalizing are people living in two societies simultaneously, and their preference for remaining in one or the other seems based entirely on immediate economic conditions and practical considerations about being able to cross and re-cross the border. They are not "immigrants" but any definition; they are not even "illegal immigrants." In fact, if it had not been politicized as a euphemism for illegal aliens, the term "undocumented workers" – without the connotation that such a person should be legalized – might be the most accurate. It is the closest equivalent to transnational migrant workers presently living in a country not their own.

Those who support "comprehensive immigration reform" and wish to provide a pathway to citizenship to these individuals can judge for themselves their lack of attachment to the United States. The fact that their primary cultural and political loyalty is to Mexico has already been established by the fact that U.S. Mexican residents have a very low level of naturalization; it is approximately 17%. Why would any society choose to undergo a vast demographic transformation – potentially an economic, social, political, and environmental catastrophe – for the sake of a group whose feelings for the U.S., even after having lived here, are, to put it in the kindliest way, so casual as to be indifferent.

Only those so ideologically blinkered as to be incapable of making critical historical distinctions would suggest analogies between these contemporary transnational migrant workers – loyal only to the highest paycheck – and those that came during the Great Waves. The immigrants of the Great Waves were different in the most fundamental respects: in terms of their motivations for leaving Europe, for choosing America, for the allegiances they embraced, and for the dreams they cherished about what becoming an American meant. They willingly cast off their old identities for a new one. In one of the worst examples of a false analogy capable of being drawn, Paul Krugman wrote in a New York Times column in 2007 that he could see no reason why his grandfather's refusal to return to Russia and serve in the Czar's army (for Jews that meant 25 years) was worse than the refusal of an illegal alien to leave the U.S. His grandfather was not a transnational migrant worker. He was in some ways not even an immigrant: he was a refugee from a regime that brutally oppressed Jews and supported that "Black Hundreds" (one of history's first Death Squads) that murdered hundreds of Jews. For Krugman and company (for he is hardly alone in his capacity to twist history so utterly out of shape it becomes unrecognizable) suggests how powerful this cause is to the elite. It requires an ideological commitment this great to make such a smart man say something so foolish.