It’s safe to say that the topic of immigration (both legal and illegal) has become one of the most divisive in our already rancorous politics. On the surface, it seems that a large part of this stems from what appears to be the stupidity of our general populace, who have allowed itself to be sold a bill of goods. The right is told that Democrats are against border security since they are opposed to a sea-to-sea wall along the southern border while the left is told that all Republicans are heartless racists who enjoy seeing brown families torn apart. But obviously neither is true; it’s ridiculous to equate opposition to Trump’s campaign-promised border wall with no border security at all, and no one that I know is so heartless that they don’t object to having little kids taken from their parents and put in what amounts to cages.
It’s tempting to pass all the rhetoric (from both sides) off as simple politics; it’s been the practice to deliberately misstate the other side’s position, or exaggerate a threat to make it existential, as a way to stir up the base (and stay in office) since, like, forever. While politicians are perfectly happy to demonize their opponents or make a huge problem out of a small one, there’s something deeper going on. In order for someone to suspend a charitable view of the other side of this debate, as I argue is happening, there must be some underlying reason, thought process or cherished notion that sets the stage for them to do so.
First off, let me say that I think immigration policy is in dire need of an overhaul. I’m not in favor of completely open borders (again, who would be?) but that’s not even a remote possibility. But at the same time we need to provide a way for a reasonable number of people to be accepted into the country. And of course what constitutes “reasonable” is open to debate, but what we allow today is absurdly small. In the very recent past it was much easier, and lots more people could become citizens. My mother immigrated to the US following World War II to marry my dad, and while the process of getting US citizenship took several years, she never mentioned any issues in getting into the country initially; I believe the only requirement was that Dad put up a bond equal to her fare back to Australia if they chose not to marry when Mom arrived. In my adult lifetime, the significant influx of Vietnamese following the Vietnam war caused hardly a ripple in our society over the long term; the next town over from me in Southern California (Westminster) is locally known as Little Saigon (street signs are in both English and Vietnamese). And many of these people were refugees (then they called them “boat people”).
So less than a generation ago we as a society welcomed large groups of people into the country. As I say above, I have an immigrant parent and I would guess that most people, if they went back 3 or 4 forks in the family tree, would find someone who immigrated here. Why, apparently all of a sudden, is this such a divisive topic?
I think part of the answer lies in the change in our social contract as a society. Although on a global scale the US is wealthy, most people don’t feel that way now. My generation may be the last one that automatically assumes that their kids are going to have it better than we did. This becomes more visible when it comes to retirement planning. Vanishingly few companies have pension programs anymore; Social Security is under attack and is not enough to retire comfortably. Savings is required, but very few people have enough savings to make retirement comfortable. Minimum wage doesn’t even come close to provide an adequate living for one person, let alone support a family (when that was its original purpose), and in fact almost every household has both parents working full time to provide for the family. In my parents’ generation that was almost unheard of; the Dad made the living and the Mom managed the household. So where is all this “wealth” we hear about in the US? The vast majority is concentrated in a very small percentage at the very top. According to an in-depth 2014 report on income distribution in the US, as of 2012 the top 0.1% of the population controlled as much wealth as the bottom 90%. That disparity has continued and even gotten worse; as of this writing 3 people (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates) control more wealth than the entire bottom 50% of the United States (more than 160 million people), according to Forbes magazine.
I think people are afraid. They’re afraid that “others” are coming into the country and they are going to take a piece of an already-scarce pie, leaving not enough for the rest of us. And cynical people are stirring this up to their own advantage. Stay tuned.