Immigration reform has to go beyond doing the right thing for the most appealing people, Dreamers. A moral policy requires a deeper look at who we are and who we want to be. We have to compare our stated values to our actions.
Immigration policy is a hard challenge for the United States, where our ideals conflict with our worst instincts so that a fair, comprehensive solution keeps eluding us. Deferred action is what we get.
How many elections have come and gone with promises of immigration reform? Here we are again dealing with one piece of the immigration dilemma at issue, a temporary solution for one group, arrived at by presidential action rather than by changes in the law. What one president did with a signature, another can undo with a signature.
President Trump has put a time limit on former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). If Congress doesn’t adopt a legislative solution in six months, Trump will start phasing out the program.
Versions of legislation, called the DREAM Act, have been introduced in Congress for years. When a bipartisan version was cobbled together this summer, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-N.C., said that finding a solution “becomes almost a moral issue.”
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I’d leave out the “almost” and agree with Graham that it is a moral issue.
DACA was intended to help one of the most sympathetic groups of immigrants. It should be the easiest piece of immigration action, and yet it’s still contested.
There are 800,000 people eligible for DACA. They are young people whose parents are responsible for their being in the country without documentation. They are in school or are working or have served in the military. They are people who have no serious crimes on their records.
They are the Rosa Parks of immigration — innocent and upstanding.
But immigration reform has to go beyond doing the right thing for the most appealing people. A moral policy requires a deeper look at who we are and who we want to be. We have to compare our stated values to our actions.
Sometimes those who want us to open our doors wider say that we are a nation of immigrants, but that isn’t true.
Some Americans are immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, but many Americans are descended from refugees, invaders, conquered peoples, kidnapped peoples.
There is always more to the story. We think of immigrants and recall these words we know by heart: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” from the poem inscribed on a plaque in the museum at the base of The Statue of Liberty.
The statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. The idea for it arose near the end of the Civil War, and the discussions around its creation included a desire to recognize both the freedom gained through the Revolutionary War, and those later won in the Civil War.
Broken chains lie at the feet of the statue, but they are partially covered by the figure’s robe so as not to disturb those Americans who championed the southern cause.
The words on the plaque are from a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 to help raise money for the American contribution to the monument. Americans built the base. Lazarus was inspired by her work with Jewish refugees who came fleeing persecution in Europe. America embraced the sentiments of that poem, and yet Americans mistreated generations of immigrants.
The question of who will be accepted as American is a longstanding one:
• The country’s first major immigration law, the 1790 Naturalization Act, declared that “free white persons” could become citizens after living in the country for two years.
• The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruled that enslaved black people and their descendants could not be citizens. That same ruling said some Native Americans could be citizens, but not all. It wasn’t until 1924 that the law recognized all Native Americans born in the U.S. as citizens.
• In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to keep Chinese laborers out of the U.S.
• The 1917 Immigration Act expanded the exclusions to include much of the rest of Asia and nearly all of the Middle East.
• In 1965, along with other civil-rights legislation, the government abolished earlier restrictions based on national origin. We entered a bright, new day in which color would no longer be a barrier to citizenship.
Oh, wait. Is a wall a barrier?
Nations want to control their borders and expect that people will abide by the law. That expectation has more moral weight when the laws are built on a just foundation. Our track record is not good.
We need to ask who we are excluding and why before we can craft a morally supportable immigration law in which our values and our actions are aligned.
That process could start now with the challenge before Congress.