Opinion: How not to talk about immigration

Liberals’ pro-immigrant arguments severely lack altruism and humanism

You mean well. You look around and see a nation that has two main camps on the issue of immigration. There are the psychopaths and the good guys. There are the people who are putting children in cages, and the people who are politely asking them to stop. 

You’re on the good team, so you tend to parrot the arguments and talking points you hear the good guys make. The problem is that the good guys haven’t opposed nationalism, they’ve just carefully rebranded it to be less overtly horrifying. 

The Democratic Party and the greater liberal population in America far too often “advocate” for immigrants using selfish, nationalist and racist arguments. Many liberals try to seem practical and realistic about issues, but instead end up fundamentally abandoning leftist principles. 

Infamously, Kelly Osbourne, daughter of Ozzy Osbourne, went on “The View” and “owned” Donald Trump by saying, “If you kick out Latinos, who’s going to clean your toilets?” 

The audience rightfully gasped at this blatant racism, but people consistently tolerate it in other circumstances, like when Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski asked the people of New Jersey, “Who do you think is mowing our beautiful lawns?”

These liberal arguments try to seem pragmatic by accepting the idea of an immigrant class which exists solely to be subjugated by work that reinforces their status. 

This is one of many arguments well-intentioned liberals use that continue to perpetuate stereotypes and racist ideas, feeding into a framework benefitting white nationalist and capitalist business interests. 

To truly advocate for the documented and undocumented immigrants on ASU campuses, we have to root our arguments in altruism and responsibility rather than nationalism and economic benefit.

“But the Economy!”

In August of 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided multiple chicken processing plants in Mississippi. They detained 680 people, separated them from their families and left their children with no consistent care or income.

ASU Latin American history associate professor Alexander Aviña said that bringing in immigrants but not giving them certain rights, like the right to unionize, perpetuates a segmented labor market. 

“It solidifies or encases immigrants in a second-tier level of worker,” Aviña said. “When you say, ‘These people are doing the jobs that Americans won’t do.’ What you’re really saying is, ‘We’re trying to give you cheap labor for the bosses.’”

Next time your uncle at the dinner table attempts to own Trump by talking about the jobs Americans don’t want to do, remind him that this logic results in the dehumanizing labor of thousands of workers and their inability to ever unionize without the immediate threat of violence.

On a mass scale, liberals often use broader economic arguments in favor of immigration which have the same effect. Many have pointed to organizations like the New American Economy, which shows immigrants contributed $13 billion into Social Security and $3 billion into Medicare in 2016, while being unable to use those programs themselves. 

This argument tacitly accepts an unjust status quo.

Undocumented immigrants should be given full access to those benefits, not praised for shouldering an unfair load. More importantly, this rhetoric feeds into a conservative trope that if someone does use social or welfare benefits, then they’re a freeloader in our binary world of bootstrap pullers vs. welfare leeches.

What these so-called pro-immigration arguments have in common is that they never mention the lives of the immigrants themselves. Economic arguments will always be about increasing capital for American-born citizens and are therefore nationalist and conservative.

Crime Statistics and the Myth of Border Security 

“When I hear any sort of democratic politician or liberal organization that uses the term border security, they are automatically operating on terrain and within a framing that was created by anti-immigrant activists, politicians and openly white nationalists,” Aviña said. 

He went on to describe the way bipartisan calls for security have caused an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 deaths since 1994.

The argument many liberals make in their effort to defend documented immigrants is to endorse the idea of border security as a legitimate cause. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006 that contributed to these deaths. Time and time again, Democrats’ fear of being seen as weak on crime or border security leads to death and terror for thousands of people seeking a better life.

A true leftist view on the border ultimately has to challenge its existence. It should be rooted in the realization that you were born on one side of this imaginary line purely by chance, and that your “right” to be here is something you don’t truly deserve.

Alexis Santana, an architecture junior and officer with the Latino Architecture Student Organization, said he knows many students on campus who weren’t lucky enough to be born in the American empire. 

“It should be within my right to leave if I wanted to. If I want to visit Mexico I should be able to walk across the border and do that. What really defines a border?” Santana said. “Why is it United States versus Mexico? What says that besides ‘Well, here, we’re going to draw a line on a map.’”

Those lines were drawn by imperialistic wars and maintained by corrupt business interests. We don’t owe them a defense or justification.

Another example of liberals adopting conservative framework is the usage of crime statistics. Many liberals will advocate for immigrants using the Cato Institute's 2015 study that found documented immigrants had an 85% lower conviction rate than native-born citizens, and undocumented migrants had a 50% lower conviction rate than native-born citizens. 

On the surface, this seems like a pro-immigrant argument, but it’s right-wing at its core. Crime statistics about ethnic groups are a right-wing weapon meant to justify our system of incarceration. Using those arguments comes with the implicit assumption that if a group had an undesirable crime rate, then they should not be allowed in the country. 

This view sees criminality as a part of someone’s identity rather than a result of social factors like poverty and circumstance. 

Aviña said these arguments can also backfire. 

“I don’t think they’re that helpful in the sense that a liberal will say, ‘Look here are the statistics, here is verified legit academic research that shows migrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than natural-born people,’” Aviña said. “But then a conservative comes in and says, ‘Here’s an anecdote,’ whose explanatory power might be super limited, but there’s an emotional power to it.”

He said that there's a very simple reason why undocumented and documented immigrants commit crimes at a lower level, and it's because they don't want contact with law enforcement at all. Celebrating these crime rates endorses a depraved system of unjust consequences. They exist because immigrants have to live in constant terror that any infraction could lead to their deportation. 

A truly leftist and egalitarian view on immigration rejects the permanence of borders and right-wing perceptions of criminality. 


How You Should Talk About Immigration

Liberals need to seek views on immigration that are not based on nationalist benefit. 

When making an argument in favor of something, simply ask yourself, “If what I am saying wasn’t true, would I still believe in this cause?” In this case, ask yourself if you would still believe in humanistic immigration even if the crime rates weren’t favorable. 

Would you still support immigration even if immigrants weren’t going to do jobs Americans didn’t want to do? 

If you’re a good person, you would. So avoid technocratic and nationalist arguments and skip right to moral responsibility as your justification. 

Many immigrants are here as a direct result of U.S. imperialism destabilizing their home countries. The United States has been involved in regime changes in South America including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and in this past year Venezuela. 

It’s ridiculous to ask what immigrants can offer us, when we are responsible for their exodus.

Aviña said the Sri Lankan-born novelist Ambalavaner Sivanandan understood this issue of imperialist forces pushing immigrants out of their own destabilized nations. 

He famously spoke out by saying, “We are here because you were there.”


Reach the reporter at drustemp@asu.edu or follow @denzel_for on Twitter.

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