Binding Up the Immigration Issue with Heartstrings

Social media circles that are a bit softer on immigration policy than I am have been passing around the story of Jorge Garcia, an illegal immigrant who was deported on Monday.  As I’ve been endeavoring to explain to Stephen Beale and his “friends,” the heartbreaking circumstances are illustrative of the key problem I think we have with the immigration issue in this country.

To consolidate the point, the tendency is for advocates on both sides of the issue to dehumanize such stories.  On the more-restrictionist side, folks like Garcia are illegal aliens, a category at which one can stop.  However compelling his background may be, his legal status is simply an impenetrable wall beyond which one needn’t go.

On the (I’ll call it) amnesty-leaning side, folks like Garcia are something more like fluffy animals.  That’s not as abstract and distancing as “illegal alien,” but it can be just as belittling.  In this view, the only party with any real human agency is (ironically) the government.  His story is heartbreaking, especially because of its effect on his two children, and the government is the entity with the power to grant (in its beneficence) or deny (in its cruelty) the remedy.

So what if he refused to self-deport, as he promised, when one of his children was a toddler and the other not yet born?  How could a fluffy animal do otherwise?  If his children are suffering at the end of the sequence of events that his relative initiated and he prolonged, the only entity in the equation with the power to make a moral decision, per the advocates, is the government, because the government has actual power.

Garcia is powerless.  He’s a fluffy animal.  Every single way in which he could have insured his family against this outcome is ignored.  The possibility that he could bring his family with him and build a better future isn’t even considered.

Pause to consider Garcia’s story from the perspective of a novelist.  Basically, there are two possible story lines.  There is man versus government, in which activists can only fight against a government that refuses to allow Garcia to stay in the Good Place (although many will quickly turn around and scoff at such a characterization of the United States).  Alternately, there is man versus society, in which there might be some way for this family to overcome obstacles beyond their control… obstacles beyond the control, ultimately, of the people creating the obstacles, who themselves face the incentives and constraints of actual human beings in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

The more-restrictionist side doesn’t even see the story, but the amnesty-leaning side sees only man versus government.  With these two positions dominating the discourse, no compromise is possible.  One of Beale’s friends asked me whether I think it is “acceptable” to hold “the wellbeing of these people’s lives and families” as a “bargaining chip.”  No, it is not.  But the side holding that chip is the side that puts forward this story in order to pull the compromise in its direction.  That is, the “amnesty-leaning” direction.

The folks on the right, like me, who are more than sympathetic to Garcia’s plight, and who are actively in search of compromise aren’t withholding reasonable accommodations for Garcia as some unrelated chip to get our way.  We’re saying that we cannot incrementally advance toward amnesty.  We need a comprehensive reform that gets immigration under control, and that outcome entails defining what aspect of Garcia’s story secures him citizenship while including protections against a repeat of the process that produced such agony for his family.

After all, the complaint against the amnesty that President Reagan accepted in 1986 was that the illegal immigrants got their amnesty, but America never got its more-secure border.  Indeed, Garcia, who arrived within a few years after the amnesty, may be a perfect illustration of how that compromise sent the message that people needed only to get to the United States and then avoid deportation until the next amnesty, thus creating the conditions for more agony.

Such a cycle doesn’t resolve any problems.  It exacerbates them.  And the only way to achieve a realistic, humanitarian resolution is to stop the tug of war over illegal aliens versus fluffy animals and recognize that we’re, all of us, human beings attempting to come up with some way to deal with the consequences when one way of organizing a society proves so amazingly better than the alternatives.

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