Immigration and the Questions Rarely Asked

Efficiency, economic benefit, and preference satisfaction are the categories by which the dominant culture assesses moral and political disputes. But by doing so, it excludes from its gaze certain questions that ought to be asked, some of which seem fundamental to what it means to be human.

So take, for example, the debate over President Obama’s executive order on immigration. Whether it’s coming from the right or the left, the focus of support or critique is almost always on what can measured, with all the inquiries beginning with “how many,” “how much,” and “how desirable.” What cannot be measured, and thus must be ignored, is how amnesty may shape the character of all its beneficiaries including both the immigrants as well as all those of us who have benefited from their presence in this country.

Many people are drawn to the United States precisely because of the stability of its institutions, and the variety of opportunities this stability provides to them. But in order to offer amnesty, the president must breach the nation’s separation of powers, striking at the principled ground of the very stability that attracts these men, women, and children to this country to begin with. This, ironically, means that the president conscripts these immigrants to be accomplices to his mischief, and thus teaches both them and the nation’s population that he does not expect these immigrants to conduct themselves like good citizens.

He, on the one hand, cooperates with misshaping their character in the name of helping them, and thus both insults and injures the very people he is claiming to aid. Like a Disneyland Dad who caters to his children’s preference satisfactions while damaging their integrity, the president offers to these immigrants all the benefits of civil society while suggesting that they need not respect its infrastructure in order to receive those benefits.

On the other hand, there are those to the president’s political right, who begin their inquiries on this subject with the same set of phrases, “how many,” “how much,” and “how desirable.” Not seeing these immigrants as persons of immeasurable worth and dignity made in the image of God, they view them as mere sources of cheap labor, a means by which the captains of industry may provide less expensive goods and services to the large swaths of suburbanites who call for more border security, but benefit immensely from the absence of that security.

           Legal immigrants in Indiana take the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens
Legal immigrants in Indiana take the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens

It is, therefore, far too late in the game for any side to claim the moral high ground. The Democrats want cheap votes. The Republicans want cheap labor. The group in the middle, the Tea Party, wants the rule of law and border security, though they seem not to mind that their construction, hotel, lawn care, and restaurant costs are less than they otherwise would be, precisely because of the proliferation of undocumented workers willing to accept wages very few citizens would even entertain.

So it seems that every side in the immigration debate arrives at the table with unclean hands and lined pockets, for they all, in one way or another, have benefited (or seek to benefit) from our nation’s lax and incoherent immigration policies.

As it is often stated, we are a nation of immigrants. My great grandparents on my mother’s side immigrated from Naples and Sicily in the early 20th century. They were, like their contemporary counterparts, drawn to this country because of the opportunities it offered to them. But these possibilities did not arise from nothing, whole cloth. They were the result of an understanding of ordered liberty, divided government, the rule of law, the ownership of property, and the dignity of the individual that permeated much of the cultural atmosphere of that era, even when the people of this nation did not always practice it well.

I am, of course, aware that some of those immigrants underwent many hardships because of the cultural and ethnic prejudices they soon encountered once they arrived on these shores. It does no good to sugar coat that reality. Nevertheless, they entered the country legally, were not patronized by the then-current occupant of the White House, and built and sustained communities, families, churches, and synagogues that provided spiritual solace and social stability that the government, thankfully, did not pretend to promise them.

It is time for all devout people of good will to reject the categories of quantitative measurement that our “betters” claim are the only way by which to assess America’s immigration crisis. For it is, at root, a moral issue that has left no one untouched.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).