Monday, August 22, 2022

On Migrants and Immigration

I often wonder what later generations will “see” as obviously irrational, immoral, or unjust practices in our culture, and ask themselves how we could have accepted these, the way we look back at enslavers today. Some are obvious: even before I die, expect my grandchildren to ask me why we were so careless in burning carbon, what with all the airplanes, heating and air conditioning, and big cars. Some people argue that future generations will look in horror at our carnivorous practices; I’m skeptical, though I assume we’ll eat a lot less meat, especially beef.

So I was fascinated to hear Mohsin Hamid on the Ezra KleinShow podcast say that he thought we today are as barbaric today for preventing migration ("enforcing the limits of geography on people’s lives") as slaveholders were for enforcing birth hierarchies 150 years ago. He points out that humans, like all animals, migrate. In fact, the enforcement of borders is actually fairly new.

[N]one of us are, in a sense, indigenous to where we live.… [W]herever we are, in a sense, we are migrants. And up until quite recently, this idea of the nation-state with such impermeable borders and passports and this entire mechanism didn’t exist. Of course, there were tribes that wouldn’t let members of other tribes live among them. There were wars, there were all kinds of things. But the human record is of movement, incredible amounts of movement.

Europeans migrated to the New World with almost no restrictions until the early 20th century. The Qing dynasty tried to prevent Chinese from moving to Taiwan and the Philippines in the 17th century, but pretty much failed. But today, Hamid notes, we have governments attempting to use industrial technology to stop any movement. He continues:

And I think that, while I fully understand and can empathize with the idea that, well, if we let everybody come, it will change everything and we can’t do that, I can understand that. And there needs to be some navigation of how do we manage this tussle of what those who wish to move and those who do not wish others to move to where they are, how do we manage the balance between those two things.

But what I think is very stark is that it cannot be that the moral right is simply to say that people mustn’t move, they are criminal if they move, they should be criminalized if they move, because in a world where there will be, I think, enormous flows of people, due to climate change and environmental disruption, but also wars and other things, if we say to people that they just can’t move, we’re, in a sense, handing out death sentences to millions and millions of our fellow human beings. If you can’t leave a country where there’s a war underway and where people of your particular group are being killed, or if you can’t leave a country where there is enormous starvation and crops have failed, we are basically deciding that these people now need to die.

And for me, that decision should be revealed in its correct moral complexion, which is to say it isn’t the person who wishes to move who is the criminal here. If somebody is drowning and we can help them and we don’t, it’s not the person who drowns that is the criminal here. 

The same day that I heard this podcast interview, I also heard news from an IPSOS poll that Americans are very misinformed about immigration. 

Over half of American adults believe it is either completely or somewhat true that the U.S. is experiencing an invasion at the southern border, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll. Moreover, half believe there is at least some truth to the view that migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increases of overdoses in the U.S.

The idea of an “invasion” is hyperbole at best, and the migrants are not bringing drugs, but trying to save themselves. Though half of all respondents believe migrants are smuggling drugs, Republicans who watch Fox are most likely to believe this (89%), compared to 64% of Republicans get their news elsewhere.

The survey also shows that support for giving citizenship to Dreamers (people brought to the US by their parents as children) has fallen from 65% in January 2018 to 51% today. And “Fewer Americans today (56%) believe that immigrants are an important part of our American identity than in January 2018 (75%).” This represents a significant rightward tilt in the country. 

I’ll admit I’m biased; I am the child of immigrants. My father’s family migrated to the US in 1920. My mother survived Allied bombing near Argenta, in Emilia-Romagna, and relied on distant relatives and strangers to survive. Her beloved great aunt, virtually her only relative on her father’s side, was killed in a bomb shelter in Ferrara. She always said that in wars, everyone suffers. My parents taught me that refugees needed help and that we should help them. They lived those values by sponsoring a family of Vietnamese refugees in 1979. 

In another coincidence, this week I also heard Malcolm Gladwell’s last podcast of the 7th season, “I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me,” which tells the story of how his parents and their friends sponsored three Vietnamese refugees in 1979 (I highly recommend listening to this podcast; excellent, as usual). He makes the point that many people contributed to the effort, and there was little or no organization; many of the people Gladwell assembles for his interview were not aware of who did what or how things got done. It was all a series of small acts of kindness. No bravery was necessary; like the “Good Samaritan” of the Bible, who does not fight off hoodums or sneak the injured man past a military checkpoint, but just tends his wounds and pays an innkeeper to restore him to strength, a number of people donated money and time to help refugees start a new life in Canada.

The group in Canada was in part motivated by their Christian faith, and the podcast has them reciting these verses from Matthew 25:

For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.

I have to wonder at these people who consider themselves Christians, or even "Christian Nationalists," and yet spread misinformation about migrants at the border, and are able to turn their backs on their suffering. And I worry that the poll shows this country is turning Rightward, becoming more intolerant and fearful. What will our grandchildren say?


Unknown said...

Interesting take on a complex, politically and culturally charged subject that Mohsin Hamid off-handedly terms "managing the tussle" between those who wish to migrate, and those who do not want them to come. And Hamid seems to be unaware there are legal ways for people who are facing persecution to move across borders to permanent safety: refugee status. The Big Three refugee resettlement countries - U.S., Canada, and Australia - provide shelter for tens of thousands of refugees annually. Other (mostly Western European) countries accept smaller numbers. Skilled economic migrants similarly have legal avenues for migration to some developed countries.

Pre-modern human migration involved relatively small numbers of people moving to areas where there weren't many previous inhabitants. The world population explosion in the 19th and 20th Centuries has made large scale human movements impractable - the development of the nation-state (fundamentally defined as a political entity being able to control one's borders) was in part a response to that reality.

The challenge is, as Hamid points out, that our present system of managed borders is incompatible with accomodating sudden, massive surges of economic migrants - people attempting to cross borders to flee failed crops resulting from climate change, for example. Should that worst-case scenario come to pass, a re-ordering of the foundation of the nation-state will be required. Difficult to do, particularly when attempts to partially open borders in areas of the world where it is easiest to do so (ie, Western Europe) are faltering today.

JB said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Several responses:

1) I think it is unfair to say “Hamid seems to be unaware” of refugee status. It is well known that refugee status is not being granted to many true refugees. The number of refugees admitted to the US has declined dramatically; the ceiling was 110,000 in 2017, and only 30,000 in 2019.

2) The notion that “pre-modern migration involved relatively small numbers of people moving to areas where there weren’t many previous inhabitants” is specious. Of course the numbers were smaller, but then a small number of migrants could also have a greater impact on the small receiving population. Keep in mind that in 1850, about 15% of the US population was foreign born, and that percentage fell to 4.7% in 1970, and is now back to about 15%, so there has not been a huge increase in the proportion of immigrants in the US.

3) Yes, the nation-state created borders, but the idea that people could not cross borders came later. The problem we have is that capital, products, and labor (in the form of guest workers) have increasingly been allowed to cross borders freely, but bodies increasingly cannot.

I agree that managing sudden surges of migrants is challenging, but I dispute the description of people as “economic migrants.” Most people do not want to leave their homeland and relatives, but are driven to do so. Many Americans seem unable to understand that migrants are fleeing violence and exploitation in Central America that should be understood as blowback from historical US policies and intervention in the region. In that sense, the national boundary is a “wall” the US is using to shield itself from the chaos and mismanagement and even environmental problems it contributed to.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the interesting discussion, Professor.

By "pre-modern migrations", I had in mind the movement of present-day American Indians to North America, Aboriginies from Indonesia to Australia, SE Asians to the South Pacific, and the like. Places where there was no one awaiting them.

On refugees: there is an internationally accepted legal definition of who is a refugee and who is not, a definition reflected almost word-for-word in U.S. domestic law. The post-WWII experience to date is that the majority of people who move across borders (or seek to move) do not fit that legal definition. A valid argument may be made that the international community should expand the definition to include, for example, people who lose thier liveliehood due to climate change. Or to include people fleeing domestic abuse (like many of the young women along the southern US border) or generic political instability, or gang violence.

But as we understand the accepted legal meaning of "refugee" right now, I don't think it is correct to say that "refugee status is not being granted to many true refugees."

After an unusual, politically-inspired nadir during the Trump adminisration, refugee admissions to the U.S. will bounce back to 125,000 this year, roughly the historical norm. This number does not include the tens of thousands of Afghanis fleeing the Taliban take-over who were recently offered safety in the U.S. They were brought to the U.S. under a different (streamlined) program called "humanitarian parole", which also allows for permanent residence.

None of this is to argue that the "boat is full", or that we should close our borders, or that we are under siege at the southern border. My basic point is that there are legal ways for the truly needy to migrate to the US (Canada and Australia as well.) Ways that allow for assistance and support when they arrive. Although a 15% foreign-born population is not high, migrants tend to cluster in a relatively few locations in the U.S., stressing local communities. Some mid-sized towns that tradtionally welcomed refugees, for example, can no longer provide support and have asked that no more be sent.

Your argument that the U.S. has a moral obligation to open our borders to Central Americans because of past meddling in thier countries is compelling on one level. After all, we welcomed thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis affected by U.S. foreign policy, why not Hondurans, Salvadorans and others in countries disrupted by pre-1985 U.S. policies? I don't have an easy response to this, other than to note that the U.S. is the only G7 developed country that shares a land border with the developing world. The U.S. is therefore relatively easy to reach for millions of people. In addition to the push factors of violence and political instability in Central America, there is a strong economic magnet in the U.S. as well. An "open borders" policy for Latin America could well result in the largest migration of humans since the chaotic and tragic partion of India in 1947. I don't think anyone wants to see that occur.

JB said...

Thanks for your clarifications and comments. I hope I don’t sound too pedantic if I add two clarifications of my own:

1) Hamid’s (and most anthropologists’) argument that humans are all migrants and have always moved does not refer to the settling of empty lands, but to the movement and mixing of peoples over the millennia. Some of that has been violent (think Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, and the colonization of the Americas) but much of it has been peaceful and unremarkable. A surprising number of people around the world are bilingual, and live in areas (border areas and ethnic enclaves) with multiple cultures and languages, reflecting that mixing. This is also true in Africa, which many people think of as divided into many separate “tribes.”

2) No one argues for an “open border” policy; I see that term as used by opponents of immigration to frighten people. The question is just what level of immigration to allow. I think we agree that this is the contentious question.