The Sh**hole theory of immigration politics

The Sh**hole theory of immigration politics June 21, 2018

If nothing else, the entire debate around “kids in cages” has made clear some attitudes on immigration held by, if not the majority, then a vocal minority.

To recap where things are in administrative practice and public debate:  President Trump has shifted from a policy prosecuting illegal border-crossing parents, which results in children without caretakers, and means foster/institutional care, to a policy detaining parents and children together until their asylum claims can be processed.  The Left rejects this, saying that any form of detention is unacceptable; when confronted with the fact that significant numbers fail to show up for asylum hearings if released on their own recognizance, or cut off ankle monitors if these are applied (I’ve read figures from 40% to 70%), they suggest that this is no big deal because the numbers are small and, if they fail to show up, this either indicates that they were not given sufficient support as to understand what they needed to do, lawyers to fill out the forms, etc., or that perhaps they indeed not meet the criteria for asylum, but it’s still OK that they’ve immigrated to the United States illegally because clearly they needed to have done so, and we’re a wealthy country anyway so we can afford it.

Now, it seems to me that the long-term answer is to develop sufficient mechanisms for deporting illegal residents and preventing their employment (whether with false IDs or under the table), so that the Right could indeed agree to bail with confidence that this is not in practice permission to reside indefinitely.  But we’re a long way from consensus on this.  So the short-term answer seems likely to be the setting up of “family camps” along with an acknowledgment that such facilities are not, in fact, the equivalent of Japanese internment camps because the latter detained actual citizens of this country, and the former would detain those who are seeking residency, and, to the extent that they can return home at any time, are strictly speaking not a detention at all.

But, with that as preamble, here’s my “sh**hole theory”.

We laud ourselves as a “nation of immigrants.”  But at the same time, for most of us who are upper middle class (and therefore the punditocracy) or even just middle class, immigration is a very alien experience.  We imagine it to be traumatic, full of distress, misery, and unhappiness, in part because of the other part of the narrative that we tell ourselves about our own ancestors — that is, addressing the presumed majority of my readers whose ancestors came from Europe in the 19th or early 20th centuries.  We think of the Emma Lazarus poem and imagine that all immigrants to the United State have always been the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, so desperate to escape famine or persecution that they would reluctantly undertake the trauma of leaving their native land.

And because of this understanding of immigration as trauma, we then imagine that the only ones who would reasonably undertake this would be those from, to use a Trumpian turn of phrase, sh**hole countries, or at least sh**hole situations.  Which further means, in the eyes of the Left, and, well, in the view of many who view themselves as compassionate, caring people, even if they don’t meet the requirements to qualify for asylum or refugee resettlement, these poor people have such miserable lives in their native countries that they should be allowed to enter.  And the bars to legal entry almost seem to serve as a further indicator:  anyone who would cross borders illegally or overstay visas, and work under the table or with forged documents, must clearly have had such a horrendous life in their home countries, barely managing to keep their family fed, that it’s only right and just to welcome them here, and it’s clearly an injustice to deport them or refuse to accept them in the first place.

The reality is that many of our ancestors (again, speaking generically knowing that the majority of my audience had such ancestors) came here to strike it rich.  They may not have even intended to stay, but just to earn enough case to display their wealth at home.  In fact, the lure of comparative riches, not the inability to provide for one’s family, still brings immigrants here, especially from countries where the idea of working under the table or buying false IDs is seen as just a routine part of life.

And it is my opinion that immigration is not the trauma we make it out to be.  Immigrants find communities to welcome them quickly, with compatriots who help them navigate the system.  And yes, it’s difficult to learn a new language (and, yes, I am not speaking blandly and generically — readers will recall that I spent two years in Germany), but especially in the year 2018 when cell phones and the internet keep one connected both to family and to one’s native language/culture/TV programming, this is not such a terrible thing as we make it out to be.

What percent of immigrants now are arriving because they want to become comparatively wealthier, vs. coming because of objective misery and deep poverty in their home countries?  I don’t want to speculate on an answer.  I just want to suggest that our own idea that immigration is a deeply difficult trauma to endure, causes us to presume the latter rather than the former.


Image:; See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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