Rambling Notes on the Character of Trump-Era Immigration Debates

Author’s Note: I don’t have enough time to write good, polished pieces these days, but sometimes when I sit down I just need to get some thoughts out and distribute them among friends via this blog before other affairs eat up my time. Hopefully in due time this habit will crystallize and I’ll be writing a daily note on something or other. In any case, the pieces I publish in the ‘notes’ format are never formal polemics by any means- just loosely organized or entirely unorganized ramblings with insights I judge to be quaintly important enough to be saved digitally and accessible to the community with whom I discourse frequently. Please do not take them to be anything more than that. -LNP



The fascinating thing about the immigration debates in the Trump Era is that they are no longer just about numbers/quotas/target dates; it’s no longer solely or even primarily a question of “how many people from Y country with X skills will we admit in Z decade,” or even “how do we preclude illegal immigrants from crossing the border in a humane but effective fashion” the way U.S. immigration policy has been discussed for decades, at least since the immigration laws of 1965 and 1986 were passed.

Nowadays, the immigration debates are inextricably tied up with questions of national identity, citizenship, and what it means to be an American, what America is or isn’t. Republicans these days can’t just say ‘I support LEGAL immigration and oppose ILLEGAL immigration’ because that’s not the point; Democrats can’t just point to jobs numbers and income growth to justify current policy because again, that’s not the point. These are technocratic and policy-based distinctions, whereas a true political question- the nature of the community for which immigration policy is a tool- is at stake, and under intense disagreement.

While law (and enforcement or non-enforcement of law,) economics (and the relative utilitarian merits of increasing or decreasing low-skilled, mid-skilled, high-skilled immigrant pools etc.) are still there and still important, it seems to me that the reason why immigration inflames debate in the particular way it does these days, and circles around questions like whether to ask about citizenship on the Census or what to do about our old custom of birthright citizenship, is because the current debates focus around American identity and citizenship in ways that have been less central in the past few decades.
It seems to me that the general opinion on the left is that the right wants a closed system, and even a racist system, of immigration policy based on ‘preserving’ a ‘white’ America, or something along those lines. It seems to me that the general opinion on the right is that the left wants an open system, and even a post-national ‘globalist’ system, of immigration policy based on internationalist ideas and superseding any commitment to national loyalty.

Both of these views certainly have their proponents- in the white supremacist corners of the right, and in the radical intellectual-activist corners of the left. Neither view is anything like a majority opinion on either side, I think (note the recent study by More In Common on American voter types) and although the vast majority of moderate pro-immigration types and moderate immigration-restriction types probably have more in common with each other than with either extreme, they each nonetheless are diverse enough coalitions with strong enough cultural signal-points that they’d resentfully rather be associated with the radicals in their own corners than with the radicals in the opposite corner. This, in turn, turns off the majority who’d otherwise have common ground with them, and so on. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find majorities on either side who, in their hearts of hearts, thought America ought to be a white state, or thought America ought to be entirely cosmopolitan (but in the heat of politics there are many reasons why they might appear to gravitate towards one side, and why their opponents might willfully and inaccurately cast them in with that side.)

I reiterate- at a practical policy level, it’s probably very possible to come up with compromises that would satisfy 70-80% of American interest groups and cultural predilections. It is far less possible to come up with a philosophical and ideological justification for such a compromise package. And the things that people are disagreeing on, so vehemently and vociferously, are the philosophical and ideological justifications, rather than the practical policy goals. (Practical policy is of course ever-intertwined with this.) The philosophical and ideological justifications- like so many material and institutional and personal conflicts in America that can otherwise be managed efficaciously- are spiraling out of control, and inflaming our situation to a darker place.



At a very, very basic and oversimplified level, the ideological divide is exactly what it seems to be, a more complex and human version of what the globalist/racialist hawks on either side portray their opponents to be. As Wilfred McClay has documented well, there really are good reasons to focus on the ‘lived experience’ definition of Americanism, or contrarily on the ‘ideas in motion’ definition of Americanism. Without jettisoning the foundationally radical history of American identity, the cultural right focuses on America as a place in time. Without jettisoning the experiential results and lived experiences inherent in American identity, the cultural left focuses on America as an unfolding set of ideals and experiments and principles. These are clearly not contradictory- it seems to me that David Brooks is fundamentally rooted in the ideas-progress school of American identity but pays much due deference to the place-time school; Ross Douthat and Michael Lind, on the other hand, are very much rooted in the place-time school, but pay much deference and acknowledgement to the ideas-progress school. Like most things about America, it doesn’t make rational sense, but it works when you do it right and don’t insist on understanding and articulating everything about it.

But when you don’t understand the divide, or articulate it very well, AT ALL, that’s when things get hairy. I have a hunch that the vast majority of liberals in America who support sanctuary cities and states (and tacitly oppose the efficient enforcement of federal immigration law,) who oppose the inclusion of a citizenship question on the forthcoming 2020 U.S. Census (and tacitly do not believe that formal citizenship is necessary for an individual’s representation in the U.S. Congress,) and who are now horrified at President Trump’s executive order rolling back birthright citizenship as American policy, are not doing so out of any malice or contempt for the American nation-state. I don’t think they want to flout the law, or anything along those lines.

But I do think they have a very different values constellation, and a very different understanding of what matters in America, and what America IS, and what that MEANS for any American, than what people like myself on the right think. The late Senator John McCain, in his acceptance of the Liberty Medal in 2017 a few months before his death, called America “the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with a storied past forgotten in the rush to an imagined future.” This is certainly a huge part of who we are as Americans; we do have a tendency, a rooted identity, to do all this. And along these lines has arisen the American tradition of civil disobedience to unjust laws, of social reform against the clumsy institutions of the past, of protection of the moral equality inherent in every human heart as our national duty, Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s admonitions to us across the centuries. America, Chesterton’s ‘nation with the soul of a church,’ has an irascible tendency to believe so passionately in its city-on-a-hill mission. These people don’t want to transcend America, but they do have a very specific vision about how to perpetually improve and reform it.

On the other side of the divide are the heritage-focused types, who (usually) don’t deny the reform tradition and even the radical tradition in American history and American identity, but who either seek to slow down the rush in order to preserve things the reformers might forget, or who simply appreciate the anachronistic simplicities and verities of earlier times, whose opposition to perpetual progress is a kind of tragic romanticism more than anything else. These patrician types have been alternately accused of Toryism, on the one hand, and hard-nosed cynicism on the other; but it is probably not accurate to think of them as stand-patters or reactionaries. It’s also probably not accurate to call their current generation nativists or worse.

Instead, these have often been the second generation of political consolidators after the revolutionaries- the Federalists had fought fiercely in the American Revolution for independence, and were accused of monarchism as they sought to protect that hard-won independence; Whigs like Henry Clay, accused of oligarchy and aristocracy in the 1830s and ‘40s, started off life as foot-soldiers in the Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800; the Progressive Movement, Republican and Democratic, was the elite of its time, but harkened back to Lincoln’s egalitarianism to protect it against anarchy; the Vital Center establishment of the mid-20th Century, so despised by the student activists of the time, had been the crusading New Dealers of the 1930s; it is fascinating these days to see the loudest voices for regular order and traditional democratic politics, in both parties, to be the same individuals who swept the Democratic Party after Watergate and the McGovern-Fraser reforms, and the ones who came to power with the Reagan Revolution promising to overturn the established order. As the old yarn ought to go, he who is not a revolutionary at age 20 has no passion; he who is not an establishmentarian at age 50 has no judgment.

A more accurate understanding of this ideas divide, and acknowledgment of its existence on everyone’s part, would probably be helpful for navigating it. If I can find more time to write, I will try to investigate it further here and elsewhere.