The Immigration Problem (or is this about citizenship?)

I’ve been trying to make sense out of the immigration debate, as it’s currently framed, for quite a while now. And, to borrow a phrase, “it’s hard work.”

I’ve been on hand a couple of times when people I know have taken up the subject and suddenly taken on an extreme and angry demeanor. People who I just know cheat on their taxes (a little), who disregard highway speed limits (almost always), and who most certainly “inhaled” in college (maybe even more recently) suddenly become law and order fundamentalists. “We are a nation of laws!” they proclaim.

I’ve heard this coming out of some of the most unlikely mouths.

Then there comes the righteous tax dollar argument: “Why should we pay for ‘their’ healthcare, housing, education, etc., etc.?” (As a citizen myself I start to wonder what I’ve been missing!) Once or twice I’ve tried to proffer the argument that maybe the problem isn’t so much with immigration as it is actually with those issues: healthcare, housing, education, et cetera.

This argument rarely wins me any friends, or influences anybody. It only serves as a distraction and goes to diffuse the raised voice resentment (just when people were starting to enjoy themselves!)

Then from the other side of the room you get the practical pragmatist types and their side of the debate. They don’t raise their voices as much as the law and order table pounders, theirs is more an attitude of abject sighing. “How are we supposed to come by affordable landscaping, fast food, child care and domestic help? We simply need a lower caste for modern American society to function!” As Karl Rove pointedly observed, as he was touting the Bush administration’s immigration policy proposals this past year, we shouldn’t expect his kid to come around mowing lawns. He’ll have none of that! “Those(immigrant) people, they’re necessary.” By some estimates there are 12 million of them. We don’t think of them as potential citizens. They are our “workers”… “guests” perhaps.

So this is where we find the debate: How high and long should the wall be? How severely can we punish the perpetrators of illegal immigration and still have them vacuum the family room? One man’s “path towards legal status” becomes another man’s anathema of “amnesty.”

And suddenly I feel like I’m a twelve year old Red Sox fan again. I’m watching Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles play Billy Martin’s New York Yankees and I’m wishing there was a way both sides could lose.

Now, I know better than that. There isn’t a healthy way both sides of this debate can lose. Not healthy for the country. For now, neither is winning and perhaps both are losing. Reform legislation has been taken from the table and some sad amount of wall has been built, more an anemic and depressing symbol than any kind of effective barrier. Spastic and sporadic enforcement of our extant immigration statutes only serves to embarrass this “nation of laws” with its apparently arbitrary cruelty.

How then can we move beyond this, beyond those who jealously guard the privileges of citizenship and those who would offer citizenship in some sadly compromised form? I won’t pretend to have worked out an answer to that question. But I would like to advance a couple of thoughts about ways we might improve the debate and, by that means, maybe improve the result.

These issues it seems are constantly described in terms of being an “immigration problem.” Citizenship, when it is discussed, is almost always conceived of as a set of social and economic privileges to be reserved for the deserving Americans. Hardly ever is citizenship in this country discussed as a form of civic responsibility. I think we would all be well served if, citizens and immigrants alike, we were to to rearrange that set of understandings. Perhaps this debate shouldn’t be about the “immigration problem” at all. Rather it should be about the challenges of citizenship.

What does it mean to be a citizen when the logic of our global policies have come home to live here around us? Beyond the privileges, what are our tasks as citizens in the American landscape and, yes, in the global village.

Perhaps we should divorce the ideas of charity and compassion from our understanding of entitled citizenship. But should we altogether dispense with these as values as well? We are a nation that takes pride in the aid we offer to impoverished nations? Why then should we treat their citizens differently when they arrive here at our door?

Citizenship as a blessing, and also a task, is it something to be guarded jealously? Or, as a blessing and a task, is it best shared?

I know these are questions, not answers. And they might only get us more debate. But I’d like to think of them as a different lens, on a different debate, something useful. I hope.

Tom Driscoll lives in Holliston MA and publishes the blog “Not Silence” at

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About Tom Driscoll

Tom Driscoll is a columnist, poet, performing singer/songwriter. He never used to think of himself as a Democrat. Then one day he realized it was probably true. He is a firm believer in the Marxist (Groucho) tenet that any group willing to have him as a member should be the object suspicion.
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2 Responses to The Immigration Problem (or is this about citizenship?)

  1. Darrell Prows says:

    Hey Mr. and Mrs. “What part of illegal don’t you understand”, I know millions of undocumented Hispanics who would love to help bolster the value of your home, and all of the homes in your neighborhood, in your city, in your State, and in the United States. You’ve had your say on the fabricated issue of you having to subsidize them, but let’s hear how you weigh in on a proposal that has them subsidizing you.

    An additional 190,000 homes went into mortgage default in July, and this wave is forecast to not play itself out for another 12 to 18 months. The mortgage “products” used by something like 40% of recent homebuyers are no longer available at a time when many areas have record inventories of unsold homes, and declining real estate values. A veritable flood of additional foreclosure homes, then, is a crisis that has every informed observer struggling to describe a way out.

    We could create a program to sell foreclosure homes to undocumented aliens, lend them the money to make the purchase, require them to upgrade the properties to normal standards, and give them a conditional Green card as a reward/carrot. These mortgages, if the borrowers were legally allowed to be in the country, could be made pursuant to standard FHA guidelines regarding credit worthiness, employment/income, assets, and down payment requirements.

    If people currently living in the shadows of our country could get both legitimacy and participation in the American dream of home ownership, there would be a line outside of every mortgage company in the country the day after such a program was announced. Four previously illegals making ten dollars per hour is the same as one person making $40.00/hr and that is enough money to buy and maintain a house in this country. Plus, getting them into the program would mean that we would know exactly where they are at, so if they ever did stop performing on their part of the bargain, they would be a sitting target for deportation.

    It isn’t supposed to happen, but thousands of illegals already do own homes here, and their mortgage payment performance is normal. Make the rest legal, give them a chance, and we’ll take a lot of homes off of the market at record speed.

  2. Tom Driscoll says:

    Hi Darrell
    I think this policy might make sense as policy. But it might also serve as a distraction in the debate. That might be the debate’s fault and not the policy’s.
    But terms like “the American dream of homeownership” give me the willies. I’m going through a foreclosure right now and if I’m lucky I’ll find a house to rent or an apartment for me and my family. Am I suddenly less an American? A reduced citizen of some sort?
    I don’t mean to make you feel bad. The housing policy you advocate might be sound. I’m just uncomfortable marrying wealth and citizenship as sides of the same coin.
    I really do believe that conflation is the biggest stumbling block to progress right now!