By Katie Hughes '22; Image by Wes Messamore
When I tell my family or friends I’m taking a class on immigration, the follow-up is most often: so, what do you think? I struggle to respond to this, in part because I find it hard to have an opinion on anything and in part because immigration is immensely complicated and rarely cut and dry. What follows is my attempt to articulate guiding principles that aim to maximize the welfare of those living in The United States, Mexico and the Northern Triangle, , balancing many competing priorities.
I’d argue for a path towards legal status for immigrants who are living in the US without documentation that either have no criminal record or can prove rehabilitation from past crimes. I’d argue for a secured southern border that reduces illegal border crossings to a negligible level, and access to expanded legal immigration to admit many more individuals from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, according to some measure of deservingness that takes into account both abilities to sustain oneself in the US and the unsustainability of a potential migrants current living conditions. U.S. diplomatic efforts should focus on capacity building for economic opportunity in Central America, with the intention of developing the economy to be less reliant on remittances and provide its citizens with ample opportunities to develop skills, feel belonging and be economically active.
These recommendations are founded upon the belief that undocumented immigration is never better than documented immigration (for neither the immigrants themselves, nor the receiving nation) Documentation allows for immigrants to legitimately and consistently earn wages and pay taxes, without having to take jobs that mismatch one’s abilities with the skills a job necessitates. Crucial to the viability and meaningfulness of these guiding principles would be an assurance that these immigrants are largely able to pursue higher education or other opportunities available to US citizens. Additionally, these principles attempt to balance the very real culpability the U.S. holds for existing instability in the region, with an understanding that the U.S. may not have capacity for every person in Latin America who might desire to come to the U.S. Instead, the development of a safe, economically viable Latin America will allow people to comfortably remain in the land that holds meaningful historical, familial, and cultural connections for them.
1. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, residing in the U.S., who have not committed a violent crime.
The Migrations Encounters project has repeatedly affirmed how cruel and disruptive undocumented status can be on a person’s life in the U.S. Countless storytellers relay stories of their time in school, working hard and then encountering structural roadblocks in any attempt to improve their standing (either via employment or higher education) and achieve their dreams. Beyond these obstructed ambitions, living in fear of deportation forces a sense of psychological unease into the everyday life of all undocumented citizens. Undocumented status can lead to the types of frustration and hopelessness that pushes some to criminal activity. For instance, one of the men interviewed with the Migration Encounters project detailed the despair he felt as he learned of his undocumented status after applying to a job in his teens. He explained to our class various layers of influence that his undocumented status had on his involvement in crime. On one hand, he felt he had few legal opportunities to earn money. Beyond that, the hard work he previously put forth towards his education somehow became meaningless. He realized he would not have the opportunity to further his education after high school. This made crime an even more appealing option.
Even if exclusively considering the interests of the U.S., it is challenging to understand how it is worth the economic cost of deportation – I believe codifying legal status for current U.S. residents is both ethical and fiscally responsible.
2. A secured border that severely inhibits undocumented border crossings.
In order for this leniency to be sustainable – my current sense is that it will be necessary to secure the border extensively – to the point that an undocumented crossing is practically infeasible. Otherwise, U.S. immigration policy would remain an accident of the circumstances surrounding an arduous cross border journey – and the benefit of being able to admit people in order of their need for safe-refuge would become null. In other words, I think the U.S., as a sovereign nation is justified in its desire to maintain control over border crossings. This affords important benefits to safety and the ability to admit the people who it deems most desirable. Without border security, though, these efforts are thwarted, and admittance remains, in part, a function of ability to cross illegally, not intentional policy.
I am definitely still wrestling with the financial efficacy of border security — but I too wrestle with how we could build a sustainable system founded in legal immigration if it remains feasible to cross the border illegally. Essentially, an unsecured border would give the U.S. little say in who comes, and without controls to monitor for violence or gang activity. If legal immigration is highly accessible, it would leave only the most unsavory actors to cross the border illegally — the flow and composition of border-crossers has evolved over time, but it’s also clear that this tide is at least partially responsive to changing political sentiment– so a porous border, in combination with new found leniency for migrants might make it particularly challenging to achieve the aim of maximizing legal immigration and limiting undocumented border crossings.
Beyond that, the possibility of entry via a semi-porous border encourages people to undertake a very dangerous journey — and so, by removing this ‘attractive nuisance’ by making illegal crossings impossible — the danger and harm done to border crossers will be diminished.
3. Expanded legal immigration that ranks applicants according to deservingness, broadly defined, with the aim to admit the most people possible.
If there needs to be limits on the number of migrants, why wouldn’t we want to optimize to include those most in need of safe-haven, and those who are best able to support themselves and their families in the U.S.? Of Central American and Mexican migrants, there are individuals who are relatively more capable of sustaining themselves. I’m arguing that this should be taken into consideration, along with considerations about safety in one’s home country. By optimizing for both of these aims, this seems to maximize the States’ capacity to welcome migrants (minimizing welfare needs) while assisting those in the direst circumstances. The U.S. should determine a maximum capacity (perhaps in terms of social support dollars it can expend?) that it can support, and I want that maximum to be as high as possible. But if there does have to be limits then I think balancing one’s ability to contribute with traditional asylum/’seeking a better life’ reasons will allow the system to be more sustainable and perhaps, if capacity is in terms of social support dollars expended, allow even more people because the more skilled/economically contributive migrants are using fewer resources per-person.
4. Diplomatic efforts that allow for capacity building within Central America and Mexico
The reality is that U.S. political intervention contributed to destabilization in many South American nations, with CIA intervention and support for counterrevolutionaries aiding to an atmosphere of corruption and violence. The reality is also that poverty, corruption and violence continue to define the lives of many in the region, especially in the Northern Triangle. A paucity of education and economic opportunities motivate young people, especially men, to join gangs or other organized crime. Remittances account for 11-18 percent of the GDP in the Northern Triangle. The fact that a primary source of income for these nations is being earned outside of the country, makes clear that there is a desperate need for domestic economic development. More than that, in the cases of Guatemala and El Salvador, 96% of the population feels unsafe in their day to day life. Considering that the US could not adequately support 96% of the Northern Triangle population, nor would all of these residents wish to abandon their home and familial history for a foreign land – it is crucial that work be done to rectify this situation. Given the U.S’. culpability and financial incentive to have an economically viable continent — this is both wise and ethical. These efforts should involve a mix of incentives and sanctions to combat corruption and target specific developmental efforts.
But what about….
From the right, I would anticipate counterarguments that emphasize the limits of our welfare system, the importation of violence/drugs without adequate controls, and the sentiment that a path to citizenship, in essence, rewards criminal behavior and punishes law abiding citizens from Latin America who chose not to cross illegally. More than that, they would reference homelessness and poverty in the U.S., especially among veterans, arguing that if we cannot adequately provide for people already here, it would be irresponsible to take-on responsibility for the welfare of non-citizens. Homelessness in particular, is a very visible failing of our social support system – and so the concept that we have additional capacity to support impoverished immigrants is hard to reconcile. This contrast becomes especially stark in the consideration of homeless veterans, who have often made considerable sacrifices for the county and continue to suffer from PTSD as a result of their service. Again, the concept that the U.S. somehow doesn’t have enough resources to care for these people but does have capacity to support non-citizens is hard to get around.
From the left, I would expect disagreement regarding the decision to enhance border security and objections to considerations of an immigrant’s ‘deservingness” of citizenship, especially when deservingness considerations are made, in-part, on the basis of their ability to contribute to the US.
Beyond these objections, there are significant logistical challenges and gray areas. “Securing the border” is no easy task, physically nor politically. Neither is “capacity building.” Prof. Isaacs has articulated clearly the ways that private sector elites have historically failed to rise above outdated prejudices in order to embrace progress. The corruptive force of the political and economic elite in Latin America has been noted, time and time again. How the U.S. might effectively intervene to facilitate safety and economic opportunity is far from simple. Underlying these logistical challenges is the long timeframe which would be necessary to implement. In the immediate term, there are many individuals at our Southern border currently, and I don’t exactly know how that should be handled.
The points I have laid out are certainly overly simplistic, immigration is endlessly complex, and I don’t pretend to understand the vast array of levers that influence either the political processes or lived experiences of those involved. That said, I think these guiding principles are humane, productive and hopefully work towards a more sustainable future for the Americas.