I’m a bit of a hawk on illegal immigration; well, in theory. I have a liberal friend who disagrees with having national borders to begin with, though as well-meaning as is her position on pan-citizenship, I’ve never been convinced by it. The world may someday show me to be wrong on this, but as for now I support each country’s right to control its borders, free from encroachment and interference from without.
Lawful immigration is a country’s way of determining who will be allowed to put down roots in the geography under its jurisdiction. When individuals override those immigration laws, they exercise a right they do not have. They are substituting their own judgment for that of the country’s citizens, an offense that justifies punishment or deportation. The right to immigrate to the United States is exercised by those who legitimately speak for the United States—our elected government—not persons who wish to come and reside here. That said, I must explain the hesitation that causes me to add the proviso, “in theory.”
Part of my training in psychology dealt with behavioral communication as well as that which is written or spoken. Our behavior frequently embodies messages that are more intended, clearer, and more authoritative than our explicit language. Consider parents saying to their child with regard to some action, “If you do that again, you’ll have no television tonight.” Let’ say that when the child continues the action, the parents not only repeat the admonition, but end up allowing television anyway. Now, what would you say was the parents’ message to the child?
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that the relevant but unspoken message is, “It doesn’t matter that you’re doing that, except that I’ll speak to you disagreeably.” We have all seen parents who send this obvious but unspoken message, then when provoked enough turn on the child with punishment for disobeying. My point here is that the child has not disobeyed. He or she has accurately figured out and followed the real (behavioral) parental message, not the pretended (verbal) message. In frustration, the parents finally change the rules, so that now they do mean the verbal admonition, when before they clearly didn’t. But they give the child no signal that the meaning of their words is going to change.
Over decades, the United States has sent discrepant messages about illegal immigration, particularly that which crosses our border with Mexico. Our laws said clearly it was illegal. The behavior of employers in the United States said, as they still do, “come on anyway, we have employment for you.” In fits and starts, we have cracked down on those who accepted the virtual invitation, showing that sometimes and in some ways we actually mean the words. A wink and a nod are effective tactics for nullifying the rule of law, but doing so in a way that enables us to have our cake and eat it.
Although there have been efforts to act more honorably with regard to this issue, they’ve tended to be half-hearted, used as a political football, or workable but not sustained. Now the matter is again animated with a political environment of conservatives versus liberals, and politically courageous versus politically faint-hearted. Elected officials are often inclined to avoid decisions for which there may be no winners. Tossing difficult matters between executive and legislative branches has become time-honored.
But now there’s a new element: Dreamers—young people, brought to the United States by their undocumented parents, who’ve grown up here almost as integrated into the American experience as the native born. Through no fault of their own, often not even speaking their parents’ native language, they are vulnerable to deportation. The temporary refuge (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) they’ve been granted is currently endangered by political currents. Given decades of our mixed messages, our duplicity, our dishonesty about those messages, we now jerk the Dreamers about, hiding behind the fear of appearing to support “amnesty” when by our actions we’ve already granted amnesty many times over. Perhaps it is no surprise that we are more concerned with saving face—veiling the inhumane discrepancy in our messages—than with simple compassion toward youth innocently caught up in an adult stand-off.
If Make America Great Again has meaning beyond a throwaway motto, we must examine how such an embarrassingly mean-spirited action can be justified by a great nation.