Deterrence is Un-American

Give us your tired, your poor, etc. Americans exaggerate our grace and open arms. Nativism, protectionism, and racism fueled the mistreatment of Irish immigrants first, then Italian, Eastern European, Asian, and Central American.

We’re not as welcoming as we like to think, but immigration is part of our mythology. We’re supposed to be a melting pot. Still, paranoia and prejudice are as much a part of our history. I’ll cede that to the Right. Their anger and fear are as much a part of the American story as cautious compassion. But their policy on the Southern border betrays their lack of interest in this country’s historic place in the world.

For weeks, the Trump Administration aimed to deter migrants by separating families and turning away asylum-seekers. The notion that Americans need to protect the shining city on a hill from hordes of immigrants is despicable but it isn’t new. That prejudice branches from an assumption that American freedom and economic opportunity are magnetic.

But we’re not simply attacking people for seeking a better life. We’re attempting to make this a country where a better life is unavailable. The callous rationality of self-deportation gave way to breaking apart families, defying international law and basic human decency, and threatening denaturalization. A hard heart gave way to a cruel one.

For decades we’ve been a country of opportunity, ostensibly protecting that opportunity for those who come honestly. We no longer want to be that country. We no longer want to offer that opportunity. We no longer want to protect even those who arrive legally. We strip insurance, security, and compassion from institutions, supposedly because they restrict opportunity. But opportunity has nothing to do with it anymore, if it ever did. Our treatment of the vulnerable makes that plain.

Our country is one of abundance. Every political fight that touches money revolves around that abundance. To a conservative, extravagance among the wealthy will be mirrored by prosperity in the working class. To a liberal, social spending will create opportunities for the poor and pay for itself. To both, wealth creation is more than the sum of inputs. Strident disagreement stems from a consensus that the land creates for everyone. Now we look out and see a desolate country that is zero-sum. We hoard what we have and burn what we can’t carry. We’ve changed our country in the most basic way.

Both sides of the moral conflict at the heart of American immigration – reception or nativism – find at their root a more basic assumption. This is a place that people want to be. The conflict lies in whether we should welcome those people or turn them away. I’m not sure what to think of people who believe America should not be that place at all.