Some Sort of Synthesis



A lot of hay was made over President Trump’s order rescinding President Obama’s DACA order, some of it useful, much of it excessively passionate. But then, it’s an issue that elicits the greatest of passions. I recently read some of Kevin Starr’s writing on identity issues in 1990’s California- the great Golden State debates over affirmative action, social services to illegal immigrants, bilingual education, and criminal justice that dominated the Pete Wilson governorship- and realized that, in many ways, California has led the country in the sense that its 1990’s self presaged our 2010s self. In all these cases, it was never so much a debate about the merits of the policy, and always more a debate about the dominance of the cultural values and identities informing and backing and supporting it. This is incredibly relevant to the DACA case and, more broadly, the social issues of the mid-2010s.

For the great debates on “social issues” today are not Moral Majority vs. Counterculture as they were across the country in the 1960s; not Religious Right vs. Secular Left as they were nationwide in the 1990s and 2000s; rather, they seem to split on the fault lines of a liberal, cosmopolitan, culturally diffuse identity on the left, and a traditionalist, nationalist, culturally more cohesive identity on the right. The pejorative terms for these are “Globalist” and “Populist,” but “Cosmopolitan” vs. “Traditionalist” might be a more accurate and polite way of putting the divide.

Anyhow, the DACA divide was not necessarily split along Cosmopolitan and Traditionalist lines, but those lines could be seen nevertheless. Cosmopolitans against Trump’s rescindment emphasized the American-ness of the Dreamers’ stories and the universal human right of travel; Traditionalists tepidly in favor of it discussed the need for rule of law and fair procedure. I was somewhat surprised to not see much in the way of a “kick-em-out” faction, which suggests to me there is potentially more consensus on the fate of these Deferred-Action Childhood Arrivals than the hubbub would make it seem.

I would think President Trump’s punting of the issue to Congress was in the long run better for the Dreamers- the resulting compromise legislation will prove to be more sustainable in the long run than the original Obama-era executive order was. That might not be by design- maybe Trump wasn’t thinking in the most statesmanlike manner and maybe Pelosi and Schumer were trying to score the political points conferred by the double whammy of immigrant protection and bipartisanship. But regardless, the bill President Trump has supported will be a good solution for Dreamers, one would hope, in these dark days of few solutions for anybody.

As a Catholic and an American nationalist simultaneously, I have complicated and contradictory views on the immigration question more broadly. On the Catholic side, social openness and solidarity with all people and the human dignity of every person are important; but so is social subsidiarity towards smaller communities including the nation-state, and so is social order and stability, as is the cardinal virtue of political prudence. On the American nationalist side, deeply ingrained in our identity is the fact that we are a nation colonized by settlers and populated by immigrants, along with our legendary capacity to take any group of foreigners and welcome them into the American family over time; but also on the American nationalist side are the imperatives of cultural continuity and stability, the need for a genuine fairness in the application of the laws of the land, and the undeniable fact that immigration policy is a component of national political and economic strategy, rather than a fulfillment of some cosmopolitan human right.

Generally, my impression is that the free-movement/lax-enforcement system that has been the norm around which politicians have haggled for the last fifty years is unsustainable, and a slightly bigger institutional problem than the resurgent nativism which has lately arisen again (as it often does in American history.) I also believe, with conservative writers like Ross Douthat and Michael Lind, that limiting the flow of legal immigrants and reforming the system towards one premised on economic impact rather than family unification would be beneficial steps, complementing the establishment bipartisan consensus of amnesty-for-enforcement.

But it’s important that this is done not in the interests of walling America and Americans off from the world. Rather, it’s important that we figure out our immigration strategy and the values that inform it, so that we can remove one of the mainsprings of social division precluding deeper national unity, and devise a social contract, naturalization/assimilation process, and national unity narrative that a majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle and from all cultural groups can tolerate enough to support. Immigration shouldn’t be a divisive issue to the degree it is today, and if through a values-based dialogue we can come to some synthesis of policies towards immigration as a broader component of a national strategy, that would be a good step forward for native-born citizens, naturalized citizens, recent immigrants, and future immigrants alike.


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