The current debate over immigration is noticeably different from any other time in our political history. Not long ago, the Democratic Party argued that unregulated increases in immigrant labor would threaten America’s most vulnerable workers. In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton proudly told Congress: “After years of neglect, this administration has taken a strong stand to stiffen the protection of our borders.” The Democratic Party platform from that year read: “Today’s Democratic Party also believes we must remain a nation of laws. We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it.”
The progressive discourse on immigration contradicts centuries of immigration history. And how they approach this debate is extremely revealing.
But times, along with ideologies, have long-since shifted.
Now, according to the progressive left, any enforcement of immigration laws reflects despicable national racism. Illegal immigrant detention centers are described as “concentration camps,” federal immigration officers are branded as Gestapo-like, and national border enforcement is said to arise from the same evil impulses underlying genocide.
But the progressive discourse on immigration contradicts centuries of immigration history. And how they approach this debate is extremely revealing.
Historically, the United States has become a nation of immigrants through the legal admission of migrants from all over the world who seek to thrive under our strong social institutions. What progressives seek, however, is a fragmented, resource-strapped nation dependent on an intrusive bureaucratic administration to survive.
WHAT THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE REVEALS ABOUT PROGRESSIVE POLITICS TODAY
Early this summer, a progressive movement erupted and coalesced around the slogan “Abolish ICE.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security and was established in 2003 in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. In July, Vice President Mike Pence visited ICE headquarters in Washington to reaffirm the agency’s critical role in national security:
“I want to make it clear to all of you and all of those looking on, under President Donald Trump, we will never abolish ICE … Just when you thought the Democrats couldn’t move farther to the left, leading members of the Democratic Party, including candidates for higher office, are actually openly advocating for the abolition of ICE, an agency that protects the American people and our communities every single day.”
But when they’re pushed to clarify what “abolishing” even means in the context of ICE, progressive politicians quickly reveal their corrupting worldview. According to Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who went as far as to co-author legislation to terminate ICE, what progressives seek is a more robust system to adjudicate which illegal immigrant should or should not stay. It’s the “indiscriminate, random use of deportations” they object to.
This more nuanced understanding of “Abolish ICE” is consistent with the progressive push for a larger and more active federal government. The role of this ever-expanding government will expand as under-prepared immigrants are released into under-prepared American communities, both of which will need more significant federal aid and regulation to cope with the fallout.
Modern progressives seek a dramatic transformation of society—a change that requires “abolishing” existing social norms and institutions.
This push for bigger government provides the key to understanding the otherwise baffling progressive position on immigration. Modern progressives seek a dramatic transformation of society—a change that requires “abolishing” existing social norms and institutions. This explains the progressive attacks on religion, the family, and now the nation-state.
The growth of government helps achieve a more destructive goal; it crowds out other social institutions. As the federal government further expands its role in society, the breathing space allocated to all other institutions diminishes. Progressives vilify the past and all our inherited institutions rooted in history. Their drive to create a new multicultural, politically correct secular society dominated by a powerful federal government corresponds to their desire to eradicate all other sources of social authority that progressives depict as oppressive and intolerant.
As Chris Arnade reveals in his new book, Dignity, institutions like churches provide the primary source of identity and dignity to working-class Americans.
But progressives, who cannot control these institutions with the secular government they are continually strengthening, seek to eradicate the loyalties commanded by those institutions. By discrediting the old social order grounded in family ties, patriotic duties, and traditional moral codes, progressives aggressively pursue a fragmented society composed of increasingly isolated individuals that require extensive bureaucratic administration to live. Unrestricted immigration—”open borders”—further breaks down American cultural unity and social order, creating an atomized citizenry beholden to secular government elites.
The progressive attack on immigration laws, therefore, reflects a much larger attack on the very notion of national governance and sovereignty. But this attack is not a frontal attack; it is hidden behind the tyranny of a new moral discourse.
THE TYRANNICAL MORAL DISCOURSE OF THE LEFT
Some progressives frame their position in terms of fundamental rights, asserting that non-citizens have a fundamental right to enter and live in America. Not only is such a “right” absent from any source of controlling law, but the existence of such a right would undermine the legitimacy of national borders—the very notion of statehood.
The charge of discrimination has become an irredeemable scarlet letter in contemporary society.
The “rights discourse” of the left is further undermined by their selective, hypocritical treatment of our actual rights. Religious freedom, for instance, is key freedom enshrined in this country’s founding documents, and yet progressives treat religion as a mode of oppression that needs to be regulated. Freedom of political speech is another fundamental individual right in a thriving democracy, and yet progressives continually target free expression, demanding the legislation of politically incorrect speech.
Of course, if you were to point out this hypocrisy, you’d risk being branded a racist.
During the 1980s, it was conservatives that articulated the more compelling narrative around public morals, based on traditional religious values and individual virtue. Recently, though, the left has seemingly seized the moral high ground through its unrelenting moralistic crusade against hate and discrimination.
The trope is simple: every undesirable act or idea is infused with the same kind of diabolical discrimination underlying early American slavery. Recently, the New York City Commission on Human Rights banned the use of the phrase “illegal alien” by employers, housing providers, and law enforcement, asserting that mere use of the term constitutes a “discriminatory” act.
Through legal admission and naturalization processes and admitting more immigrants than any other country on earth, America has always been a nation of immigrants.
The charge of discrimination has become an irredeemable scarlet letter in contemporary society. It can be used to end careers and silence all manner of speech—even the free exchange and Socratic dialogue one would expect on a college campus. Instead of confronting actual harm and social decay, progressives have strategically focused on words and language.
It’s no wonder then that the debate has skewed in their favor.
Through legal admission and naturalization processes and admitting more immigrants than any other country on earth, America has always been a nation of immigrants. Its very identity is rooted in the immigrant experience. Despite this identity, however, the progressive left now argues that American laws, institutions, and social mores are rooted in anti-immigrant bias. Since immigration is tied up with citizenship, and citizenship tied up with nationhood, nationhood and nationalism get collapsed into “white nationalism,” as progressives attempt to morally discredit any enforcement of immigration laws as a manifestation of white racism. Any regulation of immigration is characterized as racist, and any border enforcement reflects an act of hate.
This is where we are in 2019: upholding laws is considered an act of hate.
ANTI-ASSIMILATION IS ANTI-AMERICAN
Immigrants are encouraged by the progressive left to cross the border illegally, but are not encouraged to learn and speak the English language, severely limiting their opportunities and upward mobility. They often crowd into sanctuary cities administered by a progressive elites whose advocacy of stringent land-use regulations has made affordable housing nearly extinct.
The dependency of illegal immigrants mirrors the dependency that progressive policies foster for the whole of society.
These immigrants must then scramble for low-wage jobs, facing relentless competition from the unregulated and unpredictable influx of new immigrants. They come to a society in which their traditional forms of community, like families and neighborhoods and religions, face constant attacks from a progressive left that sees such entities as sources of exclusion and discrimination. As a result, immigrants find themselves in a quandary. They have been allowed to enter a strange country illegally, but now find themselves in a state of dependency, with only the progressive promise of federal aid to rescue them. And although they need a guiding national narrative to help them adjust and adapt to their new home, the liberal message refuses to provide such a narrative.
The dependency of illegal immigrants mirrors the dependency that progressive policies foster for the whole of society. By undercutting religion, free enterprise, educational choice, and family structure, progressives deny to the rest of society the structural support and opportunities that the elite still enjoy. And when such pillars of support are removed, a vulnerable population becomes ever more dependent on the largesse of a federal bureaucracy controlled by progressive elites, which further entrenches elites in power.
The progressive stance on immigration isn’t really about protecting fundamental rights or granting new opportunities and freedom to struggling migrants. It’s about expanding the reach and control of big government.
Some “progressive revolution.”