Unless Congress intervenes, President Trump’s crushing decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—no less crushing for being predictable—will pointlessly ruin the lives of massive numbers of people who have done nothing wrong. It is so cruel, so counterproductive, and so lacking in a plausible rationale that one is almost numb in the face of its pure audacity. The only upside is that, since all of this is so obvious, mobilizing opposition should be a simple task. But will it be? The politics of immigration have bedeviled liberals before, and they’re never more tricky than when the issues are seemingly straightforward.
To understand why, I recommend Nancy Berlinger’s recent essay on extending “social citizenship” to migrants. As Berlinger writes, “Social citizenship is both a feeling of belonging and a definable set of commitments and obligations associated with living in a place; it is not second-class national citizenship.” She notes that this cannot be reduced to simply establishing “sanctuary cities,” since what long-settled (undocumented) migrants ultimately need is not only protection, but concrete membership in the community where they live and work. This, Berlinger writes, should be the idea that guides immigration policymaking. “A robust concept of social citizenship that includes migrants who have begun the process of belonging to a city, and those who should be acknowledged as already belonging, will provide a necessary framework for understanding contemporary urban life in destination cities.”
If this all sounds straightforward and reasonable at first, consider how different it is from the way that we normally talk about undocumented immigration. Overwhelmingly, the issue is framed in economic terms: Migrants travel to the United States because they want higher-paying work; American businesses hire them (and the government often looks the other way) because the economy is said to require cheap labor; and much of the discussion of how this affects American politics is reduced entirely to the question of whether immigration lowers American workers’ wages. What all this overlooks, and what Berlinger’s essay focuses on, is the reality that settled migrants are not only seeking economic improvement, but the status of membership in what is, after all, a political community: a body of citizens.
It is in large part because the conversation about immigration is dominated by a narrowly economic framework that this obvious fact is so often forgotten. But there is another, deeper problem at work. Assume, for a moment, that immigration were thought of not only as an economic issue (where questions of efficiency or national wealth were foregrounded), but as a political issue (about the country’s attitudes regarding civic membership). This would not make the conversation any simpler—since, as a new paper on Trumpism puts it, Americans are “fundamentally divided over membership and status in the political community.”
That’s why the “common-sense” approach to thinking about immigration has turned out to be less politically effective than its proponents imagine. Even if the economic questions are, in reality, straightforward—even if there is a common-sense argument for increased immigration—these more-or-less empirical matters can’t settle ideological and normative divisions about membership in the American polity. Public debate at the moment simply lacks a consensus on, or even a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about, what it really means to be an American citizen in any strong political sense.
That fact helps explain why immigration politics have proven more resistant to compromise than certain optimistic observers tend to expect—and it also captures why Trump’s DACA decision is especially heartless. For the very thing that makes DACA recipients (as a group) unique among undocumented immigrants is their deep, almost lifelong connection to the United States, as the place where they grew up, as the only home they really know. This the subset of undocumented immigrants who can’t help but enjoy some form of social citizenship, a feeling and a lived reality of belonging in the United States, simply by having grown up where they did. There might be good economic reasons for allowing them to stay, but even if we didn’t believe or were indifferent to the economic arguments, the simple fact of their established place here would remain. The case against Trump, on this issue, has to be overwhelmingly persuasive among a broad coalition of voters, including conservatives. If it’s not, then the politics of immigration are more poisonous and polarized than even pessimists would have once dared to guess.