Is Immigration Reform Just About Common Sense?

If immigration were simply a debate over facts, the argument would have ended a long time ago.

By Nathan Pippenger

It’s a slightly ominous portent when politicians start describing some proposal as “common sense.” The label professes to be apolitical—this isn’t controversial! It isn’t partisan!—because it’s an attempt to wave away controversy and desperation.

At least, that’s the case with “common sense immigration reform,” which advocates have been trying and failing to pass some version of for nearly a decade. A pair of recent pieces nicely illustrate why the common sense label is so seductive. First, there’s Adam Davidson’s roundup of the economic research, which shows a strong consensus on immigration’s benefits, and which gives lie to the notion that immigrants “take” scarce jobs from Americans. Second, there’s Wednesday’s scathing Times editorial on the costly, inhumane morass that is U.S. immigration policy. Without a “saner” policy, the Times writes, the U.S. is stuck with “not one policy but lots of little ones, acting at cross purposes and nullifying each other.” Huge economic downsides combined with a confusing, counterproductive web of policies: fixing this system does seem like a matter of common sense.

Yet to the perpetual consternation of reform advocates, opponents just don’t see things that way. And the “common sense” of reform—its economic benefits and the restoration of uniformity to a tangled system—is unlikely to change their minds. The Times editorial gives a clue as to why in its concluding sentences, which castigate the “die-hard opponents” of reform for “promot[ing] exclusion,” reminding them that exclusive approaches to citizenship have been a “source of shame and regret throughout American history.” That’s certainly true, but the shamefulness of exclusion has nothing to do with our eventual realization that the restrictive immigration policies of past eras made for bad economics. Instead, the shame of those policies has everything to do with our changing understandings of “American-ness,” of the way we think of membership in this society.

In other words, although our current immigration system is nonsensical, fixing it is more than a matter of common sense. It’s a political dispute, and political disputes can’t be settled simply by appealing to matters of fact. If opponents of reform are motivated by an exclusive understanding of what it means to be an American, rebutting them by citing economic benefits rather misses the point. Immigration reform advocates can win this argument by convincing the public of their political point—that, in addition to all of the other reasons for reform, the core point is that they have a share in American society too. Fortunately, many activists see their struggle in precisely these terms, and their strategies reflect it: it’s not uncommon for undocumented immigrants to (literally) wrap themselves in the flag. Pushback from opponents has slowed their victory so far, but this is a winning argument—and a secure, albeit slow, route to a saner policy.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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