The Discourse on Immigration: Myths and Principles

Philip Green

To discuss any issue of social rights seriously, we have to begin not only with the “practical possibilities,” or the contending policy proposals on national legislative agendas, but also with governing ethical principles, whatever they may be and wherever that discussion may take us. This is not to say that principles ought to govern policies, as, of course, they cannot and probably should not; but that principles ought to inform policies—ought to be where we start out from before we get wherever we are going. Otherwise we are in the value-less world of might makes right. Even if “the right” is held, in a democracy, to be the desire of the majority, this marks a numerical extension of the realm of might, but makes no ethical improvement on it. In any event, with respect to the contemporary mass migration of peoples, it turns out to be not only undesirable but also impossible to discuss policy without quickly adverting to the more general realm of principle.

The policy issues here seem to be diverse, as varying concrete socioeconomic conditions push different needs and desires to the forefront of elite and popular discourse. In the United States, for example, the potential impact of increased immigration on the condition of domestic labor and an allegedly consequent worsening of an already gross state of economic inequality draws the most attention.1 In Sweden, conversely, it is the potential impact of immigration on the maintenance of a generous welfare state that is the most salient issue; in France, the creation of a new, alienated, underclass; in Britain, fears of terror and crime; in Canada, pressure on an under-populated society with a tight labor market; in the Netherlands, a threat to the ideal of multicultural balance. These varying situations produce the roster of “practical possibilities,” but discussion of them usually proceeds without approaching the underlying realities. Yet at the same time, one over-arching and inescapable rubric describes what is happening in all the nations that play host to or provide the new form of mass population movements. This is the world-wide existence of two kinds of societies: one, a thriving core of advanced capitalist economies and white-dominated social structures; the other, the less-productive economies and often weak or predatory states of the mostly non-white periphery.2

Just as there is in the international economy a global market for capital, commodities, and cultural products, in which the law of supply and demand is an underlying law of motion, so there is and has to be a global market for labor—for a new proletariat, though not perhaps as Marx envisioned it. Of course, like capitalist employers everywhere, the political and economic elites of the wealthy states want to eliminate any potential bargaining power of this international proletariat, and to control totally the terms of exchange for its labor: to eliminate one side of the supply/demand equation. At the level of popular politics, though, elites must proffer one or another variant of nationalism as a way to negotiate the gap between their power and the demands of domestic classes. However, viewed from either perspective, this longing for control is clearly chimerical in the long run. The idea that the centripetal and centrifugal forces at work can be contained by the arbitrary obstacle course of national boundaries—often nothing but lines drawn in the sand–is absurd on its face.

To sustain general ignorance of the obvious, it is always necessary to have recourse to the realm of generally accepted myths.3 In this context, then, stating governing principles means not so much setting out a controlling ethic of discourse but rather uncovering and exposing the conventional myths that prevent serious ethical discussion from ever taking place. Three myths in particular dominate the nationalist-inflected discourse on immigration, and the beginning of serious discussion requires that their rhetorical sway be dispelled.
The first myth that sustains the immigration debate everywhere is the primary myth of national identity that, among its other uses, always undergirds the oppression of “others.” This is the fabulous realm of “culture”—a supposedly real world of national solidarity whose virtues immigrants would subvert, if admitted. Exactly what this national identity consists of, however, is rarely specified in full. On the contemporary scene, though, “culture” as a justification for restraining immigration appears to consist mainly of the allegedly equal treatment of women, religious tolerance, linguistic uniformity, and unsullied national allegiance. The first pair on this list are primarily used as an anti-Islam weapon by Europeans who have belatedly discovered their virtue. The latter two receive particular emphasis in the more pluralist United States, where nativists are always angrily on the counter-attack. But this collection of supposed virtues is not a culture: it is an ideology—the ideology of either liberal or reactionary nationalism.

Like all ideologies of unity, this one, in either of its guises, conceals the reality of dissensus, difference, conflict, and repression, under the soothing rhetorical cover of a national community that exists virtually nowhere. The “identity” of a place is the people who live there. Understood in this light, a national identity cannot be diluted (though Adolf Hitler would have disagreed); it can only be expanded, as the number of people who call themselves “Americans” or “Frenchmen” or “Germans” grows. Subcultures can die out through intermarriage, or declining birth rates, but neither nations nor the subcultures within them can be weakened, whatever that might mean, merely by the immigration of persons with different social identities. Of course if national solidarity were the overriding virtue that its propagandists assert, the case might be different. But it is really useful only for fighting wars, few of which should have been fought in the first place. Otherwise, unless pursued with relentlessly oppressive force and violence the search for it is capable of leading only to what Justice Robert Jackson called “the unanimity of the graveyard.”

For example, one has only to look at Civic Ideals, Rogers Smith’s intensive history of immigration legislation in the United States, to see not only how volatile the “American” response to immigration has been, but also how strikingly difficult it is to encapsulate an adequate description of the host “culture” over time.4 As for Europe, to take an instance that could be repeated in one version or another in most of the wealthy capitalist states, in the wake of the hijab controversy it has become evident that French pride in a supposedly liberal version of nationalism conceals at the same time a faux secularism, an implicit racism, an exclusionary morality, and a sometimes hysterical narrowness and intolerance.5 If official France pursued, say, domestic abuse in all its variants with the same zeal it has dedicated to the hijab, the latter might be more impressive; but nationalism, even liberal nationalism, always turns a blind eye to its own defects. Is the United States a society in which gender equality has become so entrenched that the President’s wife can passionately defend the rights of Afghan women; or is it a society in which hundreds of American women are imprisoned in the name of fetal rights that are endorsed by that same President, so that American women, as one activist puts it, are no longer striving for equality with men but now are falling behind in their attempt to achieve equality with the fetus?

It is, actually, neither and both.6 Thus the supposedly more “liberal” West’s criticism of the Muslim world for its patriarchalism conceals the existence, most notably of course in the United States, of angrily defensive opponents of change. This is inevitable. The observable characteristics of a supposedly national character or culture both remain constant, and change; and the more crucial they are, often the more drastically they change.7 Since every great change produces beneficiaries and victims, winners and losers, progressives and traditionalists, fundamental conflict is written into the history of nations. Furthermore, every culture, even and especially every subculture, is riddled with closets, some of them quite capacious, within which much of the real life of the community takes place, again giving the lie to any notions of cultural unity. The insular tribal societies where the pioneering anthropologists of the early 20th Century originally discovered “culture”—the Trobriand Islands, for example—may indeed have been unitary communities (though in many cases later doubt has been cast on that early assumption); but even the indigenous tribes of say Canada or the United States were constantly in conflict not only with each other but also among themselves. In any event, with the only partially arguable exception of Scandinavia, “cultural unity” is certainly not a term that could be used to describe those societies that bear the burden of contemporary immigration. For nations such as the United States, Great Britain (whatever that is), France, Italy (with its would-be secessionist North), Germany, the Netherlands, or bi-national Canada, “culture” as a description, rather than as a putative norm with which some people bully other people, is nothing more than a metaphor, and a bad one at that. Its implicit suggestion of an organic whole is a simple distortion (and this is equally as true, e.g., of the potentially separate nation of, say, Quebec, as of Canada as a supposedly integral unit). Almost everywhere we look we find the remnants of indigenous peoples, or the descendants of ex-colonized peoples, as well as some other demarcation of “inferior” subgroups: Jews, male and female gays, Gypsies (the Rom) South Asians, “uppity” women, wanderers and vagrants—all of whom are actually as much a part of the “culture” as anyone else. “Deviance” is an attribute not of cultural identities but of repressive social orders.8

In addition, at the most basic level the myth of national identity in the wealthy Western (or “Northern”) societies has the very peculiar effect of taking the historically idiosyncratic (even if momentarily triumphant) institution of capitalism for granted. That is, the language of identity and culture, unless broadened so extensively that it loses its specific salience, treats class and gender differences and the political ideologies based on them, as though they are epiphenomenal, merely derivative from such “real” characteristics as religion, or language, or ethnicity. But if this were so, all elections in capitalist democracies would be by acclamation, or else would be charades marking the permanent domination of the White Party in a one-party state. But this is clearly not the case. Socialism may be moribund; profound class, occupational, and life-world divisions based in the world of material gain and loss, however they express themselves in the contemporary world, are anything but. But then are they not part of “culture”? Do women belong to the same “culture” as men?

In the U.S., therefore, to take a locus of one of the fiercest contemporary debates about immigration, Mexican immigrants, “legal” or “illegal,” cannot subvert, distort, or adulterate “our culture,” because there is nothing concrete to be subverted, distorted, or adulterated: not to mention that in any event their forebears were here long before my own or those of most of my readers. There is no “American culture.” There are many American subcultures, as well as occupational and income classes, that relate to each other sometimes easily but often very uneasily, and that in many cases cross and re-cross geographical borders as well. There are certainly dominant ways of thought that, once internalized, make many (but hardly all) “Americans” feel ill at ease in other nations if they have the income to travel abroad (and this is equally true of the inhabitants of other nations when here). But dominant is not universal, and it is doubtful that most Chinese-Americans feel ill at ease in Taiwan or Hong Kong or Shanghai, or Irish-Americans in Ireland, or Jewish-Americans in Israel. In any case, the dominant attitudes or habits of everyday behavior are always surrounded by exceptions and divergences; to adopt them is to pass a ritual of inclusion, but to ignore them often costs little or nothing. To have no interest in baseball or football, to root for foreign underdogs during the Olympic Games, or to think that Thanksgiving is chiefly a painful celebration of Continental conquest during which family members who detest each other have to pretend to get along, may mark one as eccentric, but not as any less “American.” In the same way, to prefer milk to wine in France, or to be uninterested in the accomplishments of Zidane or Mauresmo, may be odd, but the oddity has nothing to do with being more or less “French.” All these preferences, no matter how widespread, are not more than minor quirks of character.

At any rate such hazily recognizable national characteristics, which again are found everywhere, as well as the general popularization of certain commercial commodities and rituals that come to substitute for “national character,” are often all there is to “national identity.” Thus Mexican immigrants to the U.S. who inflame sensibilities because they prefer to go on speaking their first language could have an interesting discussion—were they able to find a capable translator–with the shades of my Jewish immigrant grandparents, who never learned how to speak any English whatsoever. If they feel uneasy about waving Mexican flags (along with American flags) in protest marches, they might feel better after watching a St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York or Boston; or discussing “loyalty” with some of the many Jews who talk wistfully about “making Aliyah” in Israel, not to mention identifying its national travails as their own; or talking politics with the Italian-Americans who once overwhelmingly supported the Fascist dictator Mussolini. Moreover, these partial identities are in many cases violently opposed to each other within the American national setting (or any other), and in other cases their bearers find more in common with non-Americans thousands of miles away than with a majority of fellow citizens at home (the “home” itself being a virtual continent of antagonisms and difference). An American academic feminist visiting at the University of Stockholm would certainly find herself more “at home” there than she would at Bob Jones University, and her hosts would probably be much happier spending time with her than with the inhabitants of a rural farming community, or with Lapps (or Sami as they now prefer to call themselves) in the North of their much more socially homogeneous nation.

This myth of culture is closely allied with a second myth, the myth of the democratic people. Who exactly are these “people” for whom a given set of appropriately realized laws etc. is authoritative? The standard answer to that question makes “democracy” into an off-shoot of the modern nation-state, but other than as reference to an historical past that may already be outmoded, there’s no obvious reason why that answer is appropriate. Most readers of Logos, for example, are probably American citizens. According to the standard version, therefore, we should feel at one with all the other persons who meet that description, both juridically and—to some ill-defined extent—emotionally. All together and equally, we make up “the American democracy.” But many of us (myself included) do not in fact feel that way. There are legitimately authorized laws, policies, and decisions that we accede to only, as Bentham put it, out of fear of the costs we might incur if we did not accede; or because our connection to the polity and its economic base is so attenuated that we have no meaningful way of registering our opposition. (Not our dissent, which is easy and meaningless to register, but our profound opposition). At the same time, there are millions of our fellow citizens whom we think of much more as enemies than as fellows, and there are residents of other polities with whom we have (or feel we have) much more in common. Moreover, there are certainly many Americans who feel that way about us: that we are traitors, “socialists,” doers of Satanic works, etc. What, other than sheer force (as Weber remarked), makes this collection of persons a “people” let alone a “democratic people,” is opaque.

Conversely, those of us who belong to the professional class and live in a large, “first-world” city sometimes directly employ and regularly (as when eating out) make indirect use of, the labor of persons who are legal outcasts in our society, or are treated as juridical inferiors. These differentiations are essentially arbitrary by any standard of judgment or value we can imagine. Furthermore, these persons, such as the Latina nannies who are a constant presence in my New York City neighborhood, often serve our interests considerably better, and with infinitely less harm to the common weal, than do, say, some CEO’s of global or national corporations. Yet the received version of democracy moves on with its grand narrative of human agency, all the while unable to give a coherent account of who the agents of this narrative are or ought to be; of why they can only be one class of persons rather than another.

Immigration, in other words, is not primarily a story of “peoples,” though it can be read that way for purposes of sociological analysis and the writing of discriminatory laws. Primarily, it is a story of persons from poor countries looking for work in rich countries, persons who are marked fundamentally by their diversity (as are those who are willing to employ them as well). In the end, the only truthful, non-ideological, generalization that can be uttered about immigrants in this or any other context is that they will bring change to their host nation: always have and always will. But fear of change is not an ethic. It’s more properly described as a neurosis, and in the case of the verbal bomb-throwers of today’s Right, a pathology: the same pathology that disfigured so much of the 20th Century. The words of hate uttered by John Kyl, Ann Coulter, and the rest of the Right-wing entourage, have more in common with the vocabulary of Adolph Hitler than with that of Franklin D. Roosevelt; just as for a great many white Americans of European descent, the Latin- and Asian-inflected demonstrations of April 10 were certainly more in their “national” tradition than the occasional manifestations of the K.K.K. Who in these pairs best represents the “American culture?” The question is unanswerable, because it implies an objective factual account of a concept that is wholly and controversially normative. When the demagogues of the United States, or even the somewhat more ethnically homogeneous France or the Netherlands, start conjuring up the terrors of linguistic, religious or ethnic diversity, we have to take note that they are in every case obliterating large quantities of the “national” past. In all these cases, that national past includes the obliteration of actual peoples, and thousands or millions of persons, as well: including especially the forebears of the people they are now perceiving as a “cultural” problem.

The third great myth of the immigration debate is in a sense the master myth, to which the myths of national culture and the democratic people are subsidiary. This is the uninterrogated notion of the sovereign national state as an ethical entity, legitimately constituted by “rights” of exclusion as well as by sovereign powers over those whom it includes.

That it can be conceived of as a criminal offense that a law-abiding, hard-working, person can be the object of authorized violence for wanting to work or live in one place rather than another, is actually an astonishing proposition. Nothing in the realm of ethics or right or duty can possibly uphold it. Hidden from view, but apparent on close inspection, the awareness of that truth will be evident to any dispassionate observer. Consider, for example, the following statements from the decision in the case of Edwards v. California (314 U.S. 160) enshrined in American constitutional law since 1941:

“. . . [T]his does not mean to imply that there are no boundaries to the permissible area of State legislative activity. There are. And none is more certain than the prohibition against attempts on the part of any single State to isolate itself from difficulties common to all of them by restraining the transportation of person and property across its borders.” (From the opinion of the Court by Justice Byrnes, perhaps the most conservative member of the “Roosevelt Court”).

“. . . I am of the opinion that the right of persons to move freely from State to State occupies a more protected position in our constitutional system than does the movement of cattle, fruit, steel and coal across state lines.” (Justice Douglas, concurring).

“Thus it is plain that the right of free ingress and egress rises to a higher constitutional dignity than that afforded by state citizenship.” (Ibid.).

These statements all rest, as under the circumstances they must, on the peculiarly American Constitutional distinction between states and nation. The State is sovereign; the states are not. Yet none of those statements would have to be changed by so much as a word if the distinction were instead being made between one nation-state and a world of nation-states. It would still be the case, after all, that as Chief Justice Fuller held in the case of Williams v. Fears (179 U.S. 270, 274; quoted by Justice Jackson in his concurring opinion in Edwards): “Undoubtedly the right of locomotion, the right to remove from one place to another according to inclination, is an attribute of personal liberty. . . .” To this he of course added that “. . . the right, ordinarily, of free transit from or through the territory of any State is a right secured by the Fourteenth Amendment and other provisions of the Constitution.” However, it is crystal clear from Fuller’s wording that the right, the attribute, is “secured” by the Constitution—not created by it. It is surely, if there be any such at all, a natural right—as much so as any could be, with the exception of the right of self-defense. Or if we prefer to avoid the anachronistic language of natural rights, we can simply make use of the latter part of Fuller’s holding: we are speaking of a basic attribute of being a free human being.

The Edwards case held, in fact, that Americans were free to travel from any state in the Union to any other without being prevented entry, or deported, on the grounds that they were “indigent,” one of the hobgoblins that used to be periodically trotted out to keep Okies, or Arkies, or African-Americans, or Puerto Ricans, from being treated as equal citizens wherever in the U.S. they might wind up. This freedom was to be upheld regardless of whatever “drain” a person or group of persons might be alleged to constitute on available resources or public funds. For the U.S., it rested on the relatively generous Constitutional notion of American citizenship. We must remember however that citizenship is strictly a legal and not at all an ethical condition. Constitutionally or legislatively, it is granted on arbitrary grounds by sovereign states, and that is all. Moreover, as Joe Carens has pointed out, the unitary conception of citizenship implicit in the American Constitutional system (and most others) is fast disappearing from the international social order.9 Viewed in this light the principle of Williams and Edwards is quite clearly not merely a constitutional principle, but is also a general principle about human society. How then did this basic right of free movement come to be so constrained? How did the laisser passer, the original passport that promised citizens protection while abroad, come to be reconstituted as a weapon against unofficial border crossing in either direction? This is indeed a recent innovation, and it came about not as part of the flowering of individual rights attendant on the rise of the democratic state, but as part of the assertion of powers attendant on its hypostasis. In historical fact, all the rhetoric about the right of states “to control their own borders” obscures the truth that finally this is yet another instance of the strong exercising a “right” against the weak; it is not a right but a privilege of the ones who have the power to do it. Mexico can’t prevent the entrance of Americans to own portions of its economy, or to provide it with needed tourist income—this would be known as autarchy, or worse yet socialism, and condemned to history’s graveyard.

States do not have rights, just powers; only persons have rights. Particular states may protect those rights—sometimes. The U.S. has the power to keep troops in various nations which do not have troops stationed in the U.S. In this respect the whole discourse about immigration has implicitly assumed the coincidence of law and justice, but they could only conceivably be coincident if one universally agreed-on law covered the entire world. As it is, the arrest and imprisonment or deportation of harmless persons for being in one place rather than another is more lawful and less harmful, but no more just than torturing them. Guantanamo and a Corrections Corporation “detention center” are the same kind of facility—a facility in which naked state power, unsupported by anything but its own public opinion, is exercised. As for the demagogic cry that there should be “no amnesty for lawbreakers,” its reasoning is as tortured as the treatment of persons that it so often justifies. The only “law” broken by illegal immigrants is the law that they shouldn’t be illegal immigrants. There is no moral rule or reasonable behavioral constraint that they have violated. To the contrary, the only thing they’ve ever done is work hard. That’s what immigrants, legal or illegal, male or female, come to other countries to do.10 If they commit crimes, here or there, of course they can be treated as criminals–but that is true of all persons wherever they live or come from. Geography conveys positive legal rights, but not rights of exclusion—or if it does, they can’t be defended morally.

In this respect, a final word about the contemporary American debate is in order. Given elites’ constant resort to the “work ethic” to criticize the behavior of lesser breeds among the domestic population, one of the most ironic spectacles of the early 21st Century is the sight of white politicians and journalists, not to mention the gun-loving, Armageddon-welcoming white residents of states such as Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, stepping forward to defend the job security of low-wage black workers in the underbelly of the American economy. As it stands, about the only “help” offered to low-wage workers of any kind by the governing elites and majority population of those states is building more prisons, thus keeping those wages up by getting a few hundred thousand more black men out of the job market. Of course it can be argued in defense of restrictions on immigration that the free market for labor is the most anti-human of all free markets. That, however, would be an inversion of Marx. The authentic critique of the free market is that it prevents people from protecting themselves against exploitation, hazard, insecurity, obsolescence, etc., as well as against organized strikebreaking. And as Marx argued and history has borne out, only the collective action of workers themselves can establish those protections. As for immigrants, if welcomed into existing workers’ movements anywhere, and in possession of both the power to organize and the right to vote, they would provide more impetus to that action and more bodies for its manifestations. Using the critique of the free market to protect jobs against other people who want them at lower wages (i.e, who are willing to endure a higher rate of exploitation) is thus a mis-use. If this is a genuine concern, then the obvious course of action is to raise minimum wages, preserve the right to strike, and increase the scope and depth of public welfare services via the solidarity of workers, and thus to reduce the general rate of exploitation; not to set workers against each other. The myths of nation, culture, and “the people,” however, have always been intended to do exactly that.