“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”
– Ronald Reagan, 1984 debate with Walter Mondale
Yes, you read that correctly: Ronald Reagan, the father of modern conservatism, in support of the A-word. Conservative champions of our day certainly deviate from this position, as displayed by the staggering rhetorical heights reached during the Republican presidential nomination race in 2011, including talk of an electric fence to control the border.
In today’s current climate, not only has “amnesty” become a bad word, but even the supposedly low-hanging fruit of compromise – granting in-state tuition to undocumented students – has proven controversial. Providing these students a path to citizenship through higher education or military service? So far, a dream deferred.
Dedicated to promoting their vision of conservative ideology, the Texas A&M Aggie Conservatives student group has recently called for a special legislative session in Texas to repeal in-state tuition for the undocumented. Gov. Rick Perry has repeatedly made statements while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination that he is firm on the Texas policy but opposed to any federal legislation that would allow a path to citizenship. How can we make sense of this spectrum?
Our immigration policy has become so politically polarizing because it is filled with contradictions of some of our most cherished traditions and values. We’ve seen several examples in the news recently. Georgia loves its peaches, but creates policies that scare off farm workers and leave crops rotting in the fields. We value the institution of the family yet see it fit to separate mothers and fathers from their children through a policy of massive deportations. Our kids learn from a young age that their dreams know no bounds, yet we have constructed a system in which even those young people who show a dedication to education or a desire to give their lives for our country are not allowed to live and work here.
Of course, one side of the argument resolves these contradictions by focusing on immigration status. Rather than mother, child, worker or student, there is another constructed identity that supersedes the rest and pushes particular individuals outside the borders of our value system: illegal.
Focusing exclusively on this identity has led to divisive rhetoric and policy incoherence domestically, but our national identity crisis also has reverberating global implications. Those young immigrants who were brought to the United States without authorization by their parents often fully identify as “Americans” and may have started families here. Central Americans and Mexicans deported back to their countries of origin after years of living here and becoming part of U.S. society face significant emotional trauma, marginalization, difficulty reinserting themselves in the labor market and vulnerability to local organized crime – probably many of the same reasons their parents left in the first place. Migrants face extremely difficult journeys north and discrimination upon arrival, yet continue to arrive at the border even after multiple previous deportations.
We have to ask, where are our policies really getting us? Ronald Reagan again offers wisdom to the current conservative generation when describing his ideal vision for the United States as “the shining city” during his 1989 farewell address: “a tall, proud city … teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace … and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Even if we can’t agree on all aspects of immigration policy, opposition to either the Texas or federal DREAM acts reflects serious short-sightedness and disregard for the values we espouse as Americans. Closing all the doors to those raised and educated in our country from even the possibility of living and working here – amnesty is not on the table in the federal bill – means we, as a country, are willing to fuel a de facto underclass and a shadow economy where unfulfilled potential is suppressed rather than nurtured.
We are willing to continue promoting the free movement of goods and capital without facing the reality that being tied to a global economy also creates spatial flows of people.
And perhaps most devastating of all, we are willing to forsake the values that in other realms we fight so hard to defend: freedom, equality, family, education.
Now to recognize the element of incoherence present in my own article, I must say the two previous Chairmen of the Aggie Conservatives also sought wisdom from one of my sources today, albeit across a wider array of issues than I would. However, they both highlighted a quote from Ronald Reagan speaking adamantly in the defense of freedom: “it must be fought for, protected, and handed on” to our children.
On this issue, I couldn’t agree more – we have a lot of work to do. Let’s not stop short of defending our values by defining people out of our system. Let’s try to put together a coherent reflection of who we are and what kind of society we want to be. Rather than moving backward, let’s live up to our ideal – the land of the free – by opening the door to the American DREAMers.