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Michael Steele's two immigration policy rationales

Arguments against immigration generally take one of two forms: rule-of-law and ethnocentric. Rule-of-law arguments usually purport to oppose only illegal immigration -- i.e. the "just wait in line" theory -- though there is some spillover when other criminal activity by immigrants comes into the picture. Ethnocentric arguments focus on the cultural incompatibility of immigrants and natives, and express concern for the country's culture being changed or diluted.

In a recent interview on Univision, RNC chair Michael Steele blends the two forms of argument:

So that is the first and foremost thing, we got to stay true to our character as a nation, we must recognize that. Number two, I think as I found with a lot of Hispanics, particularly those who have been her for several generations, they understand and respect the rule of law that is so important as a foundational principle of this country...I can sum it up for you this way, the party as I said is always the party, its been the party of assimilation and that is something that we believe in very firmly and basically what we should be saying is that there are rules that you need to get into the country, go the right door, fill out the right form, have some apple pie, hum a few bars of the star spangle banner and get to work, God bless you, and I think that that begins to set us on the right road to dealing with this issue.

At Shakesville, where I found the link, the discussion focuses on the final sentence. Taken alone, that sentence seems to exude a negligently naive optimism about how functional the process for legal immigration currently is. But it also seems to cash out the apparently pro-migrant implications of a pure rule-of-law position, by preemptively offering a positive response to the question often asked to sort out the real rule-of-law-ers from those using rule-of-law as a cloak for ethnocentrism: "Would you be OK with tons of immigration as long as people had access to, and followed, a legal process for getting here?" I was tempted to remark that I weirdly enough agree with Steele about how to reform immigration.

But note the requirements Steele lists in his proposal -- not just going to the right door and filling out the right form, but also taking on two core symbols of cultural Americanness, apple pie and the Star-Spangle[d] Banner. In the larger context, this reflects his earlier points that immigration reform must be primarily guided by "our character as a nation," and that the GOP is the "party of assimilation." In other words, he's happy for immigrants to come here as long as they fit in, as long as they assimilate to, rather than threatening the hegemony of, Anglo culture. He says it in a nice and optimistic way, since he has enough political acumen to know that Univision's audience is probably not too receptive to stories about the grinding oppression of having to press "1" for English, but it's the same ethnocentric philosophy.

Steele blends the two rationales at both ends. On the one hand, he describes respect for the rule of law as "a foundational principle of this country,"* implying that merely being undocumented is inherently un-American. On the other hand, the content of the rules that you must respect and follow mandate not just peaceful coexistence but full cultural assimilation. Thus, as conceptually separate as the two rationales purport to be, there is a strong resonance between them -- rooted, I would suspect, in the "this particular order or chaos" fallacy, by which cultural difference is a form of dangerous un-rule-governed-ness while lawbreaking provokes anxiety about how it can be condemned if cultural difference is accepted as a value.

*This is a hilarious comment considering that this country was founded by people who showed up uninvited and took over the land by military force, breaking not just moral laws and the laws of the people who were already here but also the treaties that they swore were binding under their own system of law.


Blogger Joel Monka said...

I'm of the unlimited legal immigration persuasion, but I would limit the cultural requirement to respecting the rule of law. I was struck by your use of the word "merely" to describe "undocumented"- isn't that prima facea evidence that they don't respect the rule of law? If they did, they'd have documents.

The real issue is oil. Contrary to popular belief, we get three times as much oil from our American neighbors as we do from the Persian Gulf. If we weren't dependent on their oil, we'd never cozy up to regimes so brutal, corrupt, and inept that half their population would leave if they could.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Joel: yes, the US gets more oil from Canada than Saudi Arabia, which is why Canadians are all clamoring to leave their country and move south of the border.

12:37 PM  

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