A Mistaken Appeal to Selfishness

One of the main arguments I hear in favor of allowing undocumented people to live freely in the United States is that “they” take jobs that American citizens do not want such as backbreaking, physically demanding housekeeping and agricultural jobs. This is the wrong argument for immigration-rights activists like me to advance because it perpetuates the “us” versus “them” mentality that helped to create this misguided frenzy around border crossings in the first place. In fact, we have become so much “us” versus “them” that this country wants to erect a physical border to declare our insularity to the world, so it hardly seems like activists should feed further into that delusion.

People who make this argument mean well, I think. It is an attempt to appeal to the selfishness of a people who subscribe to the scarcity mentality, this idea that by sharing with others they are somehow denying themselves or their family access to wealth and success. I have not once during my lifetime seen this country branded as a land of scarcity for the dominant class of Americans. This argument also creates some dangerous assumptions. It suggests that some of the most vulnerable people in this country, undocumented immigrants, will have to remain frozen in positions of economic disadvantage in order to be allowed to stay here. If you think about it, this notion flies in the face of American values. Allowing someone to take advantage of the blessings of America should never be predicated upon someone’s tacit agreement to occupy ditch-digging jobs or work dangerous construction jobs without safety measures. This is not the portrait of America I wish to paint, do you?

Most American parents do not dream of their children growing up and taking the physically punishing job of picking one hundred buckets of tomatoes at sixty-two cents a bucket daily. To be clear, I am not dishonoring the people or the labor involved. I have spoken to many (many, many) undocumented workers and every single one of them has shared with me the hope that their children will do better than they are doing. They dream of the opportunities that are available here that are not available in their home countries due to violence, abject poverty, and war. I will never understand the scarcity mentality in this country that projects the idea that there is not enough for everybody to improve their positions. If you think about it, people who love capitalism should instead be embracing the arrival of new people from all walks of life. Allowing diverse people in from diverse backgrounds means that we have a greater pool of talent and ideas from which to draw. Some people like to argue that “these people” represent unskilled labor and therefore lack talent or ideas. I would like to counter with the statement that while safe and supported in this country, immigrants and their children may be able to find or make room for talent and ideas to emerge. We have a fantastic education system here, too, no matter what some people will try to tell you. Our school system educates everybody, unlike other countries’ school systems that are placed on a pedestal. Immigrants’ children will receive a great education and, in turn, the vehicle and voice for development of talent and great ideas. Who knows what potential cures for cancer may lie in the mind of a child whose parents crossed the border without authorization?

I do not pretend to have the magic bullet for convincing someone to not be frightened about immigrants stealing his or her job. I do think it is time to end a particular type of selfish appeal because it may inadvertently advance a message affirming the creation of a permanent underclass. Maybe some of the ideas above are a good place to start in building a compelling argument for halting the demonization of undocumented immigrants in this country. The belief that somehow undocumented (and increasingly documented) immigrants are responsible for the woes of society or the economy has to be halted. This cannot be the America we are striving to be, or we will have lost the core of what it means to be a citizen of this country. It is true that we are far from perfect and that we have a terrible track record for the way we have treated and continue to treat our own citizens, but I do believe that in order for us to change, we have to acknowledge the basic humanity of all people.

To be American means to be steeped in pride in our diversity. It means seeking to help people fleeing violence and oppression. It means a faith in humanity and belief in the dignity of every person. It means opportunities for everyone. It means an unqualified striving towards the good. It means promoting democracy. It means cultivating compassion and extending a helping hand to those who need us, citizens or not. I will not pretend that we have been even close to achieving these ideals, but they do set up something to strive for. This is why we have to advance arguments that are more closely aligned with American values or we risk playing into the basic assumptions that the anti-immigration movement makes everyday.



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