A Fundamental Script of Inequality
by Irene Bloemraad
August 16, 2021
This interview with Irene Bloemraad, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Interdisciplinary and Migration Initiative, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Somebody said recently to me that in the EU, children have a right to not have their parents deported. What rights do American children with undocumented parents have? It does seem cruel to have your parent taken away. Is there any legal protection?
Much less than before. Prior to 1996 and a series of congressional legislation that went through, immigration judges could stave deportation based on humanitarian grounds or extenuating circumstances. Those extenuating circumstances could include being the prime breadwinner of the family. Since 1996, the ability to stave off deportation has gotten harder and harder and harder. Many families these days face impossible choices about whether to leave their children in the U.S. when a parent gets deported so that they can continue on with their life, or do the parents retain the family unit and bring their children with them.
There's been a number of court cases around exactly this idea of is there a right to family unity. Depending on the country and depending on where the immigrant is from, things change. There is a little more openness, in the European context, to highlight the role of family.
I would also add to this conversation — Max Weber famously said that science is supposed to give you the causal pathway of what causes what, but we can't answer the big questions of what should be done. Sociologists tackle these big questions around inequality by class and race and gender.
But, fundamentally, the fact that we divide the world into these countries, and you're only allowed to cross these borders if you hold certain passports, means that there's a fundamentalist script of inequality that you have no control over.
This is deeply disturbing from a moral point of view. The problem, of course, is if you then take a very radical position of no borders, is that practical? Is that feasible? If we can’t move easily to a world without borders, then how do we handle the injustice that currently exists around citizenship? Who gets in and who is kept out, and why? This is what we see in the public debate today.
How do you sort this out politically? From a family values position, conservatives face hypocrisy. At the same time, if the Biden administration does not sort out their migration policy clearly and effectively, it feels like this issue is the nail in the coffin of their administration.
Don't forget that the administration that started modern border enforcement was the Clinton administration. The Clinton administration started Operation Gatekeeper. And it was indeed because of politics. The Clinton administration was looking at Pete Wilson in California and they're like, "Oh my gosh, we might lose Democratic voters if we're not hard on the border." And so they're the ones who started it.
Do you have a prescriptive take on how journalists should address migration?
Let me give you a few different answers. I have done research with colleagues at Berkeley and at the University of Michigan, where we look at messaging around immigration issues and what makes people more generous. In other words, what makes them more likely to be for comprehensive immigration reform? What makes them more likely to support public benefits to non-citizens or even to undocumented people? What makes them more likely to say that government should help someone who's facing food insecurity or discrimination?
We find that the standard tropes that advocates have been using to advance the immigration agenda don't work very well. That includes economic arguments. You can trot out all kinds of economic arguments about the benefits of immigration, and then people who oppose expanded immigration will tell you all the problems and all the economic arguments against immigration. Either way, the economic arguments really don't shift people's opinions whatsoever.
We also found, and I have to admit this was against what we had hoped and we expected, that appealing to human rights makes no difference. It can move numbers at the margins, but generally speaking, a human rights language doesn't work. What I was saying before — that it's not really fair that some people are born in some countries with deep poverty or violence or few opportunities — gets you very little. That is potentially because the word "rights" makes it sound somewhat litigious. Or, as we show in other research, Americans like to apply human rights more to people in other countries than to their own country.
Americans think human rights apply to the “bad” countries, but not to us.
Academics love to talk about economics and they love to talk about demography, right? Like — we have an aging population, so who's going to pay for our social security? We need more people. That's all more or less true. But, for many people, saying that the solution to our demographic problem is to bring in lots of immigrants, sets off their feeling of racial threat. They read it as "brown people are going to be replacing us white people", even if an economic part of them can rationalize, "Oh, this is true. Who am I going to sell my house to when I'm 68?" They might intellectually understand it, but they don't necessarily understand it in an emotional way.
But, we do find that talking about family values works. We saw this in Texas with some Republican women's outrage about kids in cages. That shows that a humanistic approach to this can work. Emphasizing human connections — the idea that these people are kids, these people are our neighbors, these people are community members — makes a difference.
The other thing we found to make a difference was an appeal to American values. I personally thought that this rhetoric would make people who are conservative more against immigration.
When you put policy options in the language of "American values," even some conservatives shift to being a little bit more open to the idea of giving migrants a path to legal status.
I think this is because American values is a very vague term; people can load into American values what they want. Someone who's more conservative might believe we are hardworking. Immigration can feed into that idea. Someone who is progressive might believe American values are about challenging social injustice. Immigration can feed into that idea.
I think some of the stories that would be interesting to cover are these integration stories, especially the stories of places where there was a lot of hesitancy, if not outright distrust of immigrants 20 or 30 years ago, and where things have changed. I think actually California is a wonderful example of that because, you know, Pete Wilson's California of the 1990s and the Prop 187 California is certainly not the California of today. There have been a lot of places that have accepted immigrants and refugees, and people work it out. More stories like that are important. Where there's the most resistance against immigration tends to be in places where they actually don't have a history of immigration. Once people have gotten used to immigrants for a number of decades, then they don't have as many issues.
But, it is important what the leadership says. And it's important how this is framed. Is immigration framed as a problem, or is it framed as a challenge that we can certainly overcome because we know how to do this?
I mean, the proportion of immigrants in the general population is more or less the same today as it was one hundred years ago.
If we were able to make this work then, despite the dire predictions about how all these European immigrants were going to take America down the drain, there is certainly a way to figure this out today.
I feel like there's a maturity needed on the part of, well, I don't know who – American politicians maybe, or American journalists, to say – enough, we can sort this out.
The push in the Biden-Harris administration to get Kamala Harris down to Central America and talk about development is a good move. The reality is it would not be politically sustainable to have millions of people from Central America moving to the United States every year. Even if morally that might be our preferred position, politically, there is no way the U.S. population is going to be willing to take in three to four million people a year over the next number of years. Dealing with development issues, I think, is super important.
Korea is a good example. How much migration is there from Korea today? Not a lot. Korea is much richer than it was back in the sixties and seventies and eighties when there were lots of Korean migrants. You can go back further than that. Why were there all these Irish migrants at the end of the 19th century? Because there was a famine. Now there's no famine. So sure, there's some Irish who come, but they stay for a few years and they go back to Ireland or they move on. Development is something that has been under-reported, but I think that's changing.
That also speaks to climate migration. Of course, we have to deal with climate migration, but can we also tackle some of the climate issues that will be the cause of why people have to move?
How do you frame it?
When I do public talks, I always have a little quiz at the start where I have the audience guess the percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born. People always guess these ridiculously high numbers that have no basis in reality. The feeling of threat is real. They will say a third or a quarter. And I'm like, no, it's around 13%. And look at Australia or Switzerland. One-quarter of their population is foreign-born. In Canada, a fifth of the population is foreign-born. Those countries are not falling apart. As you said, it's totally possible for the United States to do this.