A Heart And A Brain: Compassionate Self-Interest And US Immigration
Compassionate self-interest must be the cornerstone of US immigration policy in the world after September 11th. We need both a heart and a brain; survival for one is not possible without the leavening effect of the other. What should concern us most, however, is that neither opponents nor advocates of immigration seem to realize this, nor appreciate how much alike in their refusal to understand this symbiosis they really are. No longer can America allow those who seek refuge from the world define what "national interest" means . No longer can America allow those who blame America for the world's ills to dismiss employment-based immigration as unworthy of their attention or support. So long as the illusion of a dichotomy between humanity and nationalism is allowed to continue, neither America nor those who seek its welcoming bounty will get the full benefit from immigration that is theirs to claim.
Many who champion the cause of refugees, asylees and immigrant rights see John Ashcroft not Al Quaida as the true enemy. While depending on Foundation grants and corporate largesse to underwrite their operations, they distrust the US economy, reject the culture of capitalism, refuse to accept the legitimacy of the nation state, and show a congenital distaste for any policy that openly proclaims the empowerment of America as its cardinal objective. Such moral arrogance not only shows little interest in the need for employment-based immigration but denies the creative potential of work itself. America is tolerated only to the extent that its resources can be used to sustain the cause of international outreach.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, self-proclaimed realists who have identified immigration with terrorism believe that only by retreating from the world can national security be preserved. This is the Maginot Line complex that societies who have lost faith in themselves always find so attractive in times of trouble. Just keep "them" ( and who "them" is constantly changes) away from us, we are told, and all will be well. While the internationalists find only the dispossessed of the world worthy of their true devotion, the Fortress America crowd treats those who seek to come as a deadly contagion that must be either turned back or strictly quarantined. If "they" manage to get in, watch them every minute and make their lives here so miserable that they will be only too eager to depart. This is a cramped view of the national interest that is essentially static. There is no room for growth, no possible creation of new jobs, technologies or sources of wealth. American culture is only that which already exists. The future does not count. Societal evolution has been repealed.
Before those planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, before the heroes of Flight 93 stormed the cockpit and made the Western Pennsylvania fields below hallowed ground, this column would not have been possible. Now it is necessary. No longer can the false polarity between compassion and self-interest be tolerated. To do so is to allow both concepts to be discredited. We must reach out and help those who genuinely have a claim on the national conscience. This is not only at the core of our heritage, it is essential to the success of America's most central foreign policy objectives. Unless we are, and are perceived to be by the rest of the world, faithful to what Lincoln rightly called the "better angels of our nature", the war against terrorism cannot be won. If we are only for ourselves, who else will be for or with us when we need friends the most?
That is why America must not only take in asylees and refugees, it must do so on a much larger scale than ever before. This is not only necessary for our soul, it creates the ethical imperative for those policies that exist solely to make us a stronger and more vital people. Compassion is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Compassion is the highest form of realpolitik. A generous refugee policy can, however, only be effective if America puts real money and muscle behind a renewed commitment to international involvement in the Third World. Only by giving these developing nations the ability to solve their own problems, can we in the world's richest nation ever hope to make the promise of American life a credible world vision. Just as immigration is an essential domestic policy, it cannot be divorced from American foreign policy. That is why refugee policy should not be treated as an extension of family-based immigration. At home or abroad, immigration can, and must, be deployed in a disciplined and highly directed manner to achieve the nation's most important aims.
At the same time, the most enduring basis for any humanitarian impulse is not sentiment itself but a sense of national wellbeing whose very gravitas makes possible the interest in more noble pursuits. There can be no national security without a vibrant economy. Lacking that, American planes will not fly and American leaders will fall silent. Those who care most about the dispossessed of other lands should be most interested in making sure that the engine of prosperity does not sputter or break down. A nation that has lost its way, that is without a sure sense of mastery, is not likely to be a society willing or able to look for innovative ways to make immigration an eloquent expression of conscience and belief.
What is most striking is the extent to which both sides are almost entirely reactive. The one-worlders wait for the Administration to do the next bad thing that they can fight. The "go away and don't hurt us" faction dreads the morning headlines and, in such frightened silence, one can almost see the initiative for creative thought and decisive movement slipping away. Those who want to shut the gates seem to view enforcement as their best weapon, while those who call for open borders recoil at any enforcement. The truth is that we need neither more or less enforcement but a different kind, an enforcement that seeks to protect the nation and promote immigration. Tougher laws and more immigrants should be the common bond uniting the false polarities whose continued existence weakens the nation. More than anything else, what America needs now is to recover the belief that we are not helpless before events, that tomorrow is not our enemy. It is possible to sleep at night and do the right thing, to be both proud and ethically sound. For that, all concerned parties must remember what the ancient sage Hillel told us two millenia ago" " If I am not for myself, who will be for me ? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"
About The Author
Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.