Ask Dr. Cobb

May 2010 Question

Does process thought contribute anything to the debate on immigration?

Dr. Cobb's Response

I personally find it impossible to be enthusiastic about any of the positions on immigration among which we are asked to choose. Convictions that I believe to be at least consistent with process thought oppose all the proposed options. I will briefly discuss the issues in three contexts: economic, ecological, and human community.

Dominant economic ideas encourage open borders. They argue against restrictions on the movement of capital, of goods, and of people. Because no one supposes today that any nation will allow completely open borders, economists generally focus on capital and goods and accept the relative immobility of the workforce.

The idea of open borders is not purely utopian. This was U.S. policy for considerable periods, and also that of the colonies that became the United States before then. The only people who were likely to come were Europeans, and most colonists and, later, citizens wanted European immigrants in order to expand the nation and provide labor. The more the better! This was good for the Europeans already here, strengthening and enlarging the nation. For those who came voluntarily from various parts of Europe, easy entry to the United State was a benefit. The only sufferers were the indigenous people who were being conquered, displaced, or killed.

As the land became more fully settled, the workers who were already here began to be less welcoming. Most of the newcomers were willing to work for less, thus threatening the status of those who were gaining an established position. From the point of view of many economists, on the other hand, competition by workers for employment keeps labor costs low and makes the products more competitive.

Clearly those who come expect to be better off by immigrating and generally are. Employers also benefit. On the other hand, from the perspective of workers, a continuing supply of new labor tends to hold wages down and to make labor-organizing more difficult. I do not think that process thought provides much guidance in choosing sides. Our sympathies are both with the efforts to strengthen unions and improve labor conditions and with the new arrivals.

Probably today, those for whom these economic considerations are decisive favor policies that determine who is allowed to enter the country according to the relevance of their skills to the country’s needs. Often this means that people whose skills may be needed even more in the countries in which they were educated are the ones who are admitted. In the part of California in which I live, many of our best medical professionals were educated in India, and it is we Americans who reap the benefit of India’s investment in their education. We appreciate their services and welcome them. But we also wonder about those many Indians who are inadequately cared for by the medical services available in India. The real surpluses in India and many other countries are unskilled or semiskilled workers, and few of these are likely to be admitted.

Let us now turn to the ecological horizon with an emphasis on population. The movement of people from a low-wage country such as Mexico to a high-wage country such as the United States benefits them in standard economic terms and increases total global production and consumption. This means that their coming to the United States puts additional stress on the resources and sinks of the world. It may ease population and ecological pressures in Mexico a little, but it increases those pressures more in the United States. The latter increase grows for several generations since the immigrants tend to have larger families than others. What is positively affirmed by economists as desirable growth is negatively viewed by ecologists as further deterioration of the environment.

Consider now the effects of migration on human communities, on which I, as a process thinker place a strong emphasis. We do not want people to be forced to remain in the communities of their birth, but we prize communities of many kinds and favor a society in which these are strengthened. Geographically local communities are one important type of community, and adopting policies to strengthen them cuts against large-scale movements of people.

The goal, of course, is to develop communities that make a good life possible locally for all their members. Whatever success is achieved in this direction will reduce the reasons for moving from one place to another. Over the centuries some migration is to escape the political or social conditions of the place people leave. The goal is to end this motivation for emigrating and immigrating, not to militarize borders so as to prevent the entry of those who want to find a new life in a different country.

I believe that most Mexicans who come into the United States illegally do not do so because they want to escape from the social or political conditions of their communities. Much more often it is because the economic conditions in their home communities offer them few opportunities. U.S. policies have worsened this situation and increased pressure to migrate. To respond primarily by making the entry into the United States more and more miserable and dangerous and then further tormenting those who succeed in settling here is hardly acceptable from a process perspective or any other that prizes human life and affirms human dignity.

When NAFTA was passed we were told that it would benefit the economy of Mexico and therefore reduce incentives to migrate northward. I did not believe it at the time, and few can now deny that pressures for migration have increased. NAFTA did enrich some Mexicans, but it undercut the livelihoods of far more. It had a similar effect in the United States. In both countries it has been part of the ongoing process of concentrating wealth in fewer hands.

I believe that most Mexicans could, in general, have a better life in their home communities in Mexico than in the strange culture of the United States. I believe that Americans could develop healthier communities in the United States if immigration were more limited. The policies I would approve as a process theologian are those that would so improve the economic possibilities in Mexican communities that few would want to move to the United States. This would require a massive program of village and community development, that is, one of aiding local people to make improvements they wish to make and to produce marketable products.

Sadly, this option is not on the table. It does not fit into dominant patterns of economic thinking. As a result we are forced to choose between bad alternatives – a large-scale uncontrolled movement of workers that is disruptive of community in both countries or unattractive means of preventing this movement. Of these unattractive means, I suppose that making it difficult to secure employment after coming to the United States is the least cruel in the long run. It may have the best chance of discouraging people from trying to come and enduring the terrible hardships of the border. Almost certainly this requires both a system of national identification cards and severe punishment of employers who hire new immigrants who are undocumented. It must be combined with giving legal status to all those who have established their homes here. But this amnesty has to be accompanied by a clear indication that this time the rules will be effectively enforced.

If such a system is combined with making it easier to enter the country legally, the results may be tolerable. But they still require cruel actions against those who try, successfully or unsuccessfully to enter the country without permission. Against these actions the Christian spirit reacts in horror. We are called to welcome strangers, not to harm them. However, this may be a place where what is individually virtuous is socially disastrous. Christians may have to learn to do what we can to mitigate the suffering of new undocumented immigrants while also supporting the laws that force them to leave the country.

This is an example of choosing between two evils. Life confronts us with such choices often. It does not help simply not to choose or to stand aside. One is called to make what suggestions one can and take what actions one can to mitigate the evil.

But the pain of supporting what is bad against what is worse should drive us toward envisioning a better way. It is at that point that process thought can help. We can use this as an occasion for bringing to consciousness the damage done by currently dominant economic theory and ideology. We may draw some people to think outside that box. In some ways the neoliberal system is already under siege. We may be able to further weaken its hold on the public mind as well as on governments. Such efforts should be our primary focus as we respond to the issues of immigration.

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