In the 1990’s, when I worked at restaurant in Rosemont, a cook was regaling us waiters with his opinion of immigrants. Soon, he surmised, he would be out of a job, because all the immigrants were taking all the good restaurant cooking jobs.
“I’m an immigrant,” I said.
This caught him by surprise. I’m white; I speak with an American accent. I came over from Scotland when I was 10 and have lived here ever since as a permanent resident. Then the waitress next to me mentioned that she was an immigrant also, with a similar story from Canada.
“You guys aren’t what I’m talking about,” the cook said, waving it off.
That’s the problem with the whole immigration debate. The word “immigrant” means so many different things to different people. People who try to use it as a racist slur forget that it’s a legal term with an actual meaning. And now we have the United States government trying to do the same verbal dance as that cook. And the results are going to be absolute chaos.
Immigration policy is, by its very nature, a mess. Yes, the United States is at war with radical Islam. But the world is too big, the people too varied, the populations too large, for any solution to work all the time. It is one of the few branches of government where speeding everything up, and issuing blanket orders that encompass everything, will make it worse, not better.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced that green card holders, or permanent residents, would be subjected to “extra scrutiny” when they entered the country. (Officials seem to have reversed what was initially a ban on green card holders from certain countries.) That’s me. I travel outside the country at least three times a year. Resident aliens tend to travel internationally more than average because—big surprise!—they are more likely to have family and friends in other countries. How does a government, which is under strict guidelines to avoid racial profiling, say “You guys aren’t what I’m talking about”?
The answer is, it can’t. And on every flight I’m on, there are dozens of us permanent residents who have to stand in a different line from the US citizens, place our hands on fingerprint scanners, get our pictures taken, and answer questions about where we’ve been and why. How much more scrutiny could there be? Do they want blood samples and polygraph tests? How long will it be before lines from every flight at JFK snake out the doors and onto the tarmac, while Dutch archaeologists and British brain surgeons have to answer inane questions about their pasts? After my fifth flight to China in three years, I was pulled out of line in Seattle by Homeland Security and asked if I had ever been involved in a terrorist plot. When I said no, I was immediately released. I imagine an actual terrorist would have given the same answer.
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Like most of Trump’s mad proclamations about Muslims and immigrants, no workable policy is going to appear—not, sadly, because his ideas are hateful and stupid, but because they are completely impractical. Build a wall! Even people from the 12th Century had an answer for that one…tunnels and ladders. Stop immigration from Muslim majority countries! That would halt trade with nearly a quarter of the planet, so then they cut it down to seven specific countries. Pakistan (the failed Times Square Bomb attempt and the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing) Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt (9/11)—four countries from which people who have attacked the U.S. have actually hailed—weren’t on the list. Immigration policy has become theater, only it’s far from Shakespeare. This is avant garde German expressionist theater, where you throw buckets of urine at the audience and wait to see how they react.
Immigration policy is, by its very nature, a mess. Yes, the United States is at war with radical Islam. But the world is too big, the people too varied, the populations too large, for any solution to work all the time. It is complex and bureaucratic and slow. It is one of the few branches of government where speeding everything up, and issuing blanket orders that encompass everything, will make it worse, not better. Simplicity is not a benefit. The country with the simplest immigration policy is North Korea. No one gets in ever. What a shangri-la that place must be.
Eventually, the Trump administration is going to have to answer the same question that the cook I worked with had to ask himself. Am I one of the “guys you were talking about?”Header photo by Terry Holt via Flickr.