Acknowledging Nationalism in Immigration Discourse

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In yesterday's post, I highlighted Gregory Rodriguez's recent Op-Ed as typifying some messaging flaws that many of us had hoped would bear short-term fruit with passage of the DREAM Act but which I fear may undermine long term goals of the immigrant rights movement. Rodriguez's Op-Ed called for a reevaluation of the concept of citizenship to include undocumented youth who had lived here since childhood and were therefore sufficiently loyal to the nation.

I can distill Rodriguez's premises with which I take issue to two:

  • "I understand that we can't simply open our borders to all. . . . This country, like any other, has the right -- and the need -- to police its borders."

  • "[L]ove of nation is a necessary requirement for making a country a better place to live . . . when push comes to shove, I think nations should require their citizens to choose one loyalty over all others."

Today I wanted to identify these assumptions and begin to think about what assumptions they in turn are based upon, why I believe they are problematic, and what might be more fruitful alternatives. I won't pretend to finish this analysis today, only to begin.

To do so, it is helpful to look at a couple of blog posts from Newsweek and the Economist that made the rounds today.

Mickey Kaus, who blogs at Newsweek, has a knack for hiding conservative arguments in liberal clothing in service of his goal of keeping brown people immigrants out of America. Yesterday, Kaus conceded that he doesn't believe income inequality is a problem, but he nevertheless finds it useful to bludgeon President Obama with over his supposedly lax immigration policies.

In full concern troll mode, Kaus wrote:

Even experts who claim illlegal immigration is good for Americans overall admit that it's not good for Americans at the bottom. In other words, it's not good for income equality.

Odd, then that Obama, in his "war on inequality," hasn't made a big effort to prevent illegal immigration--or at least to prevent illegal immigrration from returning with renewed force should the economy recover.

Yet Kaus's analysis of income inequality excludes all poor people outside of the U.S. It's as though people not physically present in the U.S. don't even exist. This is an assumption commonly made by American pundits--what surprised me was to see someone call Kaus out on this, which a correspondent for the Economist ("W.W.") did:

This is badly misleading. A move to United States is an upwardly mobile move for almost all low-skilled immigrant workers, and it tends to reduce inequality on the whole. As a matter of description, Mr Kaus' conclusion follows only if we grant him the premise that the trend in inequality is best measured by looking at the set of people inside a country's borders at one point in time and then comparing it to the set of people inside the country's borders at a later point in time. I propose we reject this premise. It makes more sense to begin with the set of people now inside a country's borders and then follow the same people back in time. As we rewind the tape, some of those people will end up outside the country's borders because they migrated during the period under consideration. As economists Lant Pritchett and Michael Clemens convincingly argue, if we seek to measure how people fare, as opposed to how fenced-in national populations fare, the correct measure is what they call "income per natural". On an income-per-natural basis, almost nothing reduces inequality more dramatically than the migration of low-skilled workers from a poorer country to a richer country.


The only reason to make the within-borders population of a nation-state our analytical touchstone is a prior commitment to the idea that the nation-state is the correct unit of normative evaluation. That is to say, an unacknowledged commitment to moral nationalism tends to stand behind the sort of analytical nationalism driving Mr Kaus' inequality accounting trick. We are interested in inequality in large part because most of us believe, rightly or wrongly, that levels and trends in inequality function as a rough measure of our society's justice. But moral or normative nationalism itself is a plausible cause of social injustice. It begs all kinds of profound questions simply to assume moral nationalism and set up our conceptual apparatus so that it not only blinds us to the way immigration dramatically reduces poverty and inequality, but also creates the illusion that immigration worsens what we assume to be a form of injustice.

Historically, the most vicious forms of inequality and injustice are based on coercive exclusion, and this is precisely what Mr Kaus proposes ramping up. It is conceivable that the global system of socio-economic apartheid is justified because there is something special about national citizenship and national boundaries. But given the parallels of the status-quo system to arrangements we consider paradigms of invidious inequality and social injustice, this needs an argument.

What W.W. and I find problematic is Kaus and Rodriguez's "unacknowledged commitment to moral nationalism." Yet this unacknowledged assumption is so deeply engrained in American discourse that Kaus and Rodriguez and most other pundits forget it is there. They assume that the national unit is the appropriate analytical unit in any discussion of justice, morality, or public policy.

W.W. asserts that this unacknowledged commitment to moral nationalism must be argued and defended rather than simply assumed, but doesn't put forward those arguments in his/her brief blog post. S/he does propose an alternative unit of measure: the individual.

Let me list some factors that undermine the case for the national population as the primary unit of analysis for questions of justice and equality.

  • Citizenship is not static--it can change for an individual over the course of his life. Therefore, individuals or entire groups of people may jump from one national population to another, making "the national population" more fluid than individual identity.
  • Individuals in different nations have wildly different relationships to their governments. Some can vote, some cannot. Some can freely express themselves, others cannot. Citizens of wealthy countries can repatriate more easily than can citizens of poor countries.
  • Membership in each nation is determined, in the great majority of cases, by accident of birth. The difficulties faced by those who attempt to change their citizenship, especially from poor country to rich country, are the exception that proves the rule. Since wealth and economic opportunity correspond to citizenship, they are therefore largely arbitrarily allotted through accident of birth.
  • National populations have dramatically unequal bargaining power vis-à-vis each other. The fiction of parity among sovereigns serves rich nations and elites everywhere, but it is only a fiction.

Each of these factors supports the case for using the individual or the family as the analytical unit in questions of justice and public policy, and weakens the case for Kaus's "unacknowledged commitment to moral nationalism." Yet nearly all mainstream discussion about immigration policy relies on this unacknowledged assumption. It is time to acknowledge the assumption so that the public can hear arguments for and against it and decide whether it makes sense.


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Prerna Author Profile Page said:

Sniffle. I miss my grad. school days. Wrote a Masters Thesis on Deconstructing Nationalism and Alternative Nationalism(s).

Nationalism be damned. I'm a proud Fiji Islander, an Indian at heart, a completely devout Californian with really bad American habits and I'm probably headed to Canada or UK for a PhD in 3-5 years. Tell them to bite me.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on December 28, 2010 11:29 PM.

Can the DREAM Act Succeed With Assimilationist Messaging? was the previous entry in this blog.

Binational Families Fight DOMA; Obama Targets Workers Under the Radar is the next entry in this blog.

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