Tag Archives: immigration

The Art of the Possible

Detail from “The Effects of Good and Bad Government,” Caleb Ives Bach (1985).

What is “reality”? One answer: If I punch the wall, I hurt myself; if I step out the window, I fall. These are the principles I can accommodate myself to or manipulate or (for a short, inglorious period) choose to defy for some doomed reason or another.

Another answer comes from the first: Reality sets the bounds of the possible, the terms of debate, the imaginative limits we need to work under. Thus for politics, that art of the possible, reality says that there are winners and losers, that on certain issues, maybe all issues, we’re dealing with a zero sum game; your health or theirs, your safety or theirs, your children or theirs. There’s only so much space, so many chairs, so much goodwill to go around. Everybody’s hands are tied, no one is ever really responsible.

I’ll admit, in this second sense, I find I’m tired of reality, a shifting and twisting declaration of what cannot be argued with or challenged that comes down to things are as good as they can be, they stand to get worse if you agitate about that fact too much, and perceived reality is the only reality worth discussing (if you feel your hands are tied, does it matter whether or not they are?). Leibniz proposes in his Theodicy that the best of all possible worlds requires some of us to do evil, to fail, and to struggle. In the grandest understanding of space and time, if all could be encompassed and understood, that might be true enough. Politically, however, it’s a little much to swallow. Continue reading

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Beyond the Legality of Executive Orders

A young Japanese-American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A young Japanese American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This Sunday marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, the order authorized the secretary of war and military commanders to establish “exclusion zones,” which ultimately led to the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these actions in a series of decisions culminating in Korematsu v. United States.

We are now in the middle of a heated national debate over another executive order: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” signed by President Donald J. Trump. The two orders are not the same in scope or consequence. But they do bear some similarities. Neither Executive Order 9066 nor Trump’s immigration order singles out a group of people by name. Yet both orders make possible discriminatory action.

As much as I disagree with its substance and symbolism, many of the constitutional arguments raised against Trump’s executive order strike me as unpersuasive. The order does not flagrantly overstep the bounds of executive power as they are currently understood; nor is the purported Establishment Clause challenge as obvious as some commentators have suggested. (I find Michael McConnell’s analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion closest to the mark.)

But whether or not an executive order is constitutional is not the only question that can be raised about it or even necessarily the most important. The actions of our president—particularly those formalized and ritualized as executive orders—have expressive as well as legal consequences. They tell us something about who we are and who we should be as a people. From this perspective, the historical connection to Executive Order 9066 reminds us of the dangers of fear and the human toll that can too easily result from that fear. Continue reading

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Where Now, America?

Immigrants leaving for New York from Ellis Island. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Immigrants leaving for New York from Ellis Island. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I grew up in suburban San Francisco, on a court with families of different ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Our family was from India. We knew that our court had much diversity. Some on the court were Catholic. Others were of Japanese heritage. Many of our own family friends were from Pakistan and India.

But every morning, we kids gathered on different driveways to carpool together to our local public school. On New Year’s and Fourth of July, the neighbors would come together to celebrate. I remember running over to neighbors’ houses excitedly on Christmas mornings to share my new toys with my friends. One neighbor with a swimming pool would hang out a flag on the front lamp post to let us know that we could all come over and jump in the water.

Those common rituals and values sustained our diversity. It made it possible for each of our families to be different because we shared so much that was also the same. We were all American, not in some abstract way. Nor were we American because anybody can be American according to some abstract principle. We were American because we did American things together as Americans. And yet we were all so different. Those differences were not threatening, and were even celebrated, because we had so much that we shared with each other too. Continue reading

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The Law That Changed Modern America

Statue of the Immigrants, Battery Park, New York; bronze by Luís Sanguino, 1983; photo by Raphael Isla via Wikimedia Commons

Statue of the Immigrants, Battery Park, New York; bronze by Luís Sanguino, 1983. By Raphael Isla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This year, America observes the fiftieth anniversary of many transformative events.  Some are to be celebrated; others are to be mourned. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama celebrated the march in Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, the landing of the first combat troops in Vietnam, and the signing of the Social Security Act Amendments. Yet in the midst of these anniversaries, it is important to remember an event that transformed America and affected the lives of many around the world:  the signing of the most significant immigration law in US history, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.

Promoted by the then–freshmen senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, the bill ended up receiving  more congressional support from Republicans (87 percent) than Democrats (74 percent)—a fact reflecting a very different partisan reality between then and now. The bill passed largely because its proponents claimed, in the words of Senator Kennedy, that  “the ethnic mix of this country” would not be “upset” by its passage. Just before its signing, President Lyndon B. Johnson felt the need to reassure any doubters: “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” he said. “It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power. Yet it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration.”

And so the bill was signed on October 3, 1965, on a sunny day in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. President Johnson was absolutely right that the law was one of the most important acts of that Congress and administration. But he and all its proponents were completely off as far as the consequences of the law. The ethnic mix of this country has been completely transformed and the wealth and power of this country has soared as a result.

Up until 1952, almost every immigration law enacted in the United States was written to favor white Protestants of European descent to the exclusion of virtually all other groups. The first immigration law in America, passed in 1790, allowed only “free white persons of good character” to become citizens. It took another eighty years before “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” would be granted citizenship and another ninety-five years before a federal law allowed them to exercise their right to vote. Before 1965, laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Naturalization Act (1906), the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act” (1917), and the National Origin Act (1924) were enacted to bar non-European immigrants. It was not until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 that race was eliminated as a reason for exclusion, and not until 1965 that the nationality quota system, which benefited northern Europeans, was abolished. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 allowed immigration based on family reunification and skills. In other words, US citizens could sponsor their relatives to immigrate to the US and individuals with special skills in such fields as science, medicine, and technology could also apply to immigrate.

The most significant consequence of this law was the skill, talent, and sheer brain-power that it brought to the country. President Johnson couldn’t have been more wrong: The strength and wealth of the nation were greatly increased by the influx of talented, hard-working immigrants who were allowed to enter. And while their arrival on these shores caused a serious brain drain in other countries, it benefited the United States immensely.

Today there is hardly anyone in America (or, arguably, in the world) whose life has not been touched by post-1965 immigrants. HIV-positive patients around the world can manage the virus through anti-retroviral therapy thanks to the work of Dr. David Ho, an immigrant from Taiwan who was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1996 because of his pioneering work on HIV/AIDS. Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, was born in India. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, immigrated from the Soviet Union because his parents who were scientists. Jerry Yang (co-founder of Yahoo.com), Steve Chen (co-founder of YouTube), and the entire founding board of PayPal (including Elon Musk, Luke Nosek, Ken Howery, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and Yu Pan)—this group of entrepreneurs went on to start companies such as Tesla Motors, LinkedIn, Palantir Technologies, SpaceX, YouTube, Yelp, and Yammer. Fifty years ago, it would have been illegal for some of them to immigrate to the United States, but today they lead some of the most profitable and influential companies in America.

Since the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965, only one significant piece of immigration legislation has been passed: the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Signed into law by Ronald Reagan, it granted legal status to anyone who had entered the country before 1982 as well as to migrant farm workers. But in the last three decades, there has been no major legislation on immigration, even though the country and the world have changed dramatically. As the nation prepares to enter a new round of debates on immigration reform, it behooves Americans to reflect on how different their country, and the wider world, would be if that bill had not become law fifty years ago.

Tony Tian-Ren Lin, Ph.D., is a Research Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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