African-American parents long have had “the conversation” with their sons regarding interactions with police. There’s another critical life-and-death conversation all Americans should have.

Immigration has been called the third-rail of our national politics. Most politicians engage in immigration rhetoric, not policy. Why? Studying the issues objectively risks alienating many or all of varying constituencies. Why? Rational discussion of immigration involves not invoking existing, often knee-jerk, positions but asking questions that may produce challenging answers.  

For starters, should we take in immigrants at all? Three basic positions confront us: Completely close our borders. Open them to all comers. Control immigration, regulating how many people we take in, from where, and with what—if any—skills.

As the grandson of immigrants and son of an immigrant father, I believe that the Statue of Liberty should not wield her torch like a weapon to keep everyone out. At the same time, it’s not likely that we can open our borders to everyone who wants to come—possibly millions of people a year. 

So, the answer to the first but hardly final question is one to which I believe most Americans will agree: Take in immigrants but limit their numbers and decide who and from where.

Now, the conversation—in question form—gets hard. 

How many immigrants can this country take in each year? Many of us who hail the United States as “a nation of immigrants” must acknowledge that the America of 2021 is a different nation from that of 1921 let alone 1901 or 1881. What then is the current carrying capacity of the land? What is the status of our water supply? (In California, it’s approaching—or has reached—crisis mode.) What impact will immigrants have on our economy and, drilling down, on different segments of our economy?

The conversation’s just getting warmed up. How much housing have we? How much can we rationally expect to build? Can we provide adequate healthcare to both newcomers and existing citizens? Can our schools provide a decent education and related services children need?

Not to be overlooked, what will be the cultural impact on various communities? How many immigrants can communities comfortably assimilate? (The flip side: how many communities will immigrants invigorate?)

These questions are in no way rhetorical. The answers remain open, pending informed studies and opinions of experts in various fields—economics, labor, healthcare, education, sociology and others. Which brings me to my last point.

The immigration “discussion” we’ve heard not only during the Trump years but long before has been anything but logical. Many on the far right continue to dig in their heels when it comes to taking in non-white immigrants. Many on the far left insist on open borders, maintain that we cannot turn people away regardless of the answers to the above questions (which they don’t ask).

If we’re ever to have a meaningful conversation, it’s time for the President to assemble a non-political panel of experts to contribute their thoughts, weigh pros and cons, and use—gasp!—facts to suggest an immigration policy that is both humane and pragmatic. We the people can then voice our opinions.

Following that, Congress can hold a meaningful public discussion, stop patching old, unworkable laws and develop new immigration laws that make sense and so will be respected.

I’ll take the next week off. A new post will appear on April 23.

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  1. Bruce Abramson on April 9, 2021 at 10:59 am

    I’ve never heard anyone other than a few fringe voices with few followers complain about “non-white immigrants.” I’d appreciate a pointer to a source of anyone advocating that view.

    • David Perlstein on April 9, 2021 at 11:19 am

      Bruce: A good point about politicians not rejecting non-white immigrants publicly and on the record, if they can help it. But they dog whistle and respond to dog whistles quite fervently. Balancing that, many on the far left want open borders, or at least borders open for their ethnic group.

      Has no one recently made antisemitic or other racist remarks? Politicians try to stay in tune with their constituencies to stay in office. At the same time, immigration attitudes often come from the top. A former president complained about people coming here from “shithole countries” (black folks) and Mexico sending murderers and rapists (brown folks). He asked why America can’t attract more people from Norway? (Perhaps Norwegians like where they live.)

      As someone who lived in Texas for six years some time ago, I can say that a lot has changed, but a lot has not. Racial/ethnic awareness and fear among some whites is high. When Barack Obama was elected, my wife’s nephew (mine by marriage) re-posted a meme with the caption, “They don’t call it the White House for nothing.” He denied being racist. You think?

  2. Sandy Lipkowitz on April 9, 2021 at 5:28 pm

    OMG David, What are you thinking?? Policy based on facts and rational analysis?? How foreign is that? Must be your immigrant background. 🙂

    • David Perlstein on April 9, 2021 at 5:51 pm

      I cop to that, Sandy.

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