Immigration reform requires thoughtful analysis, theologian says

When immigration is the topic, it is very easy to find opposing views that fit neatly on bumper stickers. Finding thoughtful, intelligent views seems to be another story altogether.

Now that the election is over and the winners are preparing to govern, maybe it is time to look at the issue from another angle. Maybe it is time to ask how the issue should be decided or what objectives should be used to make policy.

“At its base the immigration debate has to do with how we deal with otherness,” says Dr. David Trickett, president of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. “Humans, for the most part, are not adept at dealing with otherness.”

Dr. David Trickett, president, Iliff School of Theology

Trickett served as a panelist on the University of Denver’s Strategic Issues Program panel on immigration reform, which produced a 40-plus page report: “Architecture for Immigration Reform: Fitting the Pieces of Public Policy”, released last year to overwhelming silence.

The report, which frames the debate in terms of American (as in United States) self-interest, also places the issue within the contexts of historical and global immigration patterns.

“…Immigration policy should be grounded on enlightened self-interest rather than altruism … All immigration related proposals must clearly demonstrate how they benefit the nation as a whole,” the report reads.

Upon publication, the report was given to every member of the Colorado Legislature as well as every member of the United States Congress (House and Senate). To date, there is no evidence of the report having been used as a guide in creating policy in any place at any level.

Historically, the report notes, people have been migrating since the beginning of man’s existence on the planet, and always for the same reason: in search of a better life. Sometimes people are fleeing a bad situation— drought, war, genocide — and other times they are simply seeking a better chance at creating a pleasant life.

Trickett said people who view immigrants primarily as a problem miss the bigger picture, which is that immigrants, both here and abroad, both legal and illegal, are often drivers of innovation. “Immigrants have often been successful in a new place. Their work has led to advances and breakthroughs and innovations in every field,” he says.

“I have the very clear sense that often it is the juxtaposition of differences among people that lead to the most important and sustainable advances,” he says.

“You have to look at the problem in the context of ancient patterns of global migration,” he says. “This situation is not new to us. When we talked about this on the panel we tried to cast it in terms of national security. What can we do in terms of immigration that will make us the most secure as a nation?”

He said laws such as Arizona’s seem disrespectful to him. “Laws like that do not seem like a good effort at respecting human dignity in all its forms.”

He says how people deal with otherness is shaped very early in life, and not just in how we deal with people of other cultures.

Trickett said he worked for awhile as a park ranger in Yellowstone National Park and that it was interesting to watch how people from cities who didn’t have much wilderness experience would respond to being outside under the night sky in a place where the man-made environment was not readily apparent. “Some were completely freaked out, like ‘get me out of here,’ and others were completely at home.”

Trickett also served for a time at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. He said when he was there the park often had the highest population of overnight campers of any park in the National Park system. “We were right on an immigration route and would have as many as 2,000 immigrants camping out every night.”

He said a few of them were dangerous armed criminals, trafficking in drugs or involved in other criminal pursuits. “But 90 percent of them were just looking for a better life, just hoping for something better than they had in Mexico. It’s that better life that this country has always stood for,” he said.

As a man of Christian faith, Trickett wonders whether the church is playing an appropriate role in the immigration debate. “What should the role of spiritual communities be? Are we moving the debate forward or backward.”

Speaking of Christ’s exhortation to love one’s neighbor as oneself, he asks, “Who is my neighbor? Does the answer to that question have relevance in this discussion? People of faith can and should weigh in on their shared experience of humanity. When you work across faith traditions, you extend your community and that will trump our differences.”

A New York Times story recently quoted another man of faith saying very much the same thing.

Said Joseph Cannon, editor of Salt Lake City’s Mormon Church-owned Deseret News, “What are the two commandments? Love God and love your neighbor. These people are our neighbors — incontestably, by any definition, they are our neighbors,” he told The Times.

Besides national security, the report spelled out three other primary objectives the panelists thought should be addressed by a national immigration policy: social vitality, economic advantage, family unification and refugee relief.

The report concludes:

If there were a simple answer to the question of immigration, the issue would have been resolved long ago. Even the term “immigration,” with its singular tone, belies the complexity of the topic. Immigration is not one issue, but rather a host of interconnected issues. It is more like a puzzle to be assembled—where the pieces must correctly relate to one another—than a single question to be answered.

An effective immigration policy is about applying enlightened self-interest to capture a national opportunity. It is about creating benefit to the United States in a highly competitive global economy. In the process of benefiting the United States there is also the ability to provide opportunity to talented people from other countries who can contribute to a stronger, more vital American society. Immigration policy need not be a win-lose game between the nation and prospective immigrants.

Achieving these benefits requires more than simply adding new legislative patches to a sagging and inefficient system. It requires an overall architecture for immigration policy, grounded in a shared purpose with clear goals, priorities, and governmental roles and responsibilities. Within that framework, an effective policy requires strategies to address structural reform of the system and a number of specific issues that constitute key elements of immigration policy.

These elements include border security, the role of employers, a national identification card, employment verification, supporting a common language, a plan for dealing with illegal immigrants, a mechanism for attracting persons with extraordinary talent, a process for temporary workers, family unification and others.

It is this architecture and these elements that the DU Strategic Issues Panel on Immigration has addressed. Findings and recommendations on these topics are reflected throughout this report and summarized in the following section. It is the panel’s hope that its work will help inform the public discussion on immigration policy.

For a pdf of the entire report, including the specific recommendations and names of panelists, click here.

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About the Author

Scot Kersgaard

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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