The Abstraction of Amnesty

President Obama will announce some kind of executive action on immigration tonight (11.20.2014).  Congress has been twiddling their thumbs as it were, and something needs to be done.  The talking heads are all saying that he will support some sort of amnesty or at any rate make it easier for illegal immigrants to work legally. Maybe a fine will be levied, documents can be printed, and everyone can get on with things.

My reading of the various polls out there is that Americans are generally against executive action but for creating a path to citizenship.  Not surprisingly, though, the issue breaks along partisan lines. Republicans are against action and path, while Democrats tend to be for action and for path.

My own opinion is that the administration is well within its authority to act on immigration. But, in no way should the President use his authority to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Many will argue that the President is making a political calculation. Amnesty or something like it would wed Hispanics to Democrats like the Civil Rights Act wedded blacks to Democrats. Of course there is some truth to this.

But I also believe that the administration sees this as benefitting America, as being the right and just thing to do. They can come to this conclusion because they live in world where illegal immigration is an abstraction, a mélange of journalistic accounts, pivot tables, and ideas cultivated in Ivy League graduate classes. They may have a different conclusion if they actually lived in the world that is affected by illegal immigration.

Let me explain…

Generals by the Fireplace

I love military history.  Currently I am listening to a series of podcasts on World War I called Blueprint for Armageddon by Dan Carlin. It’s outstanding.

In one of the episodes, Carlin discusses how military officers, faced with a new type of war where bravery meant less than technology, were at their wits end.  Men were dying at a clip unprecedented in military history. He imagines military generals, far from the frontlines, sitting around a fire drinking brandy, plotting campaigns. Men were chess pieces. Life or death was granted to this man or that based upon a gesture here or a move of a piece there.  These generals were of the war, but not in the war, detached from the everyday realities on the ground. It was the rank and file soldiers who were tasked with living through the consequences of the officers actions – rummaging through muddy fox holes for ammunition, flexing hind quarters as they leapt out of trenches.

I have to be careful here.  Illegal immigrants are not enemy combatants.  But I love the visual of generals by the fireplace.

The Abstraction of Amnesty

I believe that many supporters of amnesty spend much of their lives in the digital environment, where the consequences of not being tough on illegal immigration have no immediate impact on their lives.

Illegal immigrants are generally employed in jobs that are not heavily reliant on computer technology.  The jobs that illegal immigrants tend to cluster in are jobs firmly rooted in the physical environment.  The construction worker may use computerized machinery, but the job is done with physical labor.  Like the manicurist.  And the waiter.  Any public policy that makes it easier for illegal immigration to continue will affect those American citizens who must compete with those immigrants for those jobs. Aiding and abetting an influx of illegal immigrants will suppress wages within the service and manufacturing sectors of the economy.

But it’s not just about the money. It is the cultural aspect that is most disconcerting for people. Those same citizens with jobs in service and manufacturing are the ones most likely to live in or adjacent to neighborhoods with a high percentage of illegal immigrants. While these Americans make sense of the rapid changes in their living spaces, there is bound to be tension – a feeling that things are not the way they use to be. As neighborhoods go through a browning, and stores begin to place Hispanic translations in parenthesis below the English on their signs, people will begin to feel that this is not what they signed up for. We may say this is being xenophobic or racist. Regardless, there is justifiable angst and anxiety here.  Their struggle is real.


Some may label people who reject amnesty as being xenophobic or racist. I’m not so sure. I think they have a legitimate gripe. Photo credit:


Meanwhile, in a world fairly insulated from these on the ground realities, the view is much different. After a day working in high rise offices or in ivory towers, many supporters of amnesty or other paths to citizenship can open their magazine of choice to any number of justifications:

  • Economists have shown that immigration has no net negative effects on the economy.  There may be downward pressure on the wages of unskilled labors, this is offset by innovation, entrepreneurship, and neighborhood revitalization.
  • Sociologists tout the inherent value of diversity, arguing that different cultures and perspectives only add to the richness of American life.
  • Historians point out that America is a “nation of immigrants”. From Germans and Irish in the 18th and 19th century to Jewish and Polish in the 20th century, Americans have had strong reactions to immigration only to acquiesce, absorb those groups, and assimilate those groups.

True, all true. There is nothing I’ve read that runs counter to those arguments above. It all makes sense to me. But this is the problem isn’t it?  Academics, the wealthy, and others in privileged positions can talk about “no net negative effects” and “diversity” rather easily when it has no real effect on their lives.

Meanwhile people in the physical environment see the value of their labor decrease.  They see their neighborhoods undergo cultural transformations they did not expect.  And they watch a group who broke the law find their deviance rewarded through executive fiat.

And so while in the abstract amnesty is a good idea, I believe the concrete realities of American working class life trump my academic understanding of the matter.   And so it should be with the current administration.


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