Not a question of how but how many

Noah Pickus is associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and author of "True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civic Nationalism." He recently spoke with Q editor Jane Ruffin.

Q: Is the system of legal immigration deliberately set up to be as difficult to navigate as possible or is just malfunctioning?

A: It's a couple of things. First, it can be difficult to come here because there's more demand to come here, and so by definition, wherever you set the bar, there are going to be people who don't get in every year, and unless you believe in completely open borders, that's going to happen. And we have an overall set of constraints on the numbers of people who come here.

It's also the case that we have this sort of notion of treating all countries equally, at least formally, so we parcel out our visas around the world so that we're not favoring any one country the way we used to. That makes it less officially discriminatory, but it also makes it difficult to come for people who are waiting in line in countries where there is a lot of demand. In that sense, it's not dysfunctional. It's sort of built into the nature of more people coming than we're prepared to admit.

Q: We say if you're an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, you're entitled to come. And yet these people have to wait years sometimes, too.

A: It's sort of like the tax code. Everybody looks at it and says it's riddled with loopholes - let's just go ahead and simplify it. But then you look at the loopholes and you realize it's what we actually wanted. So, for instance, when we give temporary protective status to people from areas such as El Salvador, and then we increase the number of people coming here because we're giving them the status, that's a loophole. But it's also one that we judged at the time, based on some of our other commitments, to be appropriate, based on a commitment to help people in need.

Q: Is it fair to the person who is waiting to get in or to the family that can't be united?

A: I think the dilemma is fairness is something we can all agree on, but fairness toward whom? Is it fair to people who are playing by the rules and waiting in line? Is it fair to people in this country who might be adversely affected by immigration - their wages might go down? And even if you look at illegal immigration, is it fair to people who have been here for many years, who have worked hard, who have put down roots, who have contributed to the community?

The dilemma is, fairness applies in all these examples, and so it's hard to simply say it's not fair, because you can say it's not fair in most cases. The problem is not simply between our stated commitments and some other commitment. It's within our very commitment. We want to be fair, but fair toward whom?

Q: You hear people say, when illegal immigration comes up, "Why can't they just come here legally?" Do you think there is general ignorance on the part of Americans of how difficult it is?

A: Yes. I'm always reminded of when you talk to Border Patrol agents, they will tell you if they were on the other side of the border, they'd be doing exactly the same thing. You wouldn't find some policeman chasing down drug dealers saying the same thing. It captures something about the notion that, yes, they are coming illegally, and that's important, but even Border Patrol agents acknowledge that there is something different about this illegality - it's not like dealing drugs.

The biggest problem I think we have today is that we have a debate which is focused all about illegal immigration. Left and right are agreeing that it is all just about illegal immigration. But there are a couple problems with that. One is that a lot of the complaints that people have about illegal immigration are true about legal immigration: overcrowded schools, hospital rooms, people who don't speak English.

These kinds of difficulties are not true just of illegal immigration; they're true of legal immigration because it's a messy human process. A lot of illegal immigrants arrived here legally - they just overstayed their visa. And that again brings us back to the fact that there's more demand, and I think it focuses the question on the fact that we're calling the attention to illegal immigration when, in many ways, the larger question is, how many immigrants do we really want? Because if we really wanted all the people who are coming illegally and legally now we could simply raise the caps.

Q: How do we determine how many we want?

A: You can't. People often speak as if we know how much is too much. But how much is a complicated decision. People can point to this study and to that study. I was just giving talks in California, and a lot of people were saying, "Well, I know it's too much when I have to wait in line on the highway, or I'm stuck in my car." Part of me wants to say, "Well, come on out to North Carolina!" It's a big country. How much is too much?The problem with the debate today is I think that a lot of people are worried about that, but we never get to have that debate because we pretend it's really just about illegal immigration.

Q: You've talked and written about the issue of naturalization and wanting to create more opportunity to bring people into a more cohesive community. What do you mean by that?

A: Americans often complain about immigration and then periodically want to do something extreme, like "Let's end all immigration" because they are so frustrated. And they talk about, "It's wonderful to become an American, and that's what immigration is all about," but they pay almost no attention to actually becoming a citizen and becoming an American.

People say today that English is really important for immigrants to learn. Well, try getting into an English class today. We used to have a more serious effort to teach people English and to incorporate them into being an American. We used to invest a lot in immigrants, and we used to expect a lot out of them. And now we treat them more like it's just labor. So we don't invest much. We provide emergency care in an ad hoc kind of way. But we don't have a formal process where we say, "The goal here is that you're not a worker but that you become a citizen."

Q: When did we have a better system?

A: The last time we had a major wave of immigration in this country 100 years ago, 1910s and '20s, there were a lot of concerns about immigration as well, and then it was about the Irish and the Jews and the Italians. The response initially was that we need to incorporate immigrants, and that means we need not just the government, but private and voluntary organizations - PTAs and Rotary Clubs - need to be involved in creating Americans. We stopped doing that partly because we shut the door on immigration in 1924 and partly because we lost our own nerve.

Q: What do you mean by "lost our nerve"?

A: We began to doubt what it meant to be an American. We had these battles for 30 years over multiculturalism and group identity and whether you're a world citizen or an American citizen first. That's made it more difficult for us to be clear about what the bargain is with immigrants - what they owe us, what we owe them - because we're unsure about who we are.

Q: What do we owe immigrants

A: We owe them clarity on what the rules are. I think we owe them an acknowledgement of when we've been complicit in benefitting from their labor, and I think we owe them a clear message about what our expectations are and the investments we're willing to make in return for their meeting those expectations.

Q: How would you go about doing that?

A: The two examples I like the best are when [Newt] Gingrich and [President] Clinton did welfare reform to make it workfare or when Rudy Giuliani restored order to New York City. They focused on people's behavior, on what it meant to be a responsible citizen, not simply on enforcing the law, because they understood that the law depends on a degree of social order. So, for instance, rather than have pitched battles about driver's licenses and in-state tuition and the range of issues that come up over immigration today, why not say from a government perspective, here's the expectation: that you obey the law, that you pay taxes, that you apply for citizenship where appropriate, that you keep your kids in school, that you participate in civic affairs. And in return for each of those, we will provide the following benefits. So that we link the two. Right now, they're completely decoupled.

Q: If we did that, do you think Americans would be more accepting of immigrants?

A: I think that we would still face the broader important questions about how many immigrants do we want, but that we would face that in a way where we were less worried about our communities being out of control, and that would make a big difference. I think what troubles a lot of Americans is the sense that their communities are falling apart on their own, we're becoming more distant, we bowl alone, we don't do things together any more. And immigration becomes the human face of that, when you see an illegal immigrant waiting for a job outside Home Depot, or you see 20 people in one house.

On the one hand, these are really hard-working people, but it creates a disorderly sense of community, and I think that's what Americans mostly see. If we could control that better, we'd help immigrants and we'd help Americans. And that would actually allow us to address the question you started with, which is: What kind of legal system do we want?

Q: Do you think we are on the verge of doing real reform here?

A: If we had comprehensive immigration reform, it would be a serious next step in really dealing with immigration. But I'm worried that we are looking for the easy way out. So if you want to increase border enforcement and even build a fence, which I have no problem with, Americans better understand that if that's what they want, there's going to be a lot of money and a lot of manpower and a lot of collateral damage to really enforce the law.

Q: What do mean by collateral damage?

A: When you seriously enforce immigration law, you're going to be coming into people's homes, you're going to be coming into places of work, you're going to be dealing with people dying on the border. And all of that may be worth it. I'm not saying we shouldn't do that. I'm saying we shouldn't pretend that we can put National Guard on the border and think that that's really going to deal with the problem. So this is calling into question about how serious we really are. And I think the same thing with the guest worker program.

So the first response is, are we really serious about this? And the second is, even if we get a good deal out of this legislation, we are going to be dealing with legal and probably to some degree illegal immigration into the future. And that's going to require us to look at these questions of citizenship and of social behavior and not only at the economics of guest workers or the enforcement of the law.