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John J. SavantOctober 26, 2009

Great detectives, we are told, are able to think like criminals. Similarly, effective therapists learn to enter into the fantasies of their patients. These behaviors are a function of that supreme and godlike faculty we call imagination. Unlike daydream or fancy—a centrifugal spinning away from reality, the mind on holiday—imagination is centripetal, a disciplined contemplation of reality that takes us beneath appearances and into the essence of what we contemplate. Imagination, therefore, can lead to moral clarification. In issues where law and morality seem to clash, as in the current debate over undocumented immigrants, imagination (which speaks to both heart and mind) can lead to right action.

Law and morality are not always commensurate; a law that is just in one context may be inappropriate in another, because laws function more often to allow a workable social order than to represent absolute moral imperatives. We hear it argued, for example, that granting amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens encourages disrespect for the law—a legitimate concern within the context of normal civic life. What this argument does not address, however, are the social and economic circumstances that significantly alter the normal civic context—for example, the abnormal circumstances that lie at the heart of major migration movements.

Even in very modest circumstances, people prefer their home turf and the comforts of custom to the trauma of dislocation and the uncertainty of the unfamiliar. There will always be adventurers who are at home anywhere in the world, but when populations begin to cross borders in significant numbers, it is almost always out of dire economic necessity or because of severe political persecution. In light of our common humanity—a familial bond with its own intuitions and responsibilities—we cannot make the moral urgings of this bond subservient to the civil proscriptions of law.

Legality Versus Starvation

Against the compelling urgency of the plight of immigrants, therefore, the claims of legal compliance must give way to the more fundamental claims of our common humanity. If numerous immigrants are here because their families would otherwise live in abject poverty, the issue boils down to legal conformity versus possible starvation. Here is where abstractions must give way to concrete reality. But as any poet or artist will tell you, the concrete is the realm of the imagination. In attempting to understand what is just, we have to imagine real persons and their concrete situations.

Let’s imagine a man named Eusebio. If deported as an illegal alien and thus deprived of an income, he could likely witness the decline of a sickly daughter whose medicines he can no longer purchase, or he might have to face the possibility that her despondent older sister will opt for whatever income prostitution might provide. Ironically, a few miles across the border, some of his countrymen are earning more in a day than he does in a month. He sees his tired wife scrubbing one of her three dresses, his pretty daughter staring glumly at nothing and the streets outside bleak and empty of promise. He does not think, at this moment, of breaking laws. He thinks of his paternal duty and acts not out of greed but out of desperation.

Or imagine a woman named Marta, whose husband has been “disappeared” by a rival faction. Possessing only domestic skills, she tries to support her mother and children by selling gum and postcards to tourists. It is not enough. She leaves her two youngest children and her meager savings with her mother and makes the harrowing journey with her son across the Rio Grande, more desperate than hopeful, driven more by a primal affirmation of life and the panic of love than by any plan. In our concern for “respect for law,” can we demote these and many similar tragedies to a category of lesser urgency, considering them the “collateral effects” of market forces?

A Nation of Imagination

America was at one time described as a “City upon a Hill,” the “New Zion,” a beacon to the world. Many in the mid-19th century would have agreed with the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, who proclaimed that our nation represented God’s plan for humankind, its freedoms guaranteeing a nobler, more resilient and more just society. He said this, of course, not long before we engaged in one of history’s bloodiest civil wars, a war that jarred our self-perception of national innocence and historical exception. Now, with the closing of the frontier and the unparalleled opportunities it made possible for the rugged individual, we have been snatched out of our timeless dream and back into history. The world now watches to see how well our behavior will match our lofty rhetoric.

What America has been is largely the product of a historical windfall—the confluence of revolutionary European theory, geographical separation from centers of control, the necessity of (and gradual education in) self-governance and an unimaginable expanse of continent in which to carry out our democratic experiment. What America can become will be the result of the new culture we form in the far more restricted (and realistic) circumstances of a closed frontier. Will we continue to manifest the daring, idealism, generosity and openness to the new and the difficult that marked our frontier forebears at their best? Or will we respond to challenges like the current influx of immigrants with a narrow sense of proprietorship and a very un-American fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar? If we reduce justice to legality and culture to security, we take the first steps toward a state driven not by enthusiasm but by caution, not by daring but by fear. We will prove that our vaunted magnanimity has been not the natural and characteristic expression of a free and democratic people, but the specious (and transient) product of a magnificent frontier blessed with material plenty.

The American dream has run headlong into a historical crunch time. If we are not to betray the dream, we simply must imagine better. Just as we imagined our dogged pilgrim pioneers and our daring frontier ancestors in creating a heroic mythology and a resourceful and generous self-image, so too does the bond of our common humanity require that we imagine today the blood ties with our immigrant population that render their desperation our own. Historically, humankind finds this a supremely difficult challenge, for our loyalties to family, clan and nation are the schools of our first imaginings in culture, ritual and governance. We tend to resist other ways of living, other cultures, despite the fact that, as cultural historians will affirm, travel, trade and periodic immigrations have ever tended to enrich their host cultures. In the matter of our growing immigrant population, then, can we not imagine better than to build fences and expand border patrols?

The world is rapidly growing smaller, more intimate and more dangerous. Gerald Vann, O.P., in The Heart of Man, writes that in true love, “the lover becomes the beloved.” Such becoming is truly an act of the imagination. Can we imagine the immigrant in our midst? Can we become the third world citizen whose longings, not unlike our own, still appear so remote? Such becoming can lead to a moral imagination that gives primacy to radical human need over legal compliance. The survival and growth of our own civilization may well depend upon our imagining better.

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13 years 1 month ago

Immigrants come because they are unhappy where they were born. To ignore that unhappiness there and only concentrate on what happens when they attempt to run is as casually cruel as those whose charity consists of ensuring that the homeless have sturdy shopping carts. 
The problem of immigration is one where a foreign government treats its nationals badly, where they follow poor economic models and/or stifle their people politically or socially. The first thing that we can do to fix the real problem is to be a success, to be a model, to give fools and despots around the world no excuse to lie and pretend that their cruelties are somehow normal. Anything that threatens our model of economic success and political liberty is a threat to our first duty, to be a personal example for the world, that shining city on the hill that we need to maintain as our responsibility to the world. 
All immigrants who come from societies that do not share our traditions must be assimilated into those traditions in order to keep our success. This assimilation does not have to be total, but it is a competition, one that necessarily needs to be stacked against the failed culture that the immigrant physically ran from but necessarily brought with him in his head on arrival. Useful things will overcome the odds and become part of the American cultural magpie's nest. But have too many immigrants and the assimilation equation shifts in a bad way. 
The truly kind solution is to measure carefully how much we can assimilate, make more clear the need to assimilate, and consider that the real solution is to help our brothers and sisters to make their own societies a success so they feel no need to immigrate. It is frustrating that the false kindness so clear in the article above gets passed off as "compassionate", "imaginative", or "kind".

Clarence Maes
13 years 1 month ago
This was a most articulate article. I wonder if America Magazine has ever published any articles in any other languages...perhaps a Spanish tribute to the immigrant?
13 years 1 month ago
But we fund and arm the despots (think Honduras, United Fruit). We create trade agreements that force relocation instead of encourging local small business, agriculture, and infrastructure (think Jamaica and the demise of its 'unprofitable' dairy industry in favor of subsidized milk powder). Then blame the victims for leaving home and family to risk their lives so that maybe they can counterbalance the above in a small way for the sake of the ones they left behind (consider that remittances represent a significant segment of many countries GDP).
As the author suggests, only by making full use of our imaginations will we be able get past old thinking to find, discover, create the morally required alternatives demanded in loving our neighbor.
Mike Evans
13 years 1 month ago
My Grandfather was an immigrant from Greece, my grandmother from Brazil, and my wife and her parents emmigrated from England after WWII. They came not to escape oppression or poverty but in search of a land of opportunity and to pursue a better life. None ever wished to return to their country of origin. All made a life in the U.S. not of spectacular riches, but of ordinary sustenance and respectability. We are the heirs of their commitment to build life anew and in both cases represented the first in our families to achieve a college education and professional work.
Is there not room for so many more? Immigrants bring to us far more than we can ever imagine. Let us not be just a haven for refugees but also a beacon calling people worldwide to come and see, come and be, come and flourish!
Thomas Farrelly
13 years 1 month ago
I cannot argue with Mr. Savant in any point for point way, since it is not possible to argue with poetry and sentimentality.  He makes no arguments based on facts, real occurrences, economics, or national security, but merely on his feelings and imagination.
I will simply mention that we can never eliminate an underclass in our society while constantly replenishing it, that the flow of illegal immigrants into the US has brought about chaos in our school systems, a huge increase in our prison population, and enormous strains on our hospitals.
I am one of the majority who believe that an unlimited influx of the uneducated and impoverished is bad for our country and our culture, and oppose the imagined utopia of Mr. Savant and those who think like he does.
13 years ago

 Thanks for such a thought provoking article.  Far be it from me to differ with a Savant, yet I must.  There is something missing.  The moral imagination has to not only look out to what could be, but to bring to the table the real that is.




So what is the solution?  Perhaps we can morally imagine the coexistence of solutions to radical human needs within a framework of laws that respect both the legitimate rights of nations and the needs of individuals and groups. 




As with all great moral/legal issues, there is a balance that as individuals and as a nation we should work toward and evolve to perfect.  We need to start by identifying all the relevant factors.  Along with the imagined Eusebio and Marta, we know there are real criminals illegally in our midst, those who prey on their own, on us, even on our nation.  But they are not alone; here legally with us already are many who seek to steal our lives, our treasures, our national values. 




TMLutas' notion of two-way assimilation seems a reasonable component of the solution but I am not convinced that unhappiness is the full explanation for immigration.  And there is much to be done on the homefront to add virtue to our economic success and political liberty.




But there are more ways to meet the radical human need of our brethern than allowing immigration.  These must also be part of our solution: enabling the hungry to feed themselves, employing diplomacy to bring peace and justice, forgiving the debts of the poorest nations, fighting disease, developing schools, promoting the equality of women and the sanctity of life, developing person-to-person solidarity with people around the world, encouraging nation-building, reducing our energy consumption and inventing clean energy technologies, just for a start.  

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