What should guide U.S. immigration policy: self-interest or charity?
You do not have to be a football fan to have heard about the controversy that erupted over the national anthem this season in the N.F.L. It began with Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who took a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the treatment of African-Americans in this country. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said when asked to explain his action.
The demonstration caught on in other venues, including the N.B.A., professional women’s soccer, college cheerleaders, high school bands.
I confess I was offended. Federal law says that when the national anthem is played, people should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. There is, of course, no penalty for violation; the First Amendment would not allow it. But the protests take the bitterness and division of politics today a step further, into dangerous territory. They show a disdain for the country, not a particular party or candidate. Simple exercises like singing the national anthem at football games may seem trivial. But in a nation as large and diverse as ours, it is a ritual that serves to bind us together.
But my reflection on these symbolic protests has led me down a surprising path. The protesters got attention precisely because they took seriously the moral implications of standing during the national anthem. If it were indeed an empty ritual, there would be no point in protesting against it. But it is not like singing the 49ers fight song. Rather, our standing together is an affirmation of America’s essential goodness and a personal commitment to preserve, protect and defend our country.
This may seem like an odd lead-in to a discussion of this country’s immigration debate, but it shines a light on a most important point. If the United States is a moral actor in its own right, an entity distinct from the sum of its citizens, it can be judged as good or bad, worthy or unworthy of our allegiance.
Love of country, like the love that binds two people together, begins with an appreciation for the goodness of the one we love. What, then, would be a good immigration policy in this sense—the kind that would inspire love for our country?
One principle, which has guided both current policy and suggestions for reform, is enlightened national self-interest. We ask: What can immigrants do for the United States? Current law admits 140,000 people each year as permanent immigrants if they hold advanced degrees or are multinational executives or persons of extraordinary ability in the arts or sciences, or if they will invest $500,000 in an enterprise that will hire U.S. workers. We also admit temporary agricultural workers on H-2A visas if there are not enough U.S. workers to harvest our crops.
The Republican Party’s platform for the 2016 election extended this principle to its logical conclusion. It said, “America’s immigration policy must serve the national interest of the United States, and the interests of American workers must be protected over the claims of foreign nationals seeking the same jobs.” For that reason, it argued, we should reduce the number of immigrants who are offered permanent residence.
It is not right to say, as some do, that enlightened self-interest is immoral or discriminatory as a principle to guide individual or national decision-making. But neither is it a quality we fall in love with.
There is another option, which the church commends to rich nations like ours: to practice the virtues of charity and hospitality. We should “welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2241). And nations should respect the natural right “that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.”
Putting to one side the concerns of political prudence, it seems plain that an immigration policy rooted in charity and hospitality is worthy of our admiration. That is what Emma Lazarus expressed in the sonnet she wrote for the Statue of Liberty:
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”
This generous approach to immigration is neither politically expedient nor free of risk. Many citizens have argued in good faith for a more restrictive policy. But would you not love and admire a country that opened its doors to the tired, the poor, the wretched and the homeless, even if they could not promise it a fair return for its hospitality? On this, at least, Mr. Kaepernick and I may find some agreement: A country that gave such a welcome to the least of our brothers and sisters would be worth standing and taking our hats off for.