I believe that immigration reform is the most contentious issue our nation will face in the next quarter-century because it cuts to the heart of deeply partisan identities and anxieties.
Immigration debates typically symbolize the long-standing tension between nationalism (often cloaked in the rhetoric of “protection”) and cosmopolitanism (often cloaked in the rhetoric of “compassion”). Immigration policy is distinctly partisan because its costs and benefits are often intangible and its very objectives are contentious.
The debate touches on conflicting attitudes about the cohesive culture – or lack thereof – in the United States. In the eyes of many citizens, immigration threatens extant communities’ cultures, depresses wages and promotes lawlessness. For others, immigration reform symbolizes the American dream, anti-racism, and healthy pluralism.
These philosophical differences with long historical roots polarize voters and lead them to believe, correctly or incorrectly, that their very identities are at stake in debates about immigration. The rhetoric politicians use to discuss immigration is highly divisive and serves only to exacerbate the issue.
Immigration has been a charged issue in the U.S. for decades if not centuries, but reform has become urgent in the past few years; the media attention surrounding the issue and the economic costs of inaction have brought the debate to a fever pitch.
Both citizens and would-be citizens crave resolution to the problems of undocumented immigration, deportation, ambiguity surrounding refugee status and uneven treatment of immigrants. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2017, and 8 million unauthorized immigrants participate in our labor force.
How we choose to reform our immigration system will have significant economic repercussions; more importantly, it will shape our identity as a country, just as it is shaping many peer nations in Europe.
To overcome partisanship in such hostile and explosive territory, I believe that we need to look to bipartisan, evidence-based policies that do their best to acknowledge the emotions that run high while allaying economic anxieties. The current rhetoric on immigration is so highly charged that it all but precludes compromise and consensus building.
Although we may maintain different opinions about what the ideal country might look like, we can begin by quantitatively determining how immigration will affect shared objectives and move forward from there.
Sho Sho Leigh Ho is a rising senior at Castilleja School who lives in Los Altos Hills.