Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles We often hear these days that the immigration system is broken. I want to make the case today that our immigration conversation is broken and to suggest some ways that, together, we might build a better one. In order to do that, I'm going to propose some new questions about immigration, the United States and the world, questions that might move the borders of the immigration debate. I'm not going to begin with the feverish argument that we're currently having, even as the lives and well-being of immigrants are being put at risk at the US border and far beyond it. Instead, I'm going to begin with me in graduate school in New Jersey in the mid-1990s, earnestly studying US history, which is what I currently teach as a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. And when I wasn't studying, sometimes to avoid writing my dissertation, my friends and I would go into town to hand out neon-colored flyers, protesting legislation that was threatening to take away immigrants' rights. Our flyers were sincere, they were well-meaning, they were factually accurate ... But I realize now, they were also kind of a problem. Here's what they said: "Don't take away immigrant rights to public education, to medical services, to the social safety net. They work hard. They pay taxes. They're law-abiding. They use social services less than Americans do. They're eager to learn English, and their children serve in the US military all over the world." Now, these are, of course, arguments that we hear every day. Immigrants and their advocates use them as they confront those who would deny immigrants their rights or even exclude them from society. And up to a certain point, it makes perfect sense that these would be the kinds of claims that immigrants' defenders would turn to. But in the long term, and maybe even in the short term, I think these arguments can be counterproductive. Why? Because it's always an uphill battle to defend yourself on your opponent's terrain. And, unwittingly, the handouts my friends and I were handing out and the versions of these arguments that we hear today were actually playing the anti-immigrants game. We were playing that game in part by envisioning that immigrants were outsiders, rather than, as I'm hoping to suggest in a few minutes, people that are already, in important ways, on the inside. It's those who are hostile to immigrants, the nativists, who have succeeded in framing the immigration debate around three main questions. First, there's the question of whether immigrants can be useful tools. How can we use immigrants? Will they make us richer and stronger? The nativist answer to this question is no, immigrants have little or nothing to offer. The second question is whether immigrants are others. Can immigrants become more like us? Are they capable of becoming more like us? Are they capable of assimilating? Are they willing to assimilate? Here, again, the nativist answer is no, immigrants are permanently different from us and inferior to us. And the third question is whether immigrants are parasites. Are they dangerous to us? And will they drain our resources? Here, the nativist answer is yes and yes, immigrants pose a threat and they sap our wealth. I would suggest that these three questions and the nativist animus behind them have succeeded in framing the larger contours of the immigration debate. These questions are anti-immigrant and nativist at their core, built around a kind of hierarchical division of insiders and outsiders, us and them, in which only we matter, and they don't. And what gives these questions traction and power beyond the circle of committed nativists is the way they tap into an everyday, seemingly harmless sense of national belonging and activate it, heighten it and inflame it. Nativists commit themselves to making stark distinctions between insiders and outsiders. But the distinction itself is at the heart of the way nations define themselves. The fissures between inside and outside, which often run deepest along lines of race and religion, are always there to be deepened and exploited. And that potentially gives nativist approaches resonance far beyond those who consider themselves anti-immigrant, and remarkably, even among some who consider themselves pro-immigrant. So, for example, when Immigrants Act allies answer these questions the nativists are posing, they take them seriously. They legitimate those questions and, to some extent, the anti-immigrant assumptions that are behind them. When we take these questions seriously without even knowing it, we're reinforcing the closed, exclusionary borders of the immigration conversation. So how did we get here? How did these become the leading ways that we talk about immigration? Here, we need some backstory, which is where my history training comes in. During the first century of the US's status as an independent nation, it did very little to restrict immigration at the national level. In fact, many policymakers and employers worked hard to recruit immigrants to build up industry and to serve as settlers, to seize the continent. But after the Civil War, nativist voices rose in volume and in power. The Asian, Latin American, Caribbean and European immigrants who dug Americans' canals, cooked their dinners, fought their wars and put their children to bed at night were met with a new and intense xenophobia, which cast immigrants as permanent outsiders who should never be allowed to become insiders. By the mid-1920s, the nativists had won, erecting racist laws that closed out untold numbers of vulnerable immigrants and refugees. Immigrants and their allies did their best to fight back, but they found themselves on the defensive, caught in some ways in the nativists' frames. When nativists said that immigrants weren't useful, their allies said yes, they are. When nativists accused immigrants of being others, their allies promised that they would assimilate. When nativists charged that immigrants were dangerous parasites, their allies emphasized their loyalty, their obedience, their hard work and their thrift. Even as advocates welcomed immigrants, many still regarded immigrants as outsiders to be pitied, to be rescued, to be uplifted and to be tolerated, but never fully brought inside as equals in rights and respect. After World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s until really recently, immigrants and their allies turned the tide, overthrowing mid-20th century restriction and winning instead a new system that prioritized family reunification, the admission of refugees and the admission of those with special skills. But even then, they didn't succeed in fundamentally changing the terms of the debate, and so that framework endured, ready to be taken up again in our own convulsive moment. That conversation is broken. The old questions are harmful and divisive. So how do we get from that conversation to one that's more likely to get us closer to a world that is fairer, that is more just, that's more secure? I want to suggest that what we have to do is one of the hardest things that any society can do: to redraw the boundaries of who counts, of whose life, whose rights and whose thriving matters. We need to redraw the boundaries. We need to redraw the borders of us. In order to do that, we need to first take on a worldview that's widely held but also seriously flawed. According to that worldview, there's the inside of the national boundaries, inside the nation, which is where we live, work and mind our own business. And then there's the outside; there's everywhere else. According to this worldview, when immigrants cross into the nation, they're moving from the outside to the inside, but they remain outsiders. Any power or resources they receive are gifts from us rather than rights. Now, it's not hard to see why this is such a commonly held worldview. It's reinforced in everyday ways that we talk and act and behave, down to the bordered maps that we hang up in our schoolrooms. The problem with this worldview is that it just doesn't correspond to the way the world actually works, and the way it has worked in the past. Of course, American workers have built up wealth in society. But so have immigrants, particularly in parts of the American economy that are indispensable and where few Americans work, like agriculture. Since the nation's founding, Americans have been inside the American workforce. Of course, Americans have built up institutions in society that guarantee rights. But so have immigrants. They've been there during every major social movement, like civil rights and organized labor, that have fought to expand rights in society for everyone. So immigrants are already inside the struggle for rights, democracy and freedom. And finally, Americans and other citizens of the Global North haven't minded their own business, and they haven't stayed within their own borders. They haven't respected other nations' borders. They've gone out into the world with their armies, they've taken over territories and resources, and they've extracted enormous profits from many of the countries that immigrants are from. In this sense, many immigrants are actually already inside American power. With this different map of inside and outside in mind, the question isn't whether receiving countries are going to let immigrants in. They're already in. The question is whether the United States and other countries are going to give immigrants access to the rights and resources that their work, their activism and their home countries have already played a fundamental role in creating. With this new map in mind, we can turn to a set of tough, new, urgently needed questions, radically different from the ones we've asked before -- questions that might change the borders of the immigration debate. Our three questions are about workers' rights, about responsibility and about equality. First, we need to be asking about workers' rights. How do existing policies make it harder for immigrants to defend themselves and easier for them to be exploited, driving down wages, rights and protections for everyone? When immigrants are threatened with roundups, detention and deportations, their employers know that they can be abused, that they can be told that if they fight back, they'll be turned over to ICE. When employers know that they can terrorize an immigrant with his lack of papers, it makes that worker hyper-exploitable, and that has impacts not only for immigrant workers but for all workers. Second, we need to ask questions about responsibility. What role have rich, powerful countries like the United States played in making it hard or impossible for immigrants to stay in their home countries? Picking up and moving from your country is difficult and dangerous, but many immigrants simply do not have the option of staying home if they want to survive. Wars, trade agreements and consumer habits rooted in the Global North play a major and devastating role here. What responsibilities do the United States, the European Union and China -- the world's leading carbon emitters -- have to the millions of people already uprooted by global warming? And third, we need to ask questions about equality. Global inequality is a wrenching, intensifying problem. Income and wealth gaps are widening around the world. Increasingly, what determines whether you're rich or poor, more than anything else, is what country you're born in, which might seem great if you're from a prosperous country. But it actually means a profoundly unjust distribution of the chances for a long, healthy, fulfilling life. When immigrants send money or goods home to their family, it plays a significant role in narrowing these gaps, if a very incomplete one.