I woke up this 4th of July thinking about freedom, and whether the word still holds any true meaning at all after so many years of being debased by politicians and demagogues. So many current political debates seem to be driven by conflicting, and sometimes warped, views about freedom. For instance, I’ve seen more people waving the Confederate flag in the last two weeks than I have in the last decade. I defend the idea that they should and do have the freedom to do so, but remain puzzled that anyone would find it honorable to defend the notion of the Confederacy. A lot of the flag wavers say the flag has nothing to do with slavery, apparently having never actually read the Confederate Constitution that the flag symbolizes. It specifically denied all states within the Confederacy the power to abolish slavery, ever. If there’s still one person in America who thinks, wow, wouldn’t the world be better off if the Confederates had won… well, I don’t know their hearts well enough to label them racist, but I know enough of their brains to shake my head at their ignorance.
Another issue related to freedom is gay marriage. I don’t think that most conservatives understand how fundamentally conservative the Supreme Court’s ruling was. It’s a central premise of conservatism that government doesn’t create or grant rights. Instead, rights are innate to people, something they are born with. Basically, you have the right to do whatever you wish to do, wherever and whenever you wish to do it, as long as it doesn’t endanger or inconvenience others or our shared living space. There are rights you possess that our founding fathers never dreamed of. For example, they never imagined you’d have the right to wear the Confederate Flag on your hat. Or, more seriously, they never imagined that women had the right to vote. But, in the conservative framing, women always had the inalienable right to vote. It wasn’t a right given to them by the state. It was a right the state unjustly denied them, until the day it stopped doing so. So, for conservatives who keep saying that the right to same sex marriage isn’t found in the constitution, they’re right, but rights don’t flow from the constitution. The central question wasn’t whether the government should grant homosexual couple the right to marry. Instead, homosexuals possess the same innate rights to pair up and call it marriage as anyone else, and the central question was whether there was any plausible governmental case to deny them this right. Do they harm or even inconvenience others by their marriage? No. My preference would have been for the majority to come to their senses and recognize the right legislatively, even if this took several more years, but in the end, I think the Supreme Court made the right call.
Finally, thanks to Donald Trump, there’s been a lot of talk about illegal immigration this week. He’s taken a lot of heat for his comments, but intellectually, I’m willing to concede some of the points of his argument, assuming his meandering babble can be called an argument. By many, many metrics, Mexico isn’t sending us their “best” citizens, at least as measured in terms of economic and educational status. Mexico does have middle class, even wealthy citizens, but it’s pretty unlikely that an executive in the oil business or the owner of a chain of supermarkets in Mexico City is going to sneak across the desert in the middle of the night to live as an undocumented construction worker. If you’re a Mexican with a college education who knows computer programming, say, or architecture, you probably have legal avenues you can use if you’d like to come to America, but can probably also make a pretty decent living in your homeland. The people who sneak across the border are, on average, quite poor and likely poorly educated. The argument that our crime rates are higher than they would otherwise be without illegal immigration seems to be supported by the evidence (though, it can also be noted that our actual crime rates across the board have been falling during the same decades that illegal immigration has been rising). I’m also mostly in agreement that the presence of so many low-skilled workers depresses wages, and that large corporations favor an influx of immigrants as a way of keeping their payrolls low. If you’ve read the Grapes of Wrath, you’ll be aware that this trick has been around for a long time. Get enough poor people competing for a job, and you can pay them pennies. If the wages get too low for them, there are more desperate people waiting in line for their job.
Weighed against these arguments is the Statue of Liberty. Yes, I recognize that the poem inscribed upon her isn’t a legally binding document, but the aspiration should hold true: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The American call to freedom wasn’t sent out to only wealthy, educated, elite citizens of other nations. We might welcome great musicians and financiers and scientists, but which country on this planet doesn’t want that sort of immigrant? Some of the people most opposed to the influx of immigrants are some of the same people who are quick to proclaim that America is a Christian nation. But, isn’t it a central tenet of Christianity that you invite the beggar at the door into your home and treat him like a long-lost brother?
Look, I get that there are shared societal and economic costs to opening our arms to anyone willing to ignore our laws in order to sneak in. I understand there are dangers to doing anything that encourages people to make the trek illegally. Women and children die in the desert, abandoned by criminals who they’ve paid their last few coins to take them across the border. People come here and live in fear, and get exploited by people who feel like they’re doing them a favor by paying them cash under the table at substandard wages. I get that many of them don’t speak English, and can’t read or write, and sometimes have children here that are entitled to tax-payer supported government handouts. And, I will acknowledge that there are health risks, importing large numbers of poor people who may not be vaccinated against diseases we've mostly wiped out in this country.
But you know what? They’ve proven that they had the courage to take a chance to go after a better life. They’ve proven that they actually want to be here just by coming here. Meanwhile, I know people born in this country living on taxpayer dollars who won’t get off their couches in order to take a low wage job, let alone walk miles across a desert at night. I know Americans who’ve graduated from high school who live within a mile of a library yet haven’t touched a book since the day they escaped from education. I’ve worked with American born college graduates who didn’t have enough command of the English language to draft an email that showed even a passing familiarity with the rules of spelling or grammar. There are beloved celebrities loudly telling Americans it's dangerous to vaccinate our children. And I know people born in the United States who glorify the traitorous Confederacy, and view breaking away from our constitution and our values as a worthy and noble cause. When they visit Civil War battlefields, perhaps they think wistfully, "If only more American soldiers had perished, today we might be living under a better flag!" They get to be American by accident of birth, but we want to turn away people who actually respect our country just because they were born a few thousand miles too far south?
Ninety percent of the troubles caused by illegal immigration are actually troubles caused by our confused and broken immigration policies. We could design a fairer, better system, one designed to integrate people into our society in a way that causes less harm to them or to our legal and economic systems. With our heads, we can and should debate how to reform our laws. With our hearts, we should welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. Let them breathe free.