Heading Into 2017, Our Country Is at an Ethical Crossroads

December 16, 2016 • Columnists, Youth

(Originally published in the Dec. 16, 2016-Jan. 26, 2017 Holiday Issue of Pacific Citizen.)

By Matthew Ormseth

The incoming Trump regime is disturbing on more levels than one, but for Japanese Americans, it is the president-elect’s rhetoric on immigrants that sounds the loudest alarm bells and raises the reddest of flags.

Nearly 70 years after the signing of Executive Order 9066, we have a president-elect who has advocated for increased policing of mosques and Muslim neighborhoods, a ban on immigration from Muslim countries and a registry for all Muslims living in the United States.

Donald Trump’s campaign tapped into a wellspring of deep-seated xenophobia, fingering immigrants and foreigners — particularly those from Mexico and the Middle East — as the culprits behind a laundry list of societal ills.

Unemployment is the fault of Mexicans willing to work for less than American workers. Illegal drug use is also the Mexicans’ fault — they brought the drugs with them when they entered our country illegally.

Trump has played up the fear of domestic terrorism, vowing to subject Muslim immigrants to “extreme vetting” to weed out agents of Islamic terror while ignoring the fact that the most violent and active domestic terrorists are the white nationalist groups that supported his campaign.

Our president-elect’s promise to restrict immigration has brought our country to an ethical crossroads. It’s true that globalization has hurt the American worker, and our leaders need to keep livable-wage jobs from fleeing the country.

The Obama administration likes to cite a dwindling unemployment rate as evidence of the country’s recovery, but that figure paints an incomplete picture of job prospects in America.

Americans might be going back to work, but they aren’t working the good jobs that pay $20 an hour, with benefits and a pension. They’re working at fast-food restaurants, grocery stores and call centers. American workers have suffered, and Trump’s promises to bring the good jobs back resonated with them.

But his promises place a higher premium on American job prospects than the safety of refugees threatened by violence, abject poverty or both.

On his campaign website, Trump vowed to “establish new immigration controls to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to American workers first.” Trump talks a lot about national security, but this promise — “to ensure that open jobs are offered to American workers first” — betrays the true reason behind his dreams of a wall.

Trump made a lot of promises to American workers, many of which he knows he can’t keep.

He can’t stop factories from moving overseas without offering them enormous tax breaks (like he did with the Carrier plant in Indianapolis). Nor can he stop factories from replacing human labor with automation.

His only chance to put Americans back to work is to keep the pool of job seekers low, and he’s going to do that by deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and beefing up border security to keep them out for good.

He’s not worried so much about national security as he is about putting his supporters back to work, and for lack of a true economic agenda — or any understanding of economics in general — kicking out immigrants and keeping them out is the best he can do.

Consider this decision from the perspective of the immigrant. Immigrants from Mexico are fleeing cartels that gun down, hang and behead Mexican citizens on a regular basis, as well as poor schools and a dearth of job prospects.

Immigrants from the Middle East are trying to escape civil war, sectarian violence and radical terrorism in their homelands. Every day, their stay further jeopardizes the lives of them and their family. When we elected Trump, we told them we valued our job prospects over their safety.

Consider, too, the arbitrary nature of borders, not only in their placement but also in our placement.

It wasn’t through any merit of our own that we came to enjoy the safety and prosperity found inside America’s borders. Most of us were born here.

Some Americans have had to struggle through the long, complicated immigration process, but most of us — myself included — just got lucky. What right do I have to tell an immigrant from some war-torn part of the globe to go back, that they have no right to the freedom, safety and economic prosperity I was born into?

If I have a right to live anywhere I choose within America’s borders, why is that right denied to people who have suffered more than me, worked harder than me, simply because they were born in a poor or dangerous part of the world?

A philosophy professor from the University of West England named Phillip Cole addressed the ethics of restricting migration in a 2012 lecture to the Conway Hall Ethical Society in London.

“The basic liberal principle is that it is unfair for people to get more or less than others based on factors beyond their control, rather than based on their autonomous decisions,” Cole said. “Which side of a border one is born on is certainly not under one’s control, and so it seems unfair to allow it to determine one’s life chances . . . and yet we don’t seem to consider the determination of life prospects by the randomness of birth to be rare or exceptional at all — we just accept it to be morally legitimate. But how bizarre is that?”

It’s not just unfair to keep someone in danger because they were unlucky enough to be born in a bad part of the world — it’s immoral. It’s ethically wrong. Concerns from the right about our country’s “cultural values” or “cultural coherence” being washed away in a tsunami of immigrants are callous.

Syrians are being gassed, bombed and starved by their own government, and we’d prefer to keep them out so we don’t have to see someone in a hijab walking down our street. It’s morally indefensible.

Another refrain from the right: Granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants is unfair to those who did it the right way. That may be true on some abstract level, where fairness is valued above safety. Following that logic, it would be wrong to treat someone with a heart attack before someone with a broken arm, if the guy with the broken arm got there first.

It’s an analogy that’s not so far from the truth. I interviewed a family from Afghanistan who had sought political asylum in Connecticut. The father had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, and as troops began pulling out of Kabul, he was afraid he’d be targeted for helping the Americans.

His suspicions were confirmed when gunmen opened fire on his car one night. He survived unharmed, but he knew he had to get his family out of the country. He managed to secure visas for his family, but he said he would’ve hired a human trafficker to smuggle them into Europe if he couldn’t get them.

Those with the means and the time to immigrate legally are the ones who need it least, he said.

It’s the ones in the worst danger who can’t afford to wait.

Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.

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