Brexit: Thoughts for Immigration Reform in the U.S.

This last week witnessed an historic vote in Britain. 52% of the voters said that they wanted to leave the European Union (EU). It is no secret that a significant motivation of many was the surge in unwanted immigration – a surge that was felt to be dangerous to the nation’s safety and destructive of its cultural heritage. Quickly, those working on this side of the Atlantic for immigration reform raised a call of alarm that those same sentiments would be used in this country’s buildup to the November elections.

I do not doubt that this is true, but I would like to make some observations that could be helpful in any interchange with those who are against immigration reform.

  • First, it is clear to anyone who is aware of Britain’s tenure in the EU that it has never been without its problems, whether due to historical, financial, political, or military priorities and convictions. In other words, there is a longer history at work here. To reduce the issues behind Brexit to this particular moment in immigration is to misrepresent nationalist forces that have been stewing for years. Undoubtedly, immigration was an important trigger, but not the only one. It reinforced deep-seeded feelings long held by many. It was a key motivation, not the only reason for the vote.
  • Second, immigration into the U.S. has been quite different than that into the UK. This country has received millions from Latin America, which shares a broad religious connection and value system through different Christian expressions (largely Roman Catholic). Many others, such as Asians, Africans and Middle-Easterners and the like have come on study and short-term worker visas. This is quite different than what the British see and perceive, where there are those who have come in to settle do not share some sort of Christian heritage and where there have been significant cases of religious and cultural leaders that radicalize youth. The overwhelming numbers of those fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and problems in Africa also are stretching the social services across Europe at historic levels. Many thousands are seeking entry, with refugee camps and facilities being set up within national borders. Nothing that stark and immeditate is visible here. The immigration realities are different.
  • Third, opponents to immigration reform in the UK bring up legitimate questions. One may not agree with their analyses or the solutions, but questions about the health-care service, schools, national security, etc. are necessary ones. Value commitments cannot evade the pragmatic.
  • Fourth and last, the experiences on the ground in Britain are emotion-packed. It will not do to ignore that there are significant challenges that Britain faces at many levels—political, economic, and cultural. Their country is indeed changing, and that is not easy. It also will not do to try to explain away too flippantly the extremism of some of the immigrants and their descendants and not empathize with the bombings that the UK has experienced (and thwarted). There are very real emotions that should be allowed to have a voice in order to engage those people who disagree with immigration reform. To deny or demonize them (both those people and their feelings) is to fall into the scapegoating that all should condemn.

In other words, I am calling for wisdom – wisdom with how to engage a tense time in history in order to make conversation possible and constructive. Those who advocate for reform IN THIS COUNTRY should appreciate the historical complexities of the moment; we should not make simplistic parallels between Europe and the U.S.; we need to think through the pragmatic ramifications of reform to make our case; and, last, we should allow those who disagree with us the freedom to express their frustrations, fears, and anger (especially those who may have lost loved ones or have lost jobs to immigrants).

My experience has been that those who have disagreed with me just want to be able to give their point of view and to share their experiences without being dismissed or condemned. It is too easy for both sides to make everything a zero-sum, all or nothing battle to win. We should be willing to listen and engage in meaningful dialogue for the good of all. We need to work for national consensus, even as we labor on our projects for transformation.

June 27, 2016

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