The “What Kind of Country do We Want to Be?” Question

I have often said that there are three basic questions that our political process has to answer anew in each generation:

  1. What kind of stuff do we want to do?
  2. How do we want to pay for our stuff?
  3. What kind of country do we want to be?

The first two questions take up the most of our time, and they create most of our partisan divisions.

Liberals, in the modern era, can usefully be defined as people who want to do a lot of stuff and have the government pay for it. Conservatives, on the other hand, can be just as usefully described as people who don’t want to pay for all of the liberal’s stuff.

From time to time, however — perhaps no more than once in a generation — we are called on to answer the much bigger question, “What kind of country do we want to be?”

Do we want to be an isolated industrial nation or a or a world military power? That was the question for the generation that fought World War II. Do we want to be a nation of equal laws and equal rights or an apartheid state? That was what we had to answer during the Civil Rights Era.

Immigration is shaping up to be our generation’s “What kind of country do we want to be?” question.

As many have pointed out, we have a long tradition of being a nation of immigrants. That is true, but “What kind of country have we been?” is not quite the same question as, “What kind of country do we want to be?” Immigration policies that made sense when we had a small population and huge tracts of land do not necessarily make sense for a nation of 300,000,000 people and limited resources.

By the same token, though, the reactive nativism that has recently taken hold in America makes little sense for a country experiencing acute labor shortages in its agricultural sector. Our current immigration policy is so driven by ideology that it cannot ask the very pragmatic question, “How many people should we allow to immigrate legally?”

But the biggest problem with the current immigration standoff is that we have allowed it to become mixed up with the very different, but equally important question, “How should we treat human beings who come to our country seeking refuge?” This question has nothing to do with building walls, or securing the border, or preventing people from breaking our laws.

The thousands of people sitting in American detention centers today, many of them children, are not evidence of a border that we have failed to secure. It is precisely because we do secure the border that they have been arrested and detained trying to cross it.

Turning this into an issue of border security misses almost everything about the point. This is a question of whether or not we want to be a compassionate people. It is a question of what kind of country we want to be.

The people coming to the United States are fleeing very real problems in Central America: drug gangs, sexual violence, extreme poverty — a good deal of which stems from America’s past economic policies and current drug laws. They are coming here because they believe that our country is more compassionate than the countries they are leaving. They are refugees in the purist sense of the word. They are seeking refuge.

I believe that we should take their requests for asylum seriously. This does not mean that we should always grant it, or that we should immediately declare them citizens or give them food stamps and free health care. There are options in between immediate deportation and unconditional integration.

But the rush to deport them all immediately — which in many cases will lead to them being killed outright or subjected to the evils of human trafficking — is being driven by an extreme nativist ideology that has no room for human compassion.

And that is simply not the kind of country that I want to be.