Immigration honesty: A middle road in the immigration debate
© Greg Nash

As a political scientist, I am constantly frustrated with how anecdote and emotion drive our policy making. Actual public policy is far less likely to be shaped by scientific, data-driven analysis than by a well-told, emotionally arresting story that captures the public’s attention. But such subjective approaches rarely produce sound policy. Too often an affecting narrative from a sympathetic case produces outcomes that fly in the face of evidence, historical fact and data.

As such, I am hesitant to invoke personal experience and family biography to weigh in on the ever-exasperating immigration conflict. Yet the tenor of that debate is so crude and caricatured that I feel justified in drawing on my experience as a foster dad of two young male refugees to add some nuance. The two poles on the immigration debate are based mostly upon competing, one-dimensional portraits of immigrants in America. For conservative hard liners, immigrants severely threaten jobs and economic security for working class Americans; they cling to their culture, refusing to absorb central American values; they freeload off our social welfare system and inject more crime and disorder into our society. The benighted view that open border liberals hold of immigrants could not be more dissimilar. They come seeking the promise of liberty, justice and the good life, they are hard-working and motivated to achieve economic and academic success and are an unqualified boon to American culture and economy. While both views hold a grain of truth, putting immigrants in one box or the other is unproductive and saddles us with an unbridgeable divide on the immigration reform front.

Our household of seven includes two foster sons, both of whom came to us as teenage independent refugees. They have immeasurably enriched our lives, our neighborhood and our community. They also have presented unique and considerable challenges in parenting, schooling and societal integration. Our experiences as foster parents to two refugees offer several meaningful observations that can constructively inform the larger policy debate.

Treat Immigrants as Individuals. Our boys could not be more different. One is African and the other, Latino. One was orphaned before he could remember and the other has biological parents and siblings living back home. One came here as a victim of political persecution and the other was trafficked for child labor. One is loud, charismatic, supremely confident and fit into his school and culture with relative ease. The other is quiet and low in self-esteem, with little interest in meshing with broader English-speaking society. One entered this country through formal channels, having been designated by the United Nations for relocation. The other paid a trafficker to cross the southern border where he was jailed for seven months and then released into the possession of a social service agency. Countless other contrasts exist between them, and they offer widely divergent sketches of the reality of immigrant life and its attendant positives and challenges. Meaningful immigration deliberation must put aside overly broad categorical labels and acknowledge and account for the limitless diversity and difference running through immigrant communities.

Every Immigrant is a Blessing . . . We need to be honest about the contributions AND demands made by immigrants. Both of our sons are hard-working and eager to hold down jobs. Our older foster son became an American citizen last year. He is close to completing college, something no one would have predicted when he first arrived. He just spent a semester interning with our U.S. congressman, to rave reviews. He will almost surely be a professional success. He is a charmingly upbeat and outsized personality who encourages everyone around him. Our society is the better for his being a member of it.

. . . and a Burden. Meanwhile, our younger foster son is admittedly something of an encumbrance on our community and the state. Coming from abject poverty in rural Guatemala, his sole purpose for coming was to live a better life and make money to send home. While a legitimate anti-poverty measure, that money is not being circulated through the U.S. economy. Lacking any appreciation for education or its value, he has struggled to pass minimally demanding, blended ESL classes. Tutoring, in-class teacher aids and other resources are barely enough to overcome his apathy, his sleeping through class and his struggles with English. Undoubtedly, the presence of our son and others like him makes our high schools’ jobs of educating all students that much more difficult. I firmly believe in our son’s value to us and the community, but we should be honest about the stresses to our institutions.

The Public Cost is Significant. Our boys were lucky. They both had legal status, which allowed them to be placed in a supportive home environment. The majority of their peers were not so fortunate. They remain in limbo, stuck in detention centers or group homes where their lives and care are subsidized indefinitely at taxpayers’ expense. Moreover, the judicial backlog stemming from the precipitous increase in border crossings means these public costs will run on for years.

The Personal is the Political (or . . . it takes a village). One’s stance on immigration is far less important than a willingness to personally invest in the lives of immigrants and their families. My wife and I are well-educated, middle-to-upper middle-class professionals. We’re reasonable, competent parents who simply were not up to the task of parenting foster sons on our own. A key circle of support came from our church, a rather conservative congregation where many were more politically likely to side with Republican hardliners on border security, but who enthusiastically embraced our foster sons. We eagerly received help with academic tutoring, learning how to drive, rides to and from sports practices and the countless medical and court appointments, mentoring and counselling, arranging for summer employment and more. The flourishing of immigrants and their ability to efficaciously navigate life in America rests on others’ willingness to provide aid in ways both large and small.

In the end, the immigration debate belies the complexities of the lived reality. A path through to meaningful reform might become possible if both sides spent less time engaging in overly simplistic rhetoric painting immigrants as saints or demons, and more time involved in the real lives of immigrants and those with whom they live.

David Ryden is a professor of political science at Hope College in Holland, Mich.