Should the United States restrict immigration?
Well, let’s start with our values. America was conceived as a haven of refuge—Thomas Paine says so in Common Sense—for people fleeing from religious and political repression and violence all over the world. He said we would be an “asylum for mankind,” and he did not mean an insane asylum. So all of us, except the descendants of slaves and Native Americans, are the progeny of immigrants. That’s more than a statement of fact, it’s a statement of values, most beautifully memorialized in Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty. It’s interesting to look at the words—it’s about the people who were the throwaways and castaways of every society, “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
I realize that there’s another theory out there, which the alt-right has been promoting, that America is a nation defined by white supremacy. I choose not to see it that way—whether you say it as praise or criticism, it just strikes me as wrong to say that’s the central meaning of the American experiment. We obviously have deep roots in white supremacy, but this is an evil we’ve rebelled against. We’ve gone through periods of intense xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling, but we’ve also come through these periods and returned to our better angels.
Do Jews have a special responsibility toward immigrants?
For Jews, the current crisis has both theological and historical resonance. There’s that beautiful passage, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). There’s something profound and chilling about that. Passover calls for all Jews to think of themselves as the slaves and stateless refugees in Exodus, seeking freedom and security in a new homeland. And even for more secular Jews, our historical experience as a people speaks strongly to what it means to be a refugee from state violence. Most American Jews hear in childhood the stories of the St. Louis ship being turned away from America with German Jews on board, people looking for refuge from Nazism. We identify with the outsiders.
Does what’s happening at the border reflect a broad desire to reduce immigration levels overall?
The basic fact of politics is that everything touches everything else and we’re paying the price now for the toxic politics of the 2016 presidential campaign, which featured Donald Trump’s demagogic appeals to a lot of Americans facing economic uncertainty and collapse. The Democratic Party did not speak nearly so effectively to that insecurity. Trump spoke to it by ruthlessly scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims and immigrants, trading on people’s fears and anxieties. We’re harvesting the bitter fruit of that poison campaign today. Obviously, building the wall and bashing immigrants won’t do anything to create jobs and rebuild the deindustrialized parts of America. It’s fool’s gold and an irrelevant distraction from America’s need to revitalize our communities and reinvest in our infrastructure. But that’s what Trump had to sell.
What about the argument that Americans oppose only illegal immigration?
If we’re talking about the legality of what’s happening on the border, America is a signatory to international treaties governing the treatment of refugees and migrants and people petitioning for asylum. So when we take children away from their parents in America, it’s a hallmark of authoritarian government, a violation of international law and of due process under our constitution. It is also a betrayal of our heritage as a land that was created for immigrants.
I do not favor a policy of open borders, and I do think that we have to respect the rule of law, but part of the rule of law is that people who arrive here seeking asylum, because they’re fleeing domestic or gang or government violence, have a right to a hearing in which a judge decides whether they are facing a credible fear of persecution if they return.
Does letting illegal immigrants stay mean we are encouraging lawbreaking?
No, people understand the complex dynamics of migration in our hemisphere and want to be both realistic and decent. The number of illegal entries to the country is way down. Apparently, just having Donald Trump as president is deterrent enough! A very high percentage of the people coming in now are trying to save their lives from the chaos in Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. The wall does nothing to address the real problems people face and Americans know that. The majority of Americans are actually opposed to building a wall, even in border states.
Democrats have not only offered but repeatedly spent billions on increased border enforcement. We’re not for open borders; we want to see the laws enforced, but we also understand that the country has put the value of welcoming refugee immigrants pretty high up on the list of things that matter. And a lot of us in America today, both Democrats and Republicans, come from families who arrived in this country without any legal documentation or status.
Is the distinction between legal and illegal immigration being purposely blurred?
The rhetoric of my GOP colleagues used to be that they opposed just illegal immigration and wanted to make sure everyone came here in the lawful way. The problem is that, at the same time, they have been systematically trying to reduce the levels of legal immigration. They are also proposing to end the policy of family reunification—the traditional kind, not the kind in the news—and replace it with what they’re calling merit-based admission to the country. That’s the sophisticated version of what Trump said at the White House that day when he said we don’t need people from [blank]-hole countries but from places like Norway. So at this point, the Republicans have pretty much come out of the closet as being opposed to immigration generally, whether lawful or undocumented.
Rep. Jamie Raskin is a Democratic congressman for Maryland’s 8th district.