Common Sense 2.0 is a series by former Senator Tom Coburn that will look at modern issues through a first principles lens.
The debate about immigration is an open wound in our nation. Elements in both parties want to keep it that way. Understanding why can help people of good will drive a solution.
The current impasse was largely created in 2012 when President Obama circumvented Congress with his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Obama undermined the rule of law and put immigrants in legal jeopardy by acting unilaterally. President Trump was severely criticized for attempting to enforce the law. Then, President Trump reversed himself but that wasn’t good enough for his critics.
Some in Congress implied Trump could “fix” the problem but also said a “legislative fix” wasn’t necessary. But if the president can’t repair our nation’s broken immigration system then clearly there is a role for Congress. This selective reasoning illustrates that some in Congress are more interested in using immigration as a political issue than finding a solution.
The immigration fiasco illustrates that in Washington the enemy of compromise isn’t principle but careerism – governing to win the next election above all else. Careerism is a more powerful force in Washington than ideology. The devotion to one’s self-preservation and self-protection blocks decisions that involve risk and self-sacrifice even when those decisions are in the best interest of others and the nation. Differences are real but they are hyped and exaggerated. The perfect political moment to compromise and solve problems is always a mirage that is just beyond the horizon of the next election cycle.
The compromise on immigration is already woven into the fabric of our nation. In 1630, John Winthrop boarded the Arabella to cross the ocean to the New World. While in transit he delivered a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity” in which challenged the communities that would become the United States to be a “shining city on a hill.”
Winthrop said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
President from both parties have embraced this idea. President Kennedy quoted Winthrop frequently as did President Reagan.
In his farewell address, Reagan described what he meant when he referred to the city on a hill. He said, “In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace … And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
What Reagan articulated was a compromise. We have walls but also doors. Both are equally important and always have been.
Today, too many politicians imply immigration is a false choice between laws and compassion. We can have tough laws or compassion but not both. Reagan understood the rule of law is a framework for compassion. Compassion in a nation governed by laws isn’t sentimental but clear headed and sustainable. If someone is thirsty you don’t spill water at their feet. Instead, you hand them a glass that has borders, structure and order. The rule of law delivers compassion.
The line in Winthrop’s sermon that is especially relevant today is to not “deal falsely” with one another. Sadly, most of what we hear in the immigration debate is political theater that is designed to titillate audiences and advance careers. Portraying aspiring Americans as fundamentally lawless or portraying laws as fundamentally racist is base politics at its worst.
With the exception of Native Americans and those who were brought here involuntarily through slavery we’re all immigrants who benefited from America’s historic walls with doors compromise. Today’s immigration debate is amnesty for career politicians who lack the courage to solve problems. Rediscovering and reapplying Winthrop’s wisdom, as Reagan did, is the key to real reform.