President-elect Donald Trump has targeted refugees and undocumented immigrants as fundamental threats to American society. Believing that “Islam hates us,” he regards refugees from Islamic societies as serious security threats, and, at various, times has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, the registration of all Muslims in the U.S., and the “extreme vetting” of potential immigrants.
He is no less blunt about undocumented immigrants from Mexico, who he says, “… are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. [And] they’re rapists….” In response he demands, among other things, a “great wall” to halt illegal immigration from Mexico (to be paid for by the Mexican government), the deportation of millions of “criminal aliens,” and the stripping of federal funding from cities that do not cooperate with federal efforts to round up the undocumented.
We categorically reject all such proposals. As the world’s richest country with a population of 320 million people, the U. S. can easily absorb a far larger share of the 5.5 million Syrians who have fled that war-ravaged country in the last five years. Over 2.7 million of these impoverished people are now living in Turkey, and there are at least 660,000 in Lebanon, where they now comprise 20% of the total population. If these numbers are not reduced, or if conditions in the refugee camps are not improved, the refugees’ uncontrolled and deadly exodus to Europe will continue and regional instability will spread. Thus, mitigating the refugee crisis has major practical implications.
It is also a moral imperative. Although the U.S. has absorbed over 800,000 refugees with few problems since 2001, at the beginning of 2016 we had taken only about 10,000 from Syria. That number must be substantially increased, and can be without relaxing the thorough vetting process. Indeed, with 21.3 million refugees in exile today, the U.S. and other rich countries must do far more to resettle those most in danger and to meet the needs of the vast majority relegated to makeshift settlements in which survival is a challenge and hope in short supply.
The issue of undocumented Mexicans could also be solved without resort to Trump’s draconian measures. The vast majority of the estimated 11 million undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. are law abiding, hard working people, who make important contributions to our economy and culture. Most of them came here compelled by market forces set in motion by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994. This agreement, predicated on the flawed idea of the comparable modernity of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, allows the free flow of capital and goods among them. Labor, however, may not cross borders freely.
NAFTA has certainly benefitted many firms, provided some jobs to workers in all three countries, and lowered consumer prices. It has also disastrously impacted some workers, but especially in Mexico, where living standards remain far lower and life is much more precarious than in the more developed northern economies. For example, as cheap imports of American corn ruined millions of Mexican small farmers, the latter then often simply followed the laws of the market and headed north, where they were readily absorbed into the U.S. labor force regardless of their legality.
If Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA, let him apply the laws of the capitalist marketplace. Let workers and their families follow the job market freely among the member states. Connect them into each state’s respective systems of taxation and social security. Take them out of the shadows, where they are easily exploited and live in fear, and let them become members of the community where they live and work. The European Union has been doing this for decades and there is no reason why we cannot do the same.
In sum, solving the “problem” of refugees and undocumented immigrants does not require walls and repression. It requires rejecting fear and racism, which, for Trump, may be a step too far.