Friday, May 13, 2011

Either Here Or There

I was surfing around NPR's website yesterday, and found their Double Take feature. Once or twice a day, they post two different political cartoons that deal (more or less) with the same topic. Sometimes, it's simply dueling knee-jerk partisanship. Other times, the cartoons have some semblance of a point outside of simplistic ideology.

One of the topics they tackled today was that of immigration; specifically, immigration from Mexico. As is usual, the comics were simple and aimed at the emotional hot buttons of people who had already made up their minds one way or another. Which was a pity, because there's actually a fairly important, and remarkably straightforward, conflict that underlies the issue.

On the one hand, we recognize that people often require the ability to move to other places if they are going to do better for themselves, and so we often support the basic idea of migration as a right. This, accordingly, demands that other nations have an obligation to allow free passage over borders.

On the other hand, we also recognize that nations should be allowed to have control over their borders - the right to establish requirements, procedures and criteria concerning entry. Naturally, this requires that people be obligated to respect those controls.

But, given those two concepts, both may not be absolute at the same time - the right of a person to migrate where and when they please invalidates border controls, and absolute border controls mean that the ability to migrate would always be subject to approval by a second party. In turn this divides people into constituencies, based on which precept they privilege over the other. Those people who are more supportive of the right of migration tend to expect that the border controls of desirable destination nations should be only as restrictive as the migrants are willing to follow - which, to be honest, goes a long way towards rendering pointless the controls in the first place. Conversely, the constituency for the supremacy of national control over borders, while not usually in the camp of completely sealing the nation off, tend to desire an immigration scheme that serves their purposes, which commonly leave most migrants out in the cold.

Of course, both sides also have other agendas. It's common for supporters of lowered immigration to be portrayed as fearing marginalization at the hands of an "immigrant" majority, and migrants and there supporters are often cast as simply looking for a place with more resources available to them than their home nations. Each side does its best to portray the other as wrong-headed at best, and malicious at worst. And the business and labor communities do their best to frame the issue in whatever way benefits them most at the moment.

But in the end, we are left with two competing priorities. And unless we put them in the ring and let them duke it out, this is going to be an eternal argument, littered with half-measures posing as solutions that satisfy no-one.

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