Yin, yang and the immigration crisis

Lowell Harp
Posted 2/20/24

Americans believe two things about immigration. One is that a nation must be able to guard its borders from unwanted outsiders. The other is that immigrants are good for the country and should be encouraged to come here.

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Yin, yang and the immigration crisis


Americans believe two things about immigration. One is that a nation must be able to guard its borders from unwanted outsiders. The other is that immigrants are good for the country and should be encouraged to come here.

A Pew Research Center poll published in September of 2022 reflects the tension between those sentiments. Solid majorities of participants supported increased border security as well as deportations of immigrants who are here illegally. But they also gave strong support for pro-immigrant policies, including procedures to enable illegal immigrants and their children to legally remain in the U.S.

Maybe the Senate’s aborted bipartisan national security and border bill would have helped resolve that apparent inconsistency. We’ll never know, in the wake of the Republicans’ 11th-hour change of heart. The bill would have put in place two things that they’ve long demanded—tighter restrictions on immigration and increased funding for enforcement.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol encounters with undocumented immigrants continue to skyrocket. William A. Galston, in the Jan. 31, 2024 Wall Street Journal, reports that they’ve risen from fewer than half a million in 2020 to more than five times that many in 2023, and promise to go higher still in 2024. Migrants know that border officials are overwhelmed, and they’re taking advantage of it.

Congress must somehow overcome its usual paralysis if we’re to get a grip on this crisis, but simply tightening up on restrictions and enforcement won’t likely solve it. Forbes Magazine contributor Stuart Anderson (forbes.com, May, 8, 2023) cites research covering 100 years of Border Patrol apprehensions. It shows that when immigration rates went down it was because of conditions in people’s home countries instead of enforcement in the U.S.

Illegal crossings have persisted in spite of dramatic increases in spending on enforcement. The American Immigration Council’s website reveals their scope: almost double the number of border agents from 2003 to 2019; nearly triple the number of agents devoted to internal enforcement and deportation in that same period; and an annual budget that has grown more than ten-fold since 1993.

Illegal immigration’s stubborn resistance to these efforts is an example of what was famously demonstrated during the Prohibition era of the 1920s — when people can’t get what they want legally, they’ll find ways to get it anyway. Restrictive immigration laws have likewise tended to increase illegal immigration, and all the ills that go with it.

The ancient Chinese coined a term for situations like this — yin and yang. It’s a choice between two things that are opposite and yet at the same time tied so closely together that you can’t have one without the other. The wise course is to find the right balance between them instead of striving for only one or the other.

That means, in the case of immigration, a balance between the yang of rejection and the yin of acceptance — between enforcement of border laws on the one hand, and, on the other, pro-immigrant policies that encourage voluntary obedience to the law.

Opening the door for more immigrants to enter legally could help provide that balance, and soften the harmful side effects that come from enforcement. Gateways through official ports of entry would lessen the pressures on our overwhelmed ICE and Border Patrol agents. They could then monitor and regulate new arrivals instead of chasing them in our southwestern deserts.

Massive numbers of immigrants can arouse deeply-ingrained fears of being overwhelmed and replaced by outsiders, but America has absorbed large numbers of immigrants in the past. The Migration Policy Institute’s website reveals that the proportion of immigrants living in the United States today is about the same as it was between 1860 and 1930 — around 13 percent. The Irish, Italians and eastern Europeans who surged into the country at that time aroused the same misgivings that many us feel today. Their descendants are now an unquestioned part of our society and politics.

It’ll take patience for the inevitable bumps along the way, and a willingness to give yin and yang each its due, to repeat that success story with today’s immigrants.

Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs periodically in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at http://fb.me/lowellharp.