One day I'd love to understand why conservatives seem so good at public relations, while liberals, at ridicule. I've had a chance to confirm this observation with a PR writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but our conversation did not include his hypotheses as to why. Cable channel line-ups seem to bear out the observation. Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, leading conservative opinion-shapers, are on FOX News. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, of comparable influence, are on Comedy Central. Conservatives name, liberals mock: The challenge is that laughter fades.
Still, Americans have more than just dualistic political options. There has been a third equally vital ideology in the political fray for over a hundred years: progressivism. Though in America progressivism is most often associated with the politics of the left, progressives are not exclusively liberal, neither here nor around the world. The Republican party were the progressives of Lincoln's day. What seems to unite progressive thought is a commitment to analyzing a given situation and calculating what might better the situation for most stakeholders. "Progressivism is a political attitude favoring or advocating changes or reform," and it has been responsible for most, if not all, advancements that have opened up the political process and political bounty of our nation to more and more of its citizens.
Progressives have enjoyed many landmark triumphs in the American saga: abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights, ADA, and now health-care reform. Notwithstanding past victories, however, progressives can never win a debate over "illegal immigration." The terms of the debate are stacked against them. The terms themselves feed into our national self-image as "a nation of laws" -- despite the dubious morality of many laws historically. Shouldn't everyone want legal immigration? Doesn't every nation have the right to document and even regulate at will the influx of travelers into their territories? Of course they do. There's no way around this.
Nonetheless, that is not the issue at stake regarding immigration reform; that is the conservative ideological sound-bite. It's a PR statement that perpetually picks an argument that no one is having in order to distract from a critical analysis of the injustices being done in the name of it. The right to make rules says nothing about the quality of the rules made; and quality is an intricately complex issue; and complexity is by nature adverse to sound-bites. The issue is not whether there should be rules for the orderly entrance and egress of U.S. migrants, or whether U.S. migrants should have to follow those rules -- both simple fights to pick over and over and over and over ad nauseam. The real issue is how we regulate -- honestly, equitably, and justly.
Honesty, equity, and justice are not ethereal concepts. They are very tangible ideals enshrined in our nation's constitution as goals toward which we should strive to forever perfect. We cannot be honest if we ignore the truths regarding the specific groups of people our immigration laws have and currently favor or inhibit. We cannot be equitable if we continue to ignore the fact that the persistent attention given to our southern boarder belies the fact that we are no more secure to the north or through our ports. In fact our southern boarder has more natural impediments than the others. Any determined threat would look for the path of least resistance, not greatest. So an almost exclusive focus on the southern boarder can't be about security; it must have additional motivation, with the potential threat being equal on all sides. And we cannot be just if we ignore the abominable duplicity of migrating to a land in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, sheltered by the good graces of those who were already here, then writing laws that inhibit specific demographics from following suit.
Progressives can't win an argument about "illegal immigration." But the fact is they shouldn't try. It's a PR distraction that has served conservatives (and occasionally liberals) well. What progressives can take exception to -- and should -- are immoral impediments to the pursuits of human dignity -- the basic human dignities of providing food, shelter, education, health care, and opportunities for one's self and one's family.
While it is highly unlikely that a mere shift in language would accomplish the deep shift in conversation that needs to take place in order to do justly, love equity, walk honesty, it is a necessary start. Jesus made a very similarly politically consequential linguistic shift when he said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven ... [For] if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?"
Not everybody gets it, but if we take off the table meaningless language of "illegal immigration" that obscures the fact that we are a nation of illegal immigrants by someone else's perspective, a generation from now there will be few for whom that name even resonates.
Melvin Bray is coordinating author of Stories in Which We Find Ourselves, a 'post-ism' Bible story project. He is also one of many hosts of 2010 Emergent Village Theological Conversation: Creating Liberated Spaces in a Post-Colonial World -- November 1-3, 2010. If you were interested in the "Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?" article, you'll definitely be interested in this conversation.