Over the Line?

Dick Durbin says then what ought to be said now:

Centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) signed a letter to President Obama Monday calling on him not to allow another Syrian refugee into the country unless federal authorities can guarantee with 100-percent assurance they are not connected to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Other Democrats have rejected freezing Obama’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the current fiscal year.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said halting the program “is a simplistic reaction to a very complicated challenge.”

“Background checks need to be redoubled in terms of refugees but if we’re talking about threats to the United States, let’s put this in perspective,” he said.

Durbin noted that each year 70,000 refugees from around the world are resettled in the United States after two years of vetting while millions of foreign visitors enter the United States as visitors.

“Let us not just single out the refugees as the potential source of danger in the United States,” he said.

Measured, thoughtful and IMO correct. If, however, you respond to an oversimplification with another oversimplification, e.g. Trump = Ebola x Hitler, then you lose your ability to credibly criticize oversimplification.

Given the widespread and vitriolic reaction to the temporary freeze, I’m trying to figure out if I missed something. Maybe this is one of those times when Trump really crossed the line, and I’m just not willing to admit it? That’s certainly possible and I did a fair amount of digging to persuade myself that I’m wrong, but I’m still not persuaded.

If you agree that:

  • Borders should not be open (and there are certainly reasonable arguments that they should);
  • That would-be entrants ought to be vetted;
  • That one of the things they ought to be vetted for is their willingness to abide by liberal norms and play by our rules; and
  • That vetting should reasonably incorporate context, including the reliability of local information and other probabilistic indicators of the applicant’s willingness to abide by liberal norms and play by our rules;

Then it’s hard to be truly offended by the EO. You can disagree with its breadth and its lack of precision. You can disagree with the innumerate fear of terror relative to the risk. You can argue that explicitly focusing on probabilistic indicators that even partially align with religion (no matter if they’re valid) are symbolically harmful and counterproductive. You can object to the total freeze (although it permits exceptions), as opposed to simply raising the bar. These are all objections, however, regarding the details of the EO, and not the principle. If, as a practical matter, the flow of migrants from war torn countries with a predilection for overt hostility to liberal norms temporarily ground to a halt, you might say “we ought to do more,” but outrage?

I think that in order to be truly offended by the EO one has to interpret it as a Muslim Ban, which it obviously isn’t. At best, the EO signals dislike or suspicion of Muslims–and there is certainly some truth to that, especially given Bannon’s prior remarks on the Judeo-Christian culture war with the Muslim world (among others). Likewise, the explicit reference to persecuted minorities, implies that Muslims will face more scrutiny than others from the exact same places.

But again, Egypt is not on this list. Malasia is not on this list. Morocco is not on this list. [Note: I’m not convinced they took the list from Obama, but if not that, something like it. This unpersuasive Politifact “Mostly False” rating, however, makes Trump’s claim seem more persuasive.] Moreover, the bad guys and gals in these places on the list are Muslim and it’s their rigid Muslimness that–in their own view of the world–distinguishes them from other people. Similarly, given the relative instability of these places, it is easier for the most motivated bad guys and gals to congregate and thrive. Put it this way: if you understand why a man and his boyfriend are unwilling to hold hands in Mogadishu (or go there in the first place), then you understand the EO.


I think the deeper objection comes not to the EO or its policy on refugees specifically, but to its broader “We’re Not Europe” symbolism. To be clear, some Progressives view that stance in the same light as a Muslim ban, like the Remainers who chalked up Brexit to xenophobia. A more uniquely American iteration of that view is the “We’re a nation of immigrants” refrain, popular in the libertarian/Silicon Valley crowd.

In my view, it’s a mistake to reduce “We’re not Europe” to a dislike of Muslims or immigrants. I think it reflects a sense of fairness and the perceived absence of quid pro quo. Immigrants (including Muslims) can come and avail themselves of superior cultural and legal norms and institutions to make a better life for themselves. Indeed, what makes Western cultural and legal norms and institutions superior is that anyone–regardless of race, color or creed–can win, if they play by the rules. That means, however, that there are rights and obligations. You can come, but it’s incumbent upon you to learn our ways. Grandma’s house, Grandma’s rules. The perception is that that exchange has broken down.

People who object to the current state of affairs in Europe see only rights for immigrants, but no obligations. Even worse, they perceive a political and cultural apparatus that elevates the stature of “indigenous” norms and institutions (i.e. the ones left behind) and diminishes the stature of Western norms and institutions (i.e. the ones immigrants now seek to utilize). They see that people keep coming, but those people refuse to admit that there’s anything superior about their new home. They see self-serving constituencies redirecting public resources to new-comers and insisting that the hosts are the ones who ought to fit in, even though the hosts are the ones who made that public surplus possible in the first place. They further see cultural and political elite insisting on tolerance and inclusion, while turning a blind eye to the demonstrably less tolerant and inclusive new-comers.

In short, they perceive reverse colonialism. Immigrants motivated only to exploit the relative openness and prosperity of the West, while contributing as little as possible to that openness and prosperity. Indeed, far from coming West and playing by Western rules, they see immigrants as coming West and imposing Eastern rules . . . which makes little sense if it’s Eastern rules that motivated immigrants to go West in the first place. “If your shit’s so great, then why the hell did you come here for, other than to take our stuff?” The objection isn’t even so much to the immigrants, but the . . . wait for it . . . elites who champion their cause (and the public resources that follow).

In my view, there is a lot of truth to that criticism, although it’s more complicated than that:

First, there is in fact parochialism, as well as unfair barriers to entry, that put the lie to “play by our rules and anyone can win.” I think those barriers are wildly overstated, but they are surely there, and it’s hard enough to start with nothing, so there’s no reason to make it any harder. Further, mitigating those barriers is not the same thing as turning a blind eye to the parochialism of the new-comers. Most importantly, there is, in fact, lots to learn from immigrants (and not just the engineers) and total assimilation would be a tragedy–recognizing that assimilation should be a mutually enriching experience (or a positive sum game), is not the same as diminishing the stature of the status quo. Immigration is a positive sum game; that’s why it’s generally good. [Note: The worst barriers are surely the dense thicket of regulations that exclude outsiders and raise the cost of entry for the benefit of “consumers” [regulators+competitors] and “labor” [electeds+special interests]. Similarly, efforts to alleviate the “plight” of immigrants likely knocks them off the first rung of the economic ladder more than anything else, but I digress.]

Second, immigrants are like anyone else insofar as they will try to get the most bang for their buck. If there is little incentive to assimilate, they won’t, or at least not very quickly, because assimilating is hard. That doesn’t make them bad or “exploitative.” If there are readily available public goods and services, as well as politicians, activists and civil servants eager for the opportunity to provide goods and services, then immigrants are not going to say “thanks, but no thanks, we’ll do it the really hard way.” Likewise, if there are politicians, activists and civil servants willing to say “No really, it’s we that need to learn from you–we didn’t earn any of this and we treat you so unfairly” then who’s going to disagree?

That being said, I think opponents of the “Not Europe” stand miss the mark as well:

  • For the new school of identitarian Progressives, they very much prefer the one-way street of all take, no give, (Justice is served) so they rightly perceive any push back on that model as a threat (which they call “racism” or something along those lines). In other words, they haven’t missed the mark, they just understand all too well.
  • For older school “Liberal” lefties, they are less sensitive to political economy (and would likely disagree with the Progressive model, if it were fully spelled out), but their instinct is to join the fight against perceived discrimination, if that’s what lefty institutions (now dominated by the identitarians) tell them to do. Old habits and institutional affiliations die hard.
  • For the “we’re a nation of immigrants” crowd (which also includes the old school lefties), they seem to ignore the fact that the political and cultural climate that awaits immigrants now, is not the same as it was in the early 20th Century. Immigrants then were expected to scrape tooth and nail to demonstrate that they could in fact play by the rules. To make it in the big leagues, outsiders had to prove they belonged. For a variety of reasons, that simply isn’t true anymore (rightly or wrongly), but without the extra motivation to assimilate, assimilation has become much more challenging. Indeed, identitarian Progressives actively try to prevent assimilation in its tracks. The result is that the cultural, social and fiscal cost of new entrants is much higher than it used to be, and if the conditions are different, it’s unreasonable to assume the outcome will be the same. New problems arise. Then isn’t now. More simply, “my grandfather came with nothing and worked in a sweatshop until he could afford his own store, etc.” is less likely to happen now because we don’t let it happen.

Long story short: I’ve given it a lot more thought and I still think the EO hysteria is mostly attributable to general Trump hysteria. Given how much Trump hysteria is out there, it’s a reasonable default assumption in any case, but it seems to hold up on the merits.


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