Thursday, December 20, 2007

Politics: toward a Buddhist immigration policy

What would a Buddhist immigration policy look like for the US (or UK)? Obviously such notions as generosity (dana) and nonviolence (ahimsa) should come to mind. Or perhaps Shantideva's simile of the hand and the foot: urging us to reach out and help others as we are all interconnected. People may also like to stretch analogies regarding the Buddha as one who broke down barriers such as caste and gender, teaching openly to all and proclaiming the same spiritual potential in all beings.

It seems that little will be found in the early Buddhist sources to condone exclusionary practices of any kind. If anything, it may be the strategy of the anti-immigration Buddhist to say that the Buddha was a bit naive in regards to these issues, and that immigration represents a special case in which it really would be better for everyone (thus an act of compassion) if big walls and even bigger prisons were erected in wait for those 'huddled masses'.

Recently, Kelly sent me a thought-provoking article by Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor, discussing the topic. It contains five recommendations (you'll have to read the article for details):
1 Overhaul admission priorities.
2 Make English the official national language.
3 Immigrants must embrace the nation's civic virtues.
4 Enforce the law.
5 Make the United States an equal-opportunity immigration magnet.

These are interesting suggestions and deserve some thought:
  1. Focusing more on skilled workers and reducing family connections sounds good, but I wonder if this wouldn't actually dissuade many skilled workers from coming here in the first place. Americans are famous for geographic mobility: families don't stick together in the US. This is not the case most places. A brilliant computer scientist in India may choose to languish there in a sub-par job rather than travel half-way around the world with little or no chance of bringing his (extended) family with him.

    I agree with Chua that more attention to job-skills should be made, but I think it goes too far to say 'the immigration system should reward ability and be keyed to the country's labor needs -- skilled or unskilled, technological or agricultural.' Focusing too much on these people as 'skilled or unskilled' etc. risks losing sight of their humanity.

  2. Adopting an official language seems absurd to me. English is already de facto our country's language, but ever since its inception our nation has been a host to countless other non-native languages (and of course a whole host of Native American ones!). The Buddha, in sending out his students to teach others, told them to teach in the language common to each area. This is in direct opposition to the Brahmans, who taught and preserved their scriptures only in Sanskrit. Thus a Buddhist policy would:
    1. Inspire, not legislate, others to learn English. This once-great language seems to be producing more trashy pop-music than classical literature today. Learning English as a second language is hard; I'd rather we focus on incentives (carrots) than punishments (the stick).
    2. Learn more languages ourselves! Sure, English will stand as the most common language, but as the ACLU argues, it doesn't make sense to limit the use of other languages. I think the great French Philosopher Merleau-Ponty was right in suggesting that the language must be correct to express the life of the speaker. Languages change with history, some simply die out as speakers adopt a more dominant or useful language. I say: bring on the Spanish, bring on the Chinese (Mandarin)! Let them shape a stronger English, or replace it.

  3. Chua states that 'It's up to each immigrant community to fight off an enclave mentality and give back to their new country.' I fully agree. But I think the job isn't just for them. Americans need to make a habit of reaching out to people outside the mainstream. We, too, should go into the enclave as much as they should come out! Not to mention the Americans who are rapidly building enclaves of their own (gated communities) to keep new immigrants out.

  4. It's hard to argue against enforcing the law. My only thought is that we should be looking also at what compels many people to risk their lives and freedom crossing into the US illegally. Could it be that our own economic policies perpetuate injustice and poverty in their countries? Could our political and military actions be undercutting democratic movements and propping up unpopular dictators? Jeez, I don't know. But if any of that does happen to be the case, we should work hard to reverse it, ensuring better lives to people in those countries. If their lives are better in their home country, then I'm sure they'll be more patient with the legalities of proper immigration.

  5. Finally, Chua suggests equal-opportunity immigration, stating that 'The starkly disproportionate ratio of Latinos -- reflecting geographical fortuity and a large measure of law-breaking -- is inconsistent with this principle.' I'm all for equal opportunity, but I think 'geographical fortuity' should be given more credit. Practically speaking, I think it just makes more sense that we have disproportionate numbers of Latinos. All things considered, if I were, say, an English-speaking political exile from Burma in search of new opportunity, I'd probably want to go to India or Australia. There would have to be some special reason for me to want to go all the way to America. Likewise a Romanian student would feel more geographically compelled to study in England over the US. Just as in point one where I'd say that 'family matters,' here also I would say that 'geography matters.'

    That is not to say that we shouldn't reach out to our brothers and sisters in Burma and elsewhere. But perhaps we can stretch Shantideva's simile a bit and say that there are many thorns in the body, and unless one in the foot is particularly bad, it just makes more sense to pull out those that are nearest. In practical terms if we can reduce more suffering in Honduras than Burma simply because it is nearer, we should.
As with most things in politics, the immigration debate sparks many emotions and far more complex than a few paragraphs can give justice to. One of my favorite statements on the topic came from a cartoon on a professor's door near mine back at UM. It featured a couple Native Americans overlooking the building of a colonists' fort. One says to the other, "they ignore our customs and refuse to learn the language. I say we kick 'em out."


To me one of the greatest American values has been the value of opportunity for everyone here. The opportunity to make something of their lives, to create new community, and to pass that forward to the next generation. Perhaps, contra Buddhism, that value has been translated into commercialism and greed. But it could also be translated into deeper opportunities for service, for realizing our interconnectedness, for overcoming ignorance.

It is a fact that some amount of material sustenance is necessary for spiritual development. It is also taught by the Buddha that too many material possessions will hamper that development. Americans today suffer not from too little material wealth (and hence real fear of immigrants taking it away), but instead from too much. It is much of the rest of the world that has too little. It seems obvious that the Buddhist immigration policy would look to eliminate this imbalance.

*with small alterations 25-2-2008


Marilyn said...

Keep up the good work. Merry Christmas!

Tom said...

I don't see why there is any particular need to focus on skilled workers. Are we trying to have smarter people from a better gene pool in America? America, from when it was first invaded from Europe has filled itself with losers -- the tossed out masses, yearning to be free -- and now look: Are we not spiffy!?

But the Statue of Liberty ideal is now passe. America is full. No more wildernesses on this planet, nope. We need to bar the door, as do all countries, and concentrate on braking population growth. Humans are heating up the planet; there are too many of us.

Moving people around only tends to make people breeding easier and accelerates the poverty problems.

The time for good-hearted openness is, sadly, over. We need to turn our attention to doing all things that might save the planet for future generations of people and elk and scrub jays.

Tom said...

I lived in San Francisco for 20+ years and agree with your thoughts on the issue of language. Yes, let us encourage immigrants to learn English and those of us born to English should learn other languages.

Yet, there are problems at the workplace where speaking only English becomes a disadvantage as perhaps it shouldn't. Poorer Americans' complaints that they lose employment opportunities by immigration policies that don't deter employers from hiring illegals is made doubly weird when speaking Spanish becomes a job requirement for low-wage jobs.

Me, I favor a requirement of an ability to speak conversational Sanskrit for some university professorships.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Thanks marilyn, you too!

Hia tom, good points, especially regarding the fact that it often wasn't the best and brightest of Europe that landed on American shores.

Khalu Bhagavan, Sanskrit it is!

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