Die Trying Is the Only Way to Live – An Immigrant’s Creed

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

English was truly a foreign language for me growing up. Even then, I knew two English expressions early on. The first was “A Foreign Hand,” and the second, “worthless.”

The first was hurled against my parents, specifically, and the family overall in our presence, when I was about five. The second was heaped on my sister and I almost daily by my mom.

Thirty years since, I take both as a badge of honor. I realize now that they shaped my entire life.

That I was a child of refugees into India must have been marked as a birth defect – née a halo – for as long as I can remember. My parents, especially my mom, wanted to fit in – desperately. It did not matter we looked and dressed the same as any neighbor, spoke the same dialect – my parents would threaten us with physical punishment if we showed any interest in the two provincial dialects they were raised in – and religion, if followed. Both my parents had postgraduate education in a society that valued education. Yet, we were “others.” It did not help that there were serious internal issues.

I, for one, embraced the suck, nee “othering,” and chugged along.

My mom told us that the one surefire way to be accepted is to play their game, and that is where “worthless” comes in. We were “worthless” unless we showed effort, and results, in outplaying in a game we had no role in designing; thankfully these tests were mostly quantitative and fully blind. Even the most unwelcome society had to have mechanisms to help people move up in a (presumably) meritocratic society, she would say. The goal was to find one such mechanism, make oneself demonstrably competitive. It did not matter what so-called roadblocks we thought we faced, all it mattered was to qualify, try again if not successful, and try again, and again….

“Die trying is the only way to live,” my mom was fond of saying. Otherwise, we were just “worthless.”

At college, I escaped the clutches of “othering,” and started looking at my surroundings in a different light. Every single student in college had their reason for trying hard just as I did, and was just as proud – relieved, glad, exalted – as I was. They were as weighed down – overworked, worried, even scared stiff – as I was by the challenges. Each was in it till the university chose to throw any out for underperformance – I was nearly expelled twice, but that story is for another time. Each of us internalized that we would be “worthless” if thrown out, and hence we must die trying. Additionally, for me, no one could “other” me anywhere, a student at a highly selective institute as I was. I was no longer a foreign hand!!

Failure to remain was a cost too high for us not to try staying inside, come what may – just as migrants on the Southern border. As somebody who knows the other side too well, I must bring my learnings to bear.

First, I acknowledge, and accept, that each side can be prone to othering the other. The movie played out many times in the US, “natives” felt threatened; they spat on the newcomers for sullying their “American” way of life. One generation down, those newcomers proved their benefits and became homegrown themselves. Now it was their turn to feel threatened with the next wave, and the cycle continued. I acknowledge that borders matter, and so does the rule of law. No amount of love for a fellow human being can support a perfunctory statement that “All humans are legal.”

Second, I acknowledge that current numbers are too many and that there are plenty of reasons to think the Asylum system is being abused. Wisened up with technology and with help from NGOs, those crossing the border these days turn themselves up with claims of asylum; there is little evidence of a cataclysmic geopolitical change that might cause that. They will be released internally pending determination, which can take years, during which time they will blend into the informal economy. Eight million or so in the last three years is a number too high to overlook these systemic flaws.

Third, even at such a large number, the adverse effect is de minimis on overall unemployment situation. This only means that they are not replacing ready, willing, and able native-born workers. I have previously argued that courting immigrants caused economic supremacy of the USA, and that being immigrant-friendly is a sine qua non for American Exceptionalism. Despite the shrill of all those who thrill at being stuck in the past, immigrants mostly keep under the radar – and well within the boundaries of law – for obvious reasons; exceptions only prove the rule. Further, largely they depend on networks of tribe, family, and friends for an initial hand-up, and not on government handouts.

If the migrants are dying, at times literally, in their zeal to cross the border, and their presence does not cause any sizable dislocation in the near term – but supersized benefits over the long-term – how come we created a situation that can only be called a crisis? The answer that is blowing across the Rio Grande is simple: defaulting to a crisis is in the interests of political opportunists.

We must accept that migrants are here for economic reasons, even if it is expedient for them to use the asylum route. Older generation came as single adults, leaving children at home, while today’s crop comes as families because there is an expectation of ease of entry. They do not care for citizenship, but they do deserve a path to working legally in whatever trade they qualify for. They are not criminals, though few surely can be. Once processed, they have little expectation of help because they already have acquaintances somewhere who will house them and help them get their first job. Lastly, the flow is demand-driven, the flood will reduce to a trickle – even reverse – if there is no job to be had, e.g., during COVID.

Policy planners must ask themselves – what would they do if they had access to a resource that is elastic to the demand curve, and is highly productive? You would facilitate but regulate, you would monitor for abuses, and you would keep your fingers on the dial. To do all that, you need to create a system that is flexible to changes in demand, yet disciplined in the process and adjudication.

Today’s world is anything but that. But we can imagine an alternative.

Migrants could be processed in their home country for temporary work visas that are valid for, say, five years. They could apply for a next five-year period, but in between they must go out and stay out for, say, two years. They would not qualify for a renewal if caught violating terms of the visa the previous time. Every single employer in the country, no matter how informal the job is, is required to ask for e-Verify, under threats of severe penalties for failure. These visas do not qualify for a path to citizenship, but individuals can switch to a different category that does. There is no expectation of a change in the language or intent of the 14th Amendment. A migrant under this visa will qualify for few state or Federal level assistance, but the visa gives them the right to apply for a driver’s license. There might even be a max number of renewals one can have under this visa process. There does not need to be a maximum number of visas issued, by country or cumulatively; a strict implementation of e-Verify coupled with paucity of assistance will ensure that flow remains responsive to the changes in demand. Lastly, for all practical purposes Southern border remains closed – a migrant is in this country with a proper visa or they are deported after a quick due process, no ifs and buts.

Can we do it or something similar? Sure. Will we? I am not counting on it. I know it is in the interest of both Parties to keep the issue alive and play it to their base. Dangle a shiny object of citizenship as bait? Moan about an “invasion” at the border? I have seen it all and you do not impress me much.

American Exceptionalism will die if we do not try hard enough on this. That will be an utmost shame.

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