February 1, 2018

DANBERG BIGGS | Defending Our Neighbors

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There is a sudden and explicit way to experience our obligations to others, but it usually requires some kind of loss. The mayor dies. A neighbor takes a new job. The man who bags groceries and teaches Sunday School moves south to be closer to his ailing mother. It’s discovery by absence, the sudden realization that in some way, and for whatever reason, we have obliged ourselves to care about the life and wellbeing of a stranger. Unlike the cultures and congregations that form the pillars of our identities, these are incidental communities. They rarely demand deliberate care or proactive attention, but instead form a web of translucent connections that are often only felt when they are broken.

At the core of our national debate about immigration is a dispute over the limits of these communities. It’s a dispute borne of fixed resources, the tacit understanding that we simply cannot provide for everyone and that we should not be expected to. Less tangibly, it arises from the belief that national identity only holds significance if it is also exclusive. Thus while countless other questions spiral out from this central dispute, the indispensable personal question we are asked to consider is: to whom do we owe a duty of care?

For hundreds of people in Ithaca, Jose Guzman’s arrest by ICE last spring was a partial answer. In a way that no political argument could replicate, we witnessed our duty to Mr. Guzman through the loss we felt when he was detained. It was a display of incidental community and a recognition of our collective obligation. However, as ICE continues to threaten our neighbors, and our politics remain frozen on the issue of immigration, it simply isn’t enough to define our community only when we lose a member.

This is because every day, the President and his administration offer their own definition. They do so through the instruments of the state, and the bully pulpit, from which Trump hands immigrants a gnarled image of criminality and deceit. It is a cruel and simplistic vision, defining only a narrow, racialized set of American responsibilities; it is rejected by the basic moral intuitions that so many of us experience as members of compassionate communities.

Yet rather than address the fundamental questions of belonging, our political conversation tends to focus only on externalities. From the right we hear warnings about criminality, job depletion and cultural change, while from the left it’s the promise that migration will spark economic growth. While they arrive at different conclusions, both arguments treat the lives and concerns of immigrants as secondary. If the salient effects of immigration policy are only those that are felt by citizens, then the implication is that they are the only group to whom we owe an obligation of care.

Maybe more crucially, the way in which immigration policy is executed often removes any chance of observing the personhood of its subjects. ICE arrested three men in Ithaca last month, but I could not tell you their names. By design, we do not know the contents of their lives, the details of their residence, or the circumstances of their arrests. This strategy, which is typical of ICE’s action, obscures human consequence, making it even harder to experience the connections that should trigger our outrage.

The sum result is a jumbled, often vague set of platitudes that make the left’s stance on immigration confusing even from within. That is, I am perfectly comfortable claiming that I support Comprehensive Immigration Reform, but would have a very hard time telling you what that means. I know we support the DREAMers, because it is quite possibly the lowest bar to basic decency that a person could be asked to reach. However when it comes to the millions more, whose complex circumstances require a more nuanced moral justification, I find myself without a clear answer.

Critically, in a national moment when fear and uncertainty are dominant political forces, we absolutely need one. The evolution of traditional communities, coupled with rapid economic and technological change have created a sense of anxiety that can easily be directed at the newcomer. These deep cultural forces require more than milquetoast claims about the economics of population growth, or the vagaries of our current rhetoric. Instead, we need actively to define our national community in a way that rejects our worst instincts.

In a very basic sense, this means a comprehensive defense of our incidental communities. That is, why we owe a duty to a stranger. This takes self-reflection and active debate that does more than just virtue-signal our support for the idea of immigration. When so many lives are profoundly affected by the strangers we choose to prioritize, we have a duty be conscious and deliberate in the way we make these decisions, and our post-fact recognition is not enough. Anything less will leave our solidarity incomplete and our activism ineffective.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdanbergbiggs@cornellsun.com. The Common Table appears alternate Fridays this semester.