Is a rational, civil debate about immigration still possible?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 03, 2017

Donald Trump is in the White House today in large part because he was the only presidential candidate willing to tackle the immigration issue. For years, politicians on both sides of the aisle had avoided serious discussion of the topic, knowing that if they took a clear stand, they would inflame the partisan activists on one or the other side of the issue. Meanwhile those activists framed their own arguments in the crudest possible terms: one side denying that immigrants offer any benefits to the country, the other that they pose any dangers. Everyone agreed that America’s immigration policy was broken, but no one made a serious move to fix it.

Now, with two executive orders, President Trump has finally made the first move. But he acted so suddenly, in an atmosphere of such widespread mutual mistrust, that the battle lines have hardened, and the serious national debate that is so long overdue seems even less likely to occur.

Rather than contribute to the furor, let me simply ask a series of questions—questions that should have been raised and discussed a decade or more ago.

  • Does our country have the capacity to absorb more immigrants?
  • Are there reasonable ways to control our own borders, and ensure that—at least in the future—only authorized foreign visitors will be able to enter and stay?
  • Can we admit immigrants without compromising our national security? If some immigrants pose a threat, do we have the ability to screen them out, without barring peaceful visitors?
  • Can we make some demands of foreign nationals who come to live in our country? Could we stipulate that immigrants and resident aliens should not expect to live indefinitely at the taxpayers’ expense?
  • As Christians do we have a moral obligation to provide help for people in desperate need?
  • As a nation do we have a special moral obligation to help people who have been forced to flee their homes in countries where our own foreign policies have contributed to bloodshed and devastation?

Every one of these questions should allow for rational, civil debate. By the way, in my view—and you’re free to disagree—the answer to each question is clearly Yes.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Feb. 04, 2017 4:23 AM ET USA

    The question is not whether our country has the capacity to absorb more immigrants; the question is whether our country has the capacity to absorb immigrants who, as Cardinal Burke has pointed out, adhere to a "religion" the core purpose of which is to impose its law and government on the rest of the world, in whatever way it can.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 04, 2017 1:38 AM ET USA

    The guest-worker program mentioned by fwhermann3492 is indeed a good idea. It worked in the 1960s, so why shouldn't it work now? I have already recounted in this forum the exceptionally good relations my family had with guest workers who shopped at our store in a small northern town. We catered to their special requests, and they supported our store with their business. After getting a driver's license, I even delivered groceries to their apartments at the canning factory where they worked.

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 04, 2017 12:34 AM ET USA

    I'd say "Yes" to each; however, questions 2 and 3 from the list condition the rest of them, and relate directly to what Trump promised to do in his campaign and is doing. I notice how those two key questions are being meticulously, and dishonestly, omitted in anti-Trump propaganda, while the other arguments are being repeated ad nauseam. This major omission strips the debate of rationality and civility.

  • Posted by: danflaherty210701793 - Feb. 03, 2017 5:53 PM ET USA

    Great column and badly needed in the current environment. I support getting control of the border for the precise reason that it makes the United States better able to truly help those in desperate need. The current situation is not sustainable.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Feb. 03, 2017 4:23 PM ET USA

    I thought--and still think--that G. W. Bush had a good idea with his guest worker program. It would let in more immigrants without automatically bestowing citizenship upon them. And it would allow the immigrants jobs only if those jobs couldn't be filled by citizens. Seemed like a win-win situation to me. But alas, it wasn't enough for those on the far left, and it was too much for those on the far right.