Undocumented Immigrants and the Health of Democracy

On the subject of democracy, allow me to speak for a moment about the political benefits of extending membership to undocumented immigrants who entered the United States at a young age.

Because every undocumented immigrant is guilty of perpetrating at least one felony simply by entering the country without permission and crime, poverty, and low educational achievement permeate many immigrant communities, it is understandable that the public might view them as dangerous and contemptuous, a threat and liability to homeland security. However, immigrants are often overlooked for the critical role they play in the perpetuation and revitalization of the legal and political system.


Undocumented immigrants are characterized by keen instincts, discipline, and a greater or lesser inclination toward engagement (depending on the sentiment towards immigrants in their community). According to Bonnie Honig, who has studied the effects of immigrants on democracy, they also personify the essential elements of a political actor and citizen, which include: a refreshing psychological insight; a willingness to expose “stale or corrupt patterns; a departure or disruption that is necessary for change;” a capacity to identify and resolve the problems of democratic activity; and the “impartiality, breadth of vision, and objectivity” required of every political participant (Honig 2001, 4).


These qualities are necessary for democracy to flourish, but are not necessarily furnished to the same extent by native-born citizens. As I noted in an earlier post, individuals who are born in the United States (and thus recipients of birthright citizenship) make no such declaration of their willingness to subscribe to the government and participate in the democratic process. Their tacit consent primes them for a lifetime of passive, conciliatory political engagement, which is troubling because the aim of democracy is to create an open forum for dialogue and dissent, “a vibrant ‘agonistic’ public sphere of contestation where different hegemonic political projects can be confronted” (Mouffe, 2005, 3).


Moreover, as society strives for a more deliberative form of democracy, this disinclination toward — and evasion of — full political participation will only hinder its advancement. According to Dryzek, “The essence of democracy itself is not widely taken to be deliberation, as opposed to voting, interest aggregation, constitutional rights, or even self-government. The deliberative turn represents a renewed concern with the authenticity of democracy: the degree to which democratic control is substantive rather than symbolic, and engaged by competent citizens” (Dryzek 1).


In contrast, the gravitation toward consensus is not only “conceptually mistaken” (to use Mouffe’s words) but it is also problematic as it indicates the decline of the careful scrutiny, analysis, and debate that defines democratic politics and maximizes the public good (Mouffe 2005, 2). That is not to say, however, that cooperation and consensus are worthless. Consensus helps establish a spirit of community and trust for the implementation of public policy, leaves some room for political bargaining, and is necessary for the universal acceptance of certain ethico-political values that are “constitutive of democracy” and “inform the political association” such as freedom, liberty, and equality (Mouffe 2005, 31). However, consensus must be accompanied by some conflict or dissent (Mouffe describes as the “stuff” of democratic politics) and nurtured within a liberal, pluralistic framework (Mouffe 2005, 31). Based on their demonstrated passivity, citizens seem reluctant to make this effort. Likewise, the exclusionary laws and regulations that aim to silence undocumented immigrants and bar them from attaining citizenship – the legal and political status that freely and equally allows foreign-born individuals to maximize political participation and civic engagement and protects them in doing so – cripples the health of democracy.


However, the democratic process and the dissonance that helps vivify politics and civic life can be restored. As Honig writes, “Again and again, the cure for corruption, withdrawal, and alienation is…aliens (Honig 2001, 23). Immigrants bring a fresh perspective, pro-activeness, and a romanticized vision of active participation that harks back to and enriches American, liberal democratic tradition. In particular, young undocumented immigrants reinvigorate democratic discussions because their diversity of opinions and experiences paired with their American upbringing and education illuminate the shortcomings in public policy, democratic decision-making, and political attitudes.


Furthermore, the qualities and willingness these immigrants exemplify tend to spur increased participation by their native-born counterparts, who tend to neglect to exercise these rights or take them for granted. Discerning the way in which young undocumented immigrants situate themselves in society and covet U.S. citizenship prompts many citizens to reflect back upon themselves and embrace their citizenship as never before. Honig reaffirms this idea, emphasizing, “It is…. the immigrant’s foreignness that positions him to reinvigorate the national democracy, and that foreignness is undecidable: our faith in a just economy, our sense of community or family, our consent-based sense of legitimacy, or our voluntarist vigor are so moribund that only a foreigner could reinvigorate them” (2001, 76). Though it may be difficult initially to reconcile the virtues and (more obvious) vices of each group, doing so allows young undocumented immigrants to step out of the shadows, and, in turn, to engage in a constructive dialogue with their native-born counterparts to helps restore agonism and public participation to democracy.


Although they may have committed the wrongful act of trespassing, if recognized, respected, and included in political dialogues, the integration and acceptance of undocumented immigrants who entered the United States at a young age will revive and reenergize democratic politics. For this reason, capitalizing on their unique perspective, educating them morally and intellectually, and cultivating them into industrious, engaged, ideal citizens is greatly beneficial for the function of democracy.


Yet, there exists no legal or political mechanism by which a young, undocumented immigrant may obtain citizenship; and, because they entered this country without permission, they risk deportation if their status is discovered. This is especially troubling in light of the much more sympathetic precedent set by the United States Supreme Court in Plyer v. Doe (1982), which ruled that undocumented children are persons under the constitution and therefore entitled to equal protection under the law as established in the 14th amendment, which includes (but is not limited to) free, public K-12 education.


Providing education only to deny it (along with legal employment) later postpones the dilemma young undocumented immigrants present and causes a loss on the government’s investment in that child’s education and potential contribution to society.


As I have reasoned above, the United States cannot afford to deal with this problem only when it is convenient and accept immigrants’ conditional status and implicit consent.  Removing or deporting immigrants when their presence is politically and economically prudent; alienating or marginalizing this group would only result in further unrest, protest, and deterioration of government; allowing immigrants to stay without granting them certain legal and civil rights is exploitation; and giving credence to tacit consent (from either young, undocumented immigrants or native-born citizens) in exchange for citizenship is unreliable and undermines political participation and the democratic process.


Thus, a program must be set in motion that reconciles the influx of young, undocumented immigrants in the United States seeking citizenship and the inadvertently highlighted social and political ramifications of tacit consent on the American polity. For inspiration, I look to the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. This legislation presents a unique and effective solution that draws from civic republican and liberal traditions, Ancient Greek political conventions and Lockean pedagogy, and informs civic engagement as well as the way in which we “make” native-born citizens. How is this possible? Keep an eye out for my next blog post to find out!