President Trump’s America First rhetoric is motivated by a stated desire to protect native-born citizens and advance their interests. But by doing so, he takes away from individuals the ability to define their interests for themselves.
Immigration is often made palatable in terms of the value brought by new citizens to communities with established social and cultural traditions, as if immigration were an act of utility, benefitting primarily the community receiving an individual who, for all intents and purposes, is stripped of his or her autonomy.
The utilization—and dehumanization—of immigrants works on two levels: it looks to the skills an individual possesses and makes judgments about usefulness on this basis and also looks to the compatibility of an immigrant’s values with those of the community into which they will be assimilating. Of course, those “values” are less a reflection of the individual in question and more a product of different stereotyped cultures around the world.
In all cases, the needs of the existing community are prioritized over the new member. The only way in which the individual immigrant is considered is under the assumption that his or her well-being will naturally be allied with the community into which he or she is assimilated. But this is logically fallacious: even after becoming one with the community, the immigrant remains apart from it, able to thrive only so long as he defines his welfare in the same manner as does the social majority. The immigrant remains subsumed, held apart even as he is expected to assimilate. But though he struggles on behalf of the community, which imbues itself with a high degree of beneficence for having performed such an act, he is ever subsumed. He suffers, which means the community—a reflection of its constitutive parts—is diminished.
And this presumes such communal thinking is valid. Value is a creature of individualistic predilections. It is conceived of first by the individual and rises to prominence in society when other members, acting independently, reach a similar conclusion. Value, then, can never be communal. Whatever values move society are a reflection of individuals, who retain their autonomy, coming to agreement on a particular point. If one individual changes his mind, the makeup of the whole changes too, even if the majority remains united around the same point. The individual remains the moving social actor: value must always be defined in reference to this fact.
Any social or political system that looks to make communal decisions, whether at a national or local level, about value, does not protect the welfare of its members but undermines it. For it robs individuals the ability to define and pursue interest for themselves. This is not only true in regard to the winnowing of the autonomy of immigrants who are valuable only so long as they possess a skill set or cultural code desired by the community that receives them, but for denizens of a community that looks at value in these terms.
For example, President Trump’s America First rhetoric imbues the executive with the role of a protector. He exercises his discretion on behalf of American citizens, essentially gerrymandering the immigration process in a way that ensures visas are handed out in a way that maximizes the social and economic benefits of established citizens. But this amounts to an exportation of value from the individual minds which are capable of conceiving them. It also presumes conformity.
For instance, high-skilled workers in dominant industries—technology, for instance—are looked more favorably upon by immigration officials doling out work visas than are those with other labor skills, say agricultural laborers. It is assumed this brings the most value into the United States and is most beneficial for American citizens. But it is not citizens who are making this determination; it is not even those who have the requisite knowledge within prominent industries such as technology who are making determination about the skills-based values of workers receiving visas.
It is agents of the federal government who make such determinations. And by doing so they not only discriminate against certain types of immigrants—and indeed cast judgment upon the merit of various individuals—but against citizens as well.
Because it is individually determined, value has both absolute and relative weights, determined by context. Technology, when one takes a macroeconomic look at the United States might seem like a field worthy of more development and federal protection, but it most certainly does not look that way to agricultural workers who have been deemed less deserving of federal aid.
Government, when it becomes involved in promoting values has to pick winners and losers: it generates a hierarchy that is not organic. Society generally moves along with the majority, but the majority is allowed to develop naturally: in accordance with people following their inclinations and finding some sort of naturally occurring common ground. Conformity is not required as society is pluralistic: other competing ideas can coexist, though they are not necessarily as influential or prominent in society.
But government intervention includes the prerequisite of compliance. In order to benefit from the actions undertaken in the name of the people, those being aided must conform to the system of values the executive is promoting. Much as immigrants are expected to conform to the standards of the communities which they join if the wish to be looked upon positively, citizens must accept the government’s definition of welfare. They are not free to make their own determinations about what values are beneficial to their welfare and way of life.
To reject the government’s standard of valuation is to effectively exclude oneself from society. Those who conform have open to them various tools and programs that make life easier to manage. Nonconformists have none of these benefits, even though they pay into the system and are effectively subsidizing initiatives at cross-purposes with their own system of values.
Protectionist rhetoric therefore, does more harm than good to the individuals it claims to protect. The individual is the only entity that can value. When government speaks of adjudicating on the basis of values, it is not reflecting the values of communities, for such things do not exist. Individuals in communities may independently come to agreement upon the merit of a particular course of action, but it is not the collective that conceives of right or wrong. When government makes value-judgments, it imposes its will upon those in whose welfare it purports to act, robbing its citizens of the sovereignty necessary to make determinations about what is in their own interests. Value is bolstered from the ground up, not imposed from the top down.
The government cannot bolster the welfare of communities through immigration policy. Communities cannot establish standards of value designed to protect their members if these standards fall afoul of any constituent members of the group. Value is a personal determination and is negotiated in interpersonal interactions, which by definition are a product of their context. Each individual is unique in how they conceive and analyze value; this shapes how they move through the world. It means value, though it remains absolute in the eyes of the person who upholds it, is relative in relation to interactions with other individuals who adhere to different ideologies.
Also published on Medium.