childish fantasy.jpgI’m taking a short vacation — which means that it’s time to dive into another Haruki Murakami novel. My first encounter with Murakami, a Japanese author of some 13 books of fiction, involved his immersive fantasy, Kafka on the ShoreThis time its his latest tome, 1Q84, a 925-page behemoth. 

Both books are phantasmagorical journeys through parallel universes — a fitting description of America’s unique form of unreality, its extreme ambivalence toward immigration. Unlike insular and homogeneous Japan, the locus of 1Q84, where immigration is severely restricted, the U.S. imagines itself as welcoming.  We pride ourselves on our diversity and tolerance, our freedoms of thought, religion, press and assembly, and our American Dream mythology.  Yet all around us we see behaviors and attitudes toward immigration — even in the same individuals — that are inconsistent and contrary to type. 

I first witnessed this phenomenon at a bar liaison committee meeting with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials in Los Angeles shortly after enactment of the Reagan-era legalization program, a key provision in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). To qualify for legalization, a nonimmigrant entrant’s unlawful status must have been “known to the government.”  INS officials wanted the pool of eligibles kept small; the immigration lawyers wanted it as large as possible.  Attitude reversals manifested immediately.  What — before IRCA — the INS would view as major transgressions of the immigration laws, say, working without permission, these same officers now saw as “no harm, no foul” occurrences unless an unauthorized foreign worker wrote a letter confessing the violation that actually found its way into the individual’s INS file.  Conversely, the immigration lawyers latched upon what we’d previously viewed as peccadilloes — failing to file a change of address report — as serious misdemeanors. 

Consider also these recent examples:

Murakami speaks to this phenomenon in 1Q84 when he has the Leader, who heads a violent cult, say:

Most people are not looking for provable truths. . . . [T]ruth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths.  What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have meaning.

back_light_silhouette_of_man_holding_globe.jpgImmigrants are not memes; nor are the painful truths about immigration.  Yes, despite the flaws in a recent governmental investigation, immigration fraud does exist — though probably not even close to the degree that the Inspector General for Homeland Security suggests.  Yes, many immigration and consular officers may operate on hidden agendas of Machiavellian proportions and deny cases unjustly, but others truly care that they make correct decisions based on law and fact.  Yes, immigrants bring energy, entrepreneurship, innovation and wealth to America, but some of our citizens — particularly at the low end of the skills range — may be displaced (and thus need extra help).

We as a people and a polity will not eradicate every scintilla of possible harm from immigration nor enjoy solely its benefits.  We must face the immigration truths, however painful, and eliminate as many dysfunctions as bright minds and compassionate hearts can achieve.   What we cannot do is continue to believe in “beautiful, comforting stories that make [us] feel as if [our] lives have meaning” but at bottom are palliative falsehoods.