Refocusing the Immigration Debate

Written by Keith Zakheim |

There are strong arguments on both sides of the immigration debate. On the one hand, the president, in his role as Commander in Chief, has a constitutionally mandated obligation to fortify our national security. He is therefore staking out an aggressive policy to keep the country more secure by stanching the flow of refugees.


Critics of the executive order, on the other hand, point out that refugees pose a statistically insignificant terror threat, and an already robust vetting process exists. Perhaps as importantly, there is a fine line between security measures and effectively creating a police state. Pictures of law enforcement raids and holding cells for detainees support this charge.


As usual, what is lost in the political wrangling is the human element: the suffering being endured by recent immigrants and refugees, both illegal and those in midst of the legal immigration process, who are terrified by the specter of being forcibly taken from their homes and families and deported.


We need to be careful to see an issue like refugees and immigration through the eyes of the refugee and immigrant. Salience, our ability to empathize with a person or issue when it is reduced from the conceptual to the personal, is well established in behavioral psychology. For example, few of us respond to mail solicitations to sponsor an impoverished family, but most open their pocketbooks to that same family when encountering them on a tour of their village.


The media, while not always helpful in framing policy debates in a constructive manner, is effective at providing human-interest case studies of those caught in the crosshairs of the immigrant/refugee debate.


Before coming to a decision, it would be wise to increase the salience of the issue by trying to understand the impact on an individual human being. That is, after all, what the debate should be about.