The summer I turned 11, I accompanied my mother to Sri Lanka, where she was born. For her, this was no pleasure trip. It had a specific purpose, to get my father’s mother a visa so that she could join us in the United States. The process was long and complicated.
Because my grandmother was elderly and could not go to the U.S. embassy in Colombo herself, my mother made the many trips there, waited in line in the hot sun, and spoke to embassy officials on her behalf. In the end, my grandmother’s application was successful. She got her family reunification visa to join us.
Except that she didn’t want to come.
“What would I do there?” she asked.
In the end, my grandmother made the hard choice to stay in her rural home in Sri Lanka, living out the end of her days there.
President Trump tells us that a “big, beautiful wall” on the Mexican border is necessary to keep migrants out. His attorney general is attacking California’s efforts to shield those who are here from deportation. The president has told us plainly what underlies his policies: Too many immigrants, he has complained, come from “shithole countries,” and once they see the U.S., they never “go back to their huts.”
Without a border wall, Trump wants us to believe, we would be invaded by hordes of poor people who would naturally prefer to be here, rather than wherever they come from.
And yet, absent calamities such as war and natural disasters, most people, like my grandmother, prefer to stay where they are. The fact that we measure emigration rates “per 1,000” rather than “per 100” illustrates this. In 2017, El Salvador, torn by gang violence, had what is considered a high estimated net migration rate: only eight people per 1,000. And when recent migration from Mexico to the U.S. was at its height, in the year 2000, 770,000 Mexicans came to the United States, fewer than eight out of 1,000.
Those who migrate for better jobs do so not in pursuit of material wealth for themselves, but out of obligation to provide for their families and communities back home. Because they would prefer to stay home, many plan to work for a while in the U.S. or another country with good job opportunities, and then return home. Even in the early 20th century, when travel was arduous and expensive, records show that 60% of Italian immigrants to America ended up returning.
Ironically, tougher border security makes immigrants who are here without papers less likely to return home. If going home means risking permanent separation from your U.S.-born family members, you are not likely to make the journey. According to sociologist Douglas Massey, the enhanced border security that accompanied immigration reforms of 1986, far from keeping undocumented workers out, led to the formation of a permanent community of undocumented immigrants.
Some portion of immigrants will choose to stay in their new countries. The roots they put down are simply too deep. After telling themselves for decades that they would return to Sri Lanka to retire, my parents decided to stay in the U.S. They wanted to remain close to my sister and me and our young children.
In the president’s calculus, his vision of the American way of life is the only deciding factor. For him, my grandmother’s house, lacking hot running water, a television and a car could never win out over the relative luxury of even the most modest American homes. But that was not the way my grandmother thought. The neighbors she had known all her life, the rhythm of her days, the church where she had attended daily Mass for decades, and the promise of growing old and eventually dying in her own village meant more to her than air conditioning and TV sets.
The idea that without tough border security, we will be flooded by poor people who would gladly trade their homes for our standard of living is rooted in the assumption that people in other countries value material things more than their own communities. That assumption says more about us than it does about them.
Tisha M. Rajendra is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Loyola University Chicago and the author of “Migrants and Citizens: Justice as Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration.” She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.