The issue of illegal immigration has clearly become a contentious issue in our society. I hear people discuss the issue from a political point of view, an economic point of view, and a personal point of view. I see the arguments getting more heated as the stakes continue to get higher for all of us. When I listen to these arguments, I see that the arguments stem from two very different psychological theories and believe viewing the issue through this lens can help us resolve it.
On the one hand is a point of view that says those who break the law need to be punished; the immigrants need to be sent back to where they came from. On the other hand, is a point of view that says such an action will break up families, send hard-working people back to unsafe homelands, and wreck our economy. The first perspective is rooted in a behaviorist philosophy, the second in a cognitive one.
Behaviorist’s focus is on behavior and its consequences: a behavior that is rewarded is repeated; one that is ignored is reduced to the point of elimination. The most scientific of all the psychological perspectives, behaviorists consider only what can be observed and measured. That simple principle leads them to focus on behavior and eliminate thought and emotion as factors that must be considered. They demonstrate that a rat or a dog will greet us at the door, sit by our feet, walk by our side, because we train them to do so by feeding them. In other words, behavior is the consequence of rewards. There are no shades of gray.
What does this have to do with illegal immigration? Well, for a behaviorist, we must provide consequences for an action or the action will continue to occur. A behaviorist’s view would go something like this: If America allows the illegal immigrants to stay, then we reward them for breaking the rules of entry into our country. Behaviorists contend that they will simply continue to do what we’ve trained them to do. In other words, this “law breaking” behavior, once rewarded, would be generalized, resulting in other laws being broken. In order to prevent this, all who have come illegally must have a consequence so that they (and others) learn to obey the law.
On the other hand, the cognitive perspective believes that a person’s thoughts about the future determine current behavior. For example, if a person believes s/he will succeed in college (a future goal), s/he’ll enroll (a current behavior). If a person believes s/he will not succeed, s/he will not enroll. For cognitive psychologists, everyone is a scientist collecting evidence to confirm or disconfirm their beliefs. The world, consequently, is always a shade of gray.
From this perspective, illegal immigration can be considered a series of thoughts. Americans holding this view think that we do not have to punish those who came illegally; we can instead control current illegal immigration by giving a reasonable goal for future entry. That is, if people know that the process will be streamlined and fair (if we give out enough work visas, for example), they will stop coming illegally. Cognitive theorists would consider the emotions involved in separating families. They would consider the thoughts that were involved in choosing to come illegally – the decision to leave their families behind, to risk all the danger in getting across several borders, the thought that their only chance for a better life was to come to America. These thoughts lead to the idea that illegal immigrants are a part of our heritage; we draw in those who are in search of a better life.
While I have a theoretical preference, I respect the other side. Both have valid points and both have arguments that are worth addressing. It is not until we develop a cognitive-behavioral perspective that the issue can be resolved.
It is time for us to solve this issue – to decide if we believe that humans are the sum total of repeatedly rewarded behaviors or if humans are the sum total of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is time for us to stop the name-calling and finger pointing and move, instead, towards working to find a solution that addresses the very real problem of violence so severe that humans would go to such extremes to escape it. It is time to come up with a humane plan.
If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.