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We typically study public policy as a mechanism for problemsolving and expect that research, deliberation, and rationality are applied to solving social problems. Likewise, when public policies fail, analysts quickly attribute these failures to factors such as budget inadequacies, illogical mandates, poor administration, and unanticipated consequences. However, if we consider immigration policy not simply as problem-solving mechanism but as an opportunity to structure and manage claims on the state, we can more easily understand why these policies appear on their surface to be contradictory or designed to fail.
Lhe conflict over immigration is not about differences in research, pilot program evaluations, or task force recommendations. Rather the conflict is at its core about a politics of reassurance. Debates over contemporary immigration policy comprise Murray Edelmans concept of “political spectacle,” or the use of events, crises and social problems to threaten, reassure, and ultimately, create consensus regarding a contentious issue. Nor is the politics of reassurance a smokescreen, or diversion: its expressions are fundamentally instrumental, enabling government to channel real benefits to or force real burdens upon certain groups of people.
The deliberative process reveals the critical role that values can play in policy design, especially when officials classify some groups and actions as necessary for the public good. With the issue of immigration control running contrary to traditional partisan divisions and incorporating numerous conflicting interests, legislators rely heavily on established immigration myths and carefully crafted story-telling to generate consensus on appropriate action. Official discourse pays regular homage to immigration as our national story—our civic myth—but immigration policy language reveals that ambivalence about immigration is our less celebrated national phenomenon. Nonetheless, this ambivalence sits quite comfortably