El Norte

The case against Bush’s immigration plan.

by Victor Davis Hanson

WSJ Opinion Journal Online

President Bush’s recent proposal to grant legal status to thousands of Mexican citizens currently working in the U.S. under illegal auspices seems at first glance to be a good start–splitting the difference between open and closed borders, and between amnesty and deportation. Politically it was a wise move on the eve of a Mexican state visit to grant some concessions to Vicente Fox. After all, the president of Mexico cannot ignore the $12 billion in worker remittances sent his way–and he can either encourage or discourage millions more of his citizens to head north in lieu of needed radical reform at home.

Yet the proposed legislation, even if it should pass in Congress, will create more problems than it might solve–the fate of all such piecemeal legal solutions to systematic problems of illegality. Once the U.S. government–not to mention the Republican Party–commits its good name and legal capital to regulate, rather than end, the current chaos, a number of contradictions will arise that will only make things either more embarrassing or, in fact, worse.

First, what about the hundreds of thousands of workers who either cannot or will not participate? Will illegal immigrants outside the program be stopped at the border, requiring more guards or an extensive wall? Or once here, are they now to be deported without their requisite papers? Will we see a return of the old green immigration vans, the “Migra” patrols of my youth that used to scour central California to pick up illegal residents for immediate transit back to Mexico? Are we to establish two alternate universes: some employers who bring in workers legally, and others who follow the old non-system of paying largely cash wages to workers who show up at the local lumberyard parking lot or hotel lobby?

The proposed solution also assumes that illegal immigration is fuelled solely by too many jobs in the U.S. and too few workers. Yet thousands of other Mexicans come north as preteens, or when they are aged or sick. The impetus that brought them here was not necessarily always immediate employment, but understandable amelioration from a bleak landscape of central Mexico where they cannot be sure of finding food, housing or health care. Despite Hispanic activists’ complaints that “illegal alien” is somehow pejorative, it is far more accurate nomenclature than their inexact use of the politically correct “undocumented worker”–when thousands currently are not at work, nor did they merely forget to do the necessary paperwork before leaving home.

After the debacle in California of first, passing, and then abruptly rejecting legislation granting drivers licenses to illegal residents, we learned of the perils of applying a little bit of the law to a whole lot of illegality. Parents of American citizens wondered why their teenage, soon-to-be drivers would need to produce U.S. birth-certificates when those here illegally did not. Airline security agents worried whether a California driver’s license would draw its authenticity from anything other than an often fraudulent Mexican ID card.

Indeed, one of the causes of the growing furor over the present system of non-enforcement is the perception that many illegal residents actually receive preferential treatment over Americans. For example, students here illegally from Mexico and enrolled at public California universities pay about a third of the tuition costs that American citizens from out-of-state are charged–on the dubious and narrow rationale that the immigrants or their parents are all on official payrolls and thus always have had California income taxes and fees deducted from paychecks.

Supporters of the proposed law say that something is needed since Americans simply refuse certain backbreaking jobs in construction, agriculture, hotels and restaurants. But such understandable pessimism rests on many questionable suppositions. It assumes, for instance, that the traditional remedies of the free market for scarce workers–mechanization and increased wages–ceased to work around 1980; that it is hard to sleep or dine out or find a cut lawn in an Iowa or Maine where there are not tens of thousands of illegal workers; that the experience of guest-workers in Germany and France provides encouraging analogies for importing cheap labor, that Californians or Texans once did not do most of their own work before the influx of industrious aliens; and that it is economically beneficial and morally sound to use foreign workers when millions of Americans remain unemployed.

We forget that there is a life cycle for the typical teenage worker from Oaxaca, whose backbreaking labor is said to be essential for the economy. For a laborer of 18, it may be a good bargain for all involved–but for too many people, after 30 years without education, English, and legality, too often these jobs turn outnot to be entry-level or rite-of-passage, but remain dead-end, and thus catastrophe ensues when an aging, unskilled worker is injured, laid off, ill or the sole breadwinner of a large family. Only the public entitlement industry–health, housing, education and maintenance subsidies–can come to his rescue to provide some parity with Americans that his job or former job could not. His employer in the meantime looks for a younger, healthier, and foreign, successor. Thus the tragic cycle continues.

It is not only uneconomical in the long run to bus in impoverished laborers from Mexico, but also amoral to traffic in human capital. We praise the braceroprogram of the 1960s, but I remember it somewhat differently: When harvests here in the San Joaquin Valley ended, deposited wages in Mexico were often stolen, while not all guest workers wanted to return home.

Nor can illegal immigration be looked at in a vacuum; certainly not in an age of growing ethnic chauvinism that sees unassimilated and often exploited workers in the shadows as an oppressed constituency needing group, rather than individual, representation. Ethnic studies, separate college-graduation ceremonies predicated on race, bilingual education, state-supplied interpreters and power groups like La Raza (“The Race”)–all these are force-multipliers to massive illegal immigration, and thus present us with not merely a problem of labor and economics, but a litmus test of the viability of the melting pot itself.

Instead of squabbling over piecemeal legislation in an election year, rolling amnesties or a return of braceros, we might as well bite the bullet and reconsider an immigration policy that worked well enough for some 200 years for people from all over the world. Reasonable advocates can set a realistic figure for legal immigration from Mexico. Then we must enforce our border controls; consider a one-time citizenship process for current residents who have been here for two or three decades; apply stiff employer sanctions; deport those who now break the law–and return to social and cultural protocols that promote national unity through assimilation and integration.

In the short term, under such difficult reform, we of the American Southwest might pay more for our food, hotel rooms and construction. Yet eventually we will save far more through reduced entitlements, the growing empowerment of our own entry-level workers (many of them recent and legal immigrants from Mexico), and the easing of social and legal problems associated with some eight million to 12 million illegal residents.

More importantly still, our laws would recover their sanctity. Without massive illegal immigration, Americans would rediscover their fondness for measured legal immigration. At a time of war, our borders would be more secure. And we could regain solace, knowing that we are no longer overlords importing modern helots to do the jobs that we, in our affluence and leisure, now deem beneath us.

Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of “Mexifornia: A State of Becoming” (Encounter, 2003).

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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