by Victor Davis Hanson
The Arizona Hysteria
Racist! Nativist! Profiler! Xenophobe!
Write or say anything about illegal immigration, and one should expect to be called all of that and more — even if a strong supporter of legal immigration. Illegal alien becomes undocumented worker. Anti-immigrant replaces anti-illegal-immigration. “Comprehensive” is a euphemism for amnesty. Triangulation abounds. A fiery op-ed grandstands and deplores the Arizona law, but offers no guidance about illegal immigration — and blames the employer for doing something that the ethnic lobby in fact welcomes.
Nevertheless, here it goes from a supporter of legal immigration: how are we to make sense of the current Arizona debate? One should show concern about some elements of the law, but only in the context of the desperation of the citizens of Arizona. And one should show some skepticism concerning mounting liberal anguish, so often expressed by those whose daily lives are completely unaffected by the revolutionary demographic, cultural, and legal transformations occurring in the American Southwest.
As I understand the opposition to the recent Arizona law, it boils down to something like the following: the federal government’s past decision not to enforce its own law should always trump the state’s right to honor it. That raises interesting questions: Does the state contravene federal authority by exercising it? If the federal government does not protect the borders of a state, does the state have a right to do it itself? The federal government has seemed in the past to be saying that if one circumvented a federal law, and was known to have circumvented federal law with recognized impunity, then there was no longer a law to be enforced.
A Losing Political Issue
The politics of illegal immigration are a losing proposition for liberals (one can see that in the resort to euphemism), even if they don’t quite see it that way. Here are ten considerations why.
Law? — What Law?
First, there is the simplicity of the argument. One either wishes or does not wish existing law to be enforced. If the answer is no, and citizens can pick and chose which laws they would like to obey, in theory why should we have to pay taxes or respect the speed limit? Note that liberal Democrats do not suggest that we overturn immigration law and de jure open the border — only that we continue to do that de facto. Confusion between legal and illegal immigration is essential for the open borders argument, since a proper distinction between the two makes the present policy indefensible — especially since it discriminates against those waiting in line to come to America legally (e.g., somehow our attention is turned to the illegal alien’s plight and not the burdensome paperwork and government obstacles that the dutiful legal immigrant must face).
Why Wave the Flag of the Country I Don’t Wish to Return To?
Second, often the protests against enforcement of immigration law are strangely couched within a general climate of anger at the U.S. government (and/or the American people) for some such illiberal transgression (review the placards, flags, etc. at May Day immigration rallies). Fairly or not, the anger at the U.S. and the nostalgia for Mexico distill into the absurd, something like either “I am furious at the country I insist on staying in, and fond of the country I most certainly do not wish to return to” or “I am angry at you so you better let angry me stay with you!” Such mixed messages confuse the electorate. As in the case with the Palestinians, there is an effort to graft a foreign policy issue (protecting an international border) onto domestic identity politics, to inject an inflammatory race/class element into the debate by creating oppressors, victims, and grievances along racial divides.
Big Brother Mexico?
Third, Mexico is no help. Now it weighs in with all sorts of moral censure for Arizonians — this from a corrupt government whose very policies are predicated on exporting a million indigenous people a year, while it seeks to lure wealthy “gringos” to invest in second-homes in Baja. The absence of millions from Oaxaca or Chiapas ensures billions in remittances, less expenditures for social services, and fewer dissident citizens. But the construct of Mexico as the concerned parent of its own lost children is by now so implausible that even its sympathizers do not take it seriously. Mexico has lost all credibility on these issues, expressing concern for its own citizens only when they seem to have crossed the border — and left Mexico.
It’s Not a Race Issue
Fourth, there really is a new popular groundswell to close the borders. Most against illegal immigration, especially in the case of minorities and Mexican-American citizens, keep rather mum about their feelings. But that silence should not be interpreted as antagonism to enforcing the law. Many minorities realize that the greatest hindrance to a natural rise in wages for entry level jobs has been the option for an employer to hire illegal aliens, who, at least in their 20s and 30s, will work harder for less pay with fewer complaints (when sick, or disabled, or elderly, the worker is directed by the employer to the social services agencies and replaced by someone younger as a new cycle of exploitation begins). In this context, the old race card is less effective. The general population is beginning to see not that Americans (of all races who oppose illegal immigration) are racist, but that the open borders movement has itself a racially chauvinistic theme to it, albeit articulated honestly only on university campuses and in Chicano-Latino departments, as a sort of “payback” for the Mexican War, where redress for “lost” land is finally to be had through demography.
Fifth, we are in a deep recession, in which the jobs that for so long seemed unappealing to American citizens are now not all that unappealing. The interior of California suffers from 20% Depression-style unemployment; many of the jobless are first and second-generation Mexican-Americans, who would have some leverage with employers if there were not an alternative illegal labor poll.
A Fence — How Quaint!
Sixth, the so-called unworkable fence mostly works; it either keeps border crossers out or diverts them to unfenced areas. (There is a reason why Obama has ordered its completion tabled). It used to be sophisticated wisdom to tsk-tsk something as reductive as walls, usually by adducing the theory that if an occasional alien made it over or under a wall, then it was of no utility, without acknowledging the fence’s effectiveness in deterring most would-be crossers. But where the fence has gone up, crossings have gone down; and where it is not yet completed crossings have increased.
One Big Travel Advisory?
Seventh, Mexico is now more violent than Iraq. The unrest is spilling across the borders. The old shrill argument that criminals, drug smugglers, and violence in general are spreading into the American southwest from Mexico is not longer quite so shrill.
11 Million — Then, Now, Forever?
Eighth, the numbers are cumulative. We talked of “eleven million illegal aliens” in 2001, and still talk of “eleven million illegal aliens” in 2010. In fact, most suspect that there is more likely somewhere between 12 and 20 million. (Do the math of annual arrivals and add them to the existing pool, factoring in voluntary and coerced deportations).
Money for Mexico?
Ninth, we are at last turning to the issue of remittances: How can expatriates send back some $20-30 billion in remittances, if they are impoverished and in need of extensive entitlements and subsidies to cushion the harshness of life in America? Do those lost billions hurt the U.S. economy? Are they a indirect subsidy for Mexico City? Were such funds ever taxed completely or off-the-books cash income? Remittances are Mexico’s second largest source of foreign exchange; that it comes so often off the sweat of minimum-wage workers seems especially ironic, given Mexico’s protestations about human rights.
The California Canary
Tenth, California’s meltdown is instructive. If about half the nation’s illegal aliens reside in the state, and its problems are in at least in some part attributable to soaring costs in educating hundreds of thousands of non-English-speaking students, a growing number of aliens in prison and the criminal justice system, real problems of collecting off-the-books income and payroll taxes, expanding entitlements, and unsustainable social services, do we wish to avoid its model?
The Law’s a Mess?
The enforcement of the law, such as it is, has become Byzantine: illegal aliens in California pay a third of the college tuition as non-resident citizens; police routinely inquire about all sorts of possible criminal behavior — except the violation of federal immigration statutes. Past, once-and-for-all, final, absolutely-no-more amnesties encourage more illegal entries on the expectation of more such no-more amnesties.
I can understand the liberal desire for open borders. For some, it is genuine humanitarianism — that the U.S. is wealthy enough to absorb a quarter of the impoverished population of Mexico. For others, it is policy by anecdote: helping a long-employed nanny with a car payment or a loyal gardener with a legal matter by extension translates into support for de facto open borders. I have met over the years literally hundreds of Bay Area residents who have assured me that because they have developed a close relationship with Juan, their lawn mower, by extension everyone in nearby Redwood City — which they do not frequent and keep their children away from — ipso facto is like Juan and thus should be given amnesty.
On the political side, Democrats clearly welcome new voting constituents. Illegal aliens becoming citizens, at least for a generation or so, translates into more entitlements and a larger government to administer. (Note how there is not a liberal outcry that we do not let in enough computer programmers from India, small businessmen from France and Germany, or doctors from Korea). Then there is the gerrymandering of the American Southwest to reflect new demographic realities, and the pipe-dream of a salad bowl of unassimilated peoples in need of a paternalistic liberal technocratic governing class — all that apparently is worth the firestorm of trying to ram through something so unpopular as “comprehensive” reform.
Not Quite So Easy
Do conservatives have the winning argument? For now yes — simply close the border, fine employers of illegal aliens, and allow the pool of aliens to become static. Fining employers both stops illegal immigration and is sometimes cheered on by the Left, as if the worker has no culpability for breaking the law (e.g., a liberal can damn unscrupulous employers and thereby oppose illegal immigration without confronting the La Raza bloc). Some will marry citizens. Some will voluntarily return to Mexico. Some will be picked up through the normal government vigilance we all face — traffic infractions, necessary court appearances, interaction with state agencies. And while we argue over the policy concerning the remaining majority of illegal aliens and such contentious issues as green-cards, guest workers, and so-called earned citizenship, the pool at least in theory shrinks.
Yet if I were a Republican policy-maker I would be very wary of mass deportations. A gradualist approach, clearly delineated, is preferable, in which those who have been here five years (to pick an arbitrary number), are gainfully employed, and are free of a criminal record should have some avenue for applying for citizenship (one can fight it out whether they should pay a fine, stay or return to Mexico in the process, and get/not get preference over new applicants.)
Again, one should avoid immediate, mass deportations (it would resemble something catastrophic like the Pakistani-Indian exchanges of the late 1940s), and yet not reward the breaking of federal law. Good luck with that.
Finally, legal immigration should be reformed and reflect new realities. Millions of highly educated and skilled foreigners from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe are dying to enter the U.S. Rather than base immigration criteria on anchor children, accidental birth in the U.S. without concern for legality, and family ties, we need at least in part to start giving preference to those of all races and nationalities who will come with critical skills, and in turn rely less on the social service entitlement industry. They should come from as many diverse places as possible to prevent the sort of focused ethnic tribalism and chauvinism we have seen in the case of Mexico’s cynicism.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson