Illegal Immigration Is Immoral

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Illegal immigration has been in the news daily during the Republican primary campaign, even though a depressed economy here, stronger border enforcement, and vast new finds of petroleum in Latin America may soon radically curtail the number of illegal entrants into the United States. But for now, conservatives are warned that coming down hard on illegal immigration (i.e., enforcing federal statutes) would lose them the all-critical Hispanic vote. Meanwhile, in California, some legislators want to grant de facto state amnesty to illegal residents. But lost in the continuing furor, pro and con, is the moral dimension. The strange notion has developed that supporting something as immoral as illegal immigration is somehow ethical. It is not, and there are several reasons why.

1. Entry-level labor. Real wages for the working poor in the United States have been stagnant for decades, especially in the Southwest — largely because of the influx of millions of illegal aliens, who, at least for a time, will work for considerably lower wages than Americans. In the last three decades, we have written off an entire class of Americans on the premise that “They won’t do the work.” Here in a California of 10 percent–plus unemployment, everyone from farmers to landscapers complains from experience that the citizen poor cannot or will not work manually. But in theory, why should they, when employers have a constant option of undercutting their wages, and when expanding entitlements make entry-level work an unattractive alternative, both financially and socially? We have expanded social services and decreased workers’ incentives, and then we wonder that a subsidized welfare class lacks the spunk of people crossing the border illegally from an impoverished Mexico. Yet there is something abhorrent about the present American notion of giving up on incentives to promote American labor — among which would be the prevention of cheaper foreign workers entering the country illegally and undercutting wages. Advocacy for illegal immigration is now a de facto lack of concern for the American underclass.

2. Ethnic chauvinism. Illegal immigration is primarily a Hispanic phenomenon, in general from Latin America and in particular from Mexico. Advocates for open borders, other than cynical employers, are today largely Hispanic activists or those who seek political advantage by catering to them. They argue for changes in or relaxation of immigration law, both out of an understandable sense of ethnic solidarity and real concern for the downtrodden, and, yet in some cases, out of a more dubious notion that the more Latin Americans who enter the country by any means necessary, the more power will eventually accrue to Spanish-speaking American elites who represent the collective interest. Or as Los Angeles County supervisor Gloria Molina put it in an infamous 1996 rant, “We are going to talk to all of those young people that need to become registered voters and go out to vote, and we’re politicizing every single one of those new citizens that are becoming citizens of this country. And what we are saying is by November we will have one million additional Latino voters in this country, and we’re gonna march, and our vote is going to be important. But I gotta tell you, there’s a lot of people that are saying, ‘I’m gonna go out there and vote because I want to pay them back!’”

Immigration lobbyists, remember, are not really worried about the plight of Chinese or Indian students who overstay their visas. Somehow ethnic chauvinism has been cloaked with a thin humanitarian veneer, when in fact the concern is not for illegal aliens per se, but for a particular category of illegal aliens. Try a thought experiment. Ask the National Council of La Raza whether it would support offering fast-track citizenship to a commensurate 15 million economic refugees from an imploding Europe or an impoverished Africa, even on conditions not imposed on those from Latin America, such as legality, mastery of English, a college degree, and proof of sustenance. Unfortunately, present advocacy for illegal immigration assumes that race and race-based identity politics shall determine the winners and losers in the immigration lottery. And that seems to me immoral to the core.

3. Legal immigration. Hundreds of thousands from Asia, Africa, and Europe wait patiently and in legal fashion to apply for citizenship. “Crowding to the front of the line” is not a cheap talking point, but an accurate description of those who ignore the rules while others suffer. In essence, the United States has established that several million foreign nationals have precedence for citizenship by virtue of the facts that (a) they have already broken the law in entering the US, (b) they are currently residing illegally in the US, and (c) they are of a particular ethnic group. To question why a PhD in electrical engineering from India must wait for years to gain permanent residence in the US while someone from Oaxaca without a high-school diploma is exempt from such scrutiny is deemed illiberal; in fact, the reality, not the description of it, is the real illiberality.

4. The law. Much of the discussion focuses on the fact that illegal immigration flouts federal law. But the problem is less the initial entry into the US without documentation, and more the succession of law-breaking that needs must follow. If one crosses the border illegally, then one is not likely to state the truth on dozens of subsequent official documents, from matters of identification to certification of employment and entitlement. At each juncture, the law itself is insidiously eroded and the calls for it to be ignored increase. The real immorality is not a law that is found oppressive, but the notion that anyone, most ironically a foreign national, has the right to pick and choose which laws he will obey. No civilization can survive when the law hinges on individual interpretation. If foreign nationals are not required to abide by US law, why would American citizens think that they must?

5. Mexico. The largest ethical myth of illegal immigration is the notion of a Mexico morally concerned about the treatment of its expatriates. Of all the players in the illegal-immigration tragedy, the government of Mexico has proven the most heartless. It facilitates its own citizens’ leaving, going so far as to publish comic books on how to do it (apparently assuming both that its potential emigrants are illiterate and that they should act illegally). It counts on remittances as its second-largest source of foreign exchange, apparently cruelly calibrating that while it won’t fully support its own people, they should help support it once they leave the country. It has opened dozens of new consulates to facilitate help for illegal aliens in the United States, when Mexican citizens in Mexico are in far more need of such government concern. And while Mexico is far more interested in luring wealthy Americans southward with prospects of selling vacation homes in Baja California than it is in helping its own people find housing in Oaxaca, it somehow poses as the protector of the rights of Mexicans in America, whom it never troubled to help when they were in Mexico. Without illegal immigration, Mexico would lose American cash, have to reform its own social and economic policies, and forfeit leverage on US social and foreign policy.

6. Poverty. We do not know how many billions of dollars leave the US economy each year bound for Latin America. Before the recession, the number was estimated at anywhere between $25 billion and $50 billion, more than half of it believed sent to Mexico. If it is true that millions of illegal aliens, who are the primary remitters, are poor and at some point in need of public assistance for their housing, sustenance, and health care, then their sending dollars home is a direct subsidy by American taxpayers to foreign governments. In California the cost of providing support for illegal aliens ranges from $8 billion to some $12 billion a year, a figure that might roughly match the amount of money sent to Mexico from California each year. In a moral universe, illegal aliens would not remit money home and then expect their hosts to make up the difference; a moral Mexico in turn would not expect its most impoverished to work abroad and live cheaply, in order to send billions home to alleviate Mexico City’s responsibility for its own poor. And in a moral universe, to suggest all that would not be deemed a thought crime.

7. Moral racketeering. One of the most disturbing aspects surrounding illegal immigration is the attempt to silence debate with charges of racism, nativism, and bias. In fact, there are legitimate concerns that have nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but simply are not being voiced, about the consequences of millions arriving illegally, without capital or education, and without English. At present, there may be anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 illegal aliens incarcerated in the California penal system (exact figures are rarely released). The high-school dropout rate among first- and second-generation Hispanic males in California now nears 60 percent. To say out loud that millions of illegal aliens have some connection to California’s declining test scores, its insolvent finances, and the exodus of California citizens from the state is absolutely taboo, but it is generally and quietly assumed.  More disturbingly, an entire edifice of victimization has been built on American culpability for purported oppression on the basis of class and race. It has now reached the point of an eerie Orwellianism, in which many in the Hispanic political establishment make moral claims against an America unwilling to grant blanket amnesty, and yet must simultaneously assume that such a morally suspect entity is a far more desirable place than is Mexico — though the reasons for that tacit assumption must never be voiced. A disturbing example of how this plays out was the recent booing of the American national soccer team in the Los Angeles Coliseum by the “hometown” crowd. A psychiatrist is needed to explain why thousands were booing symbols of a country that they risked their lives to reach, while cheering on a country that they were dying to leave. That schizophrenia was inculcated largely in America.

8. Politics. The Republican candidates have been advised to tread carefully in talking about illegal immigration, in fear of the wrath of Hispanic voters, which has so effectively been massaged by President Obama (“punish our enemies,” “alligators and moats”). Indeed, even to talk of illegal immigration in any but the vaguest terms is considered near suicidal to one’s career and reputation. But such a calculus ignores long-term reality. Closing the borders will hasten assimilation, integration, and intermarriage, as the success of third- and fourth-generation Mexican-Americans attests. Compliance with the law is the only mechanism to allow the full expression of a naturally conservative Hispanic culture. The Mexican-American community deals first-hand with the chaos of massive illegal immigration and is not always happy about the consequences. In contrast, open borders and amnesty will ensure a constant influx of illegal immigrants who become constituents of those who facilitate illegal entry and residence.

There are ways that are both moral and practical to deport recent arrivals, felons, and those entirely on public assistance, while offering mechanisms for long-residing aliens, employed and not convicted of felonies, to apply for citizenship — without automatic approval, however, and only after meeting logical criteria and paying fines. The only real issue is whether the qualified should obtain temporary residence cards while waiting for adjudication of their requests, or must return to Mexico to apply; but that is a decision that follows, not precedes, an end to open borders. A fence, changed economic conditions in both the United States and Latin America, and new public doubts about illegal immigration are already beginning to slow down the influx, suggesting that it is time to address the issue in ways that will lay the groundwork for better policies in the future.

But for now, it is also time to change the entire tenor of the discussion, and accept that the proponents of illegal immigration have lost all moral credibility.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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