by Victor Davis Hanson
Wall Street Journal
“Shameful,” screams Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, about the proposed extension of a security fence along the southern border of the U.S. “Stupid! Underhanded! Xenophobic!” bellowed his Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, warning: “Mexico is not going to bear, it is not going to permit, and it will not allow a stupid thing like this wall.”
The allusions to the Berlin Wall made by aggrieved Mexican politicians miss the irony: The communists tried to keep their own people in, not illegal aliens out. More embarrassing still, the comparison boomerangs on Mexico, since it, and not the U.S., most resembles East Germany in alienating its own citizens to the point that they flee at any cost. If anything might be termed stupid, underhanded or xenophobic in the illegal immigration debacle, it is the conduct of the Mexican government:
“Stupid” characterizes a government that sits atop vast mineral and petroleum reserves, enjoys a long coastline, temperate climate, rich agricultural plains — and either cannot or will not make the necessary political and economic reforms to feed and house its own people. The election of Vicente Fox, NAFTA and cosmetic changes in banking and jurisprudence have not stopped the corruption or stemmed the exodus of millions of Mexicans.
“Underhanded” also sums up the stance of Mexico, masquerading in humanitarian terms the abjectly immoral export of its own dispossessed.
Indeed, such cynicism directly protects the status quo in three critical ways. The flight of the poor is Mexico’s aberrant version of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s safety-valve theory of the frontier: But instead of homesteaders heading west, the impoverished go northward, preferring simply to leave rather than change their government.
Mexico receives between $10 and $15 billion in annual remittances from illegal aliens in the U.S., a subsidy that not only masks political failure at home, but comes at great cost to its expatriates abroad. After all, such massive transfers of capital must be made up from somewhere. Poor workers who send half their wages to kin are forced to make do in a high-priced U.S. through two exigencies — they lower their standard of living here while often depending on state and local governments for supplemental housing, education, medical and food aid.
Rarely in the great debate over illegal immigration do we frame the issue in such moral terms: If life back home is improving thanks to money wired back, first-generation Mexican enclaves in the U.S. remain chronically poor, not investing where they live and work.
Mexico senses that the longer its poor are away from Mexico, the more likely they are to grow sentimental about a homeland that they can visit but need not return to. In short, the growing Mexican expatriate community offers valuable political leverage with the U.S. As the politics demand, the community can be characterized either as poor and exploited to shame the U.S., or as successful and industrious to claim credit for the economic boom up north. In our Orwellian world, the welfare of the neglected of Mexico warrants more concern from their government when they are no longer in Mexico.
How did we get to this impasse — where Americans would embrace such a retrograde solution as building a fence, or Mexico would routinely slander its northern neighbor? The answer is the vast size of the illegal population — now over 10 million — and the inability or unwillingness of the U.S. government to sanction employers or deploy sufficient resources to enforce the border. Sheer numbers has evolved the debate far beyond the old, “We need labor” and “They have workers,” to something like, “Can the U.S. remain a sovereign nation with borders at all?”
With a few thousand crossing illegally each year we could all look the other way. Free-market libertarians could lecture that illegal immigrants toned up the labor market and helped us avoid the demographic stasis that Europe now suffers. Critics of illegal immigration — who complained that their property on the border was vandalized, or that their relatives from India and the Philippines waited patiently while others cut in front of the immigration line — were written off as racists and worse.
Americans liked their food cooked, yards kept and dishes washed cheaply — as long as the invisible workers with little education, less English and no legal status stayed invisible, and as long as illegal immigration could not directly be linked to plummeting public school test scores in the Southwest or 15,000 prison inmates in the California penal system. But somewhere around the year 2000 a tipping point was reached: the dialogue changed when the number of illegals outnumbered the population of entire states. There also began a moral transformation in the controversy, with the ethical tables turned on the proponents of de facto open borders.
Employers were no longer seen as helping either the U.S. economy or poor immigrants, but rather as being party to exploitation that made a mockery of the law, ossified the real minimum wage, undermined unions and hurt poorer American citizens. The American consumer discovered that illegal immigration was a fool’s bargain — reaping the benefits of cheap labor upfront, but paying far more later on through increased subsidies for often ill-housed and poorly-educated laborers who had no benefits.
Nor is the evolving debate framed so much any more as left-versus-right, but as the more privileged at odds with the middle and lower classes. On one side are the elite print media, the courts and a few politicians fronting for employer and ethnic interests; on the other are the far more numerous, and raucous, talk-radio listeners, bloggers and cable news watchers, the ballot propositions, and populist state legislators who better reflect the angry pulse of the country.
Those who own farms and run hotels, who hire nannies and housecleaners, who head Washington lobbying organizations, and who staff the Mexican ministries, really do need the millions of illegals that in so many different ways serve their needs. But the American poor who wish to organize for better wages; the reformers in Mexico who need pressure on the Mexican government; and the middle class, which pay the taxes and tries to obey the letter of the law, are increasingly against illegal immigration. And they no longer much worry over being slurred, by their illiberal critics, as nativist.
So the world is upside down. The once liberal notion of ignoring illegal immigration is now seen as cynically illiberal. And taking drastic steps to enforce the law — including something seemingly as absurd as a vast fence — is now seen as more ethical than the current subterfuge that undermines the legal system of the nation.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson