Obama Fails to Square the Illegal-Immigration Circle

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

There was very little new in the president’s speech — certainly not his tired hope-and-change trope of blending legal and illegal immigration (“The scientific breakthroughs of Albert Einstein, the inventions of Nikola Tesla, the great ventures of Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel and Sergey Brin’s Google — all this was possible because of immigrants”). There is broad public support for the former but not the latter — so he had to imply that those who oppose massive illegal immigration are unappreciative of the great contribution of legal immigrants. (And note his use of euphemism in “11 million undocumented immigrants”— as if immigrants simply forgot their documents upon entry.)

Confusion was thematic, and evident in, for example, the idea that “being an American is not a matter of blood or birth. It’s a matter of faith. It’s a matter of fidelity to the shared values that we all hold so dear.” If so, anyone in the world with the requisite beliefs and virtues would be an American. Actually being one, of course, requires either birth in the United States or lawful naturalization.

It is disturbing to hear a president confess that he cannot enforce the law or secure the border. (“But our borders are just too vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with fences and border patrols. It won’t work. Our borders will not be secure as long as our limited resources are devoted to not only stopping gangs and potential terrorists, but also the hundreds of thousands who attempt to cross each year simply to find work.”) I hope the Taliban are not listening to that admission.

For most of our history, illegal immigration was not a problem of the present magnitude, and the country had confidence that it could enforce its borders when it wished to. What has changed is not the terrain, or the reality that many wish to enter illegally, but our attitudes about such fundamental issues as the rule of law, national sovereignty, and assimilation. Indeed, the president ordered a halt to the building of the border fence, suggesting an absence of will rather than a hopeless task.

I agree with the president that employers bear a great deal of the responsibility for illegal immigration. But one cannot admire the plucky illegal alien for wanting to work and at the same time demonize the employer who fulfills his dream (“Businesses must be held accountable if they break the law by deliberately hiring and exploiting undocumented workers”). Parse the logic: If it is understandable that well-intended persons break the law to find work, then it must be equally understandable that other well-intended persons wish to help them do it. In truth, employer and employee alike put their economic interests above adherence to the law. They alike worry less about the social costs of illegal immigration than about their own welfare. That one is a wealthier American and the other a poorer Latin American alien does not change this.

The president likes the passive voice and the use of abstraction, which suggest that illegal aliens are guided not by their own choices but by impersonal forces: “Crimes go unreported as victims and witnesses fear coming forward. And this makes it harder for the police to catch violent criminals and keep neighborhoods safe. And billions in tax revenue are lost each year because many undocumented workers are paid under the table.” Note the absence of any reference to thousands of illegal aliens who commit crimes or the mounting cost of incarcerating them, which in California, for example, is nearing $1 billion a year.

Of course, tens of billions are also lost in the remittances that illegal aliens send south of the border. This lost income not only hurts our economy, but induces the states and the federal government to make up for the remitted cash by providing its senders with entitlements to housing, nutrition, education, and legal advocacy.

There was not a word about the responsibility of the Mexican government, or the need for market reforms to open Mexico’s economy to create jobs and capital. In a long speech about a problem that increasingly involves Mexico and Mexican nationals, Obama mentioned Mexico just once, and only in conjunction with the story of a former Mexican national who became a citizen. Yet Mexican president Felipe Calderón, speaking from the White House lawn, has recently blasted one of our states as acting in prejudicial fashion. (No wonder he opposes a policy that would curtail the remittances that subsidize his government’s social-welfare responsibilities.)

The subtext of the speech was politics of the very sort the text often deplored. Obama has to square a circle: He and his base, as we saw in the campaign of 2008, want veritable open borders that will result in more Democratic constituents, who in turn will change the politics of the Southwest; more recipients of federal largess; and more government workers to dispense it. This is in line with a postmodern sense that sovereignty is passé and commitment to principle is as mundane as obedience to the law. On the other hand, a vast majority of the American people, of all races, oppose illegal immigration for reasons that have nothing to do with race or class, and simply want the borders enforced.

So, presto! You confuse illegal and legal immigration, deplore politicking, blame the opportunistic employer more than the opportunistic illegal-alien employee, and pretend to lecture all sides while in fact demanding amnesty (something doable) as a condition of closing the border (something impossible). That’s pretty much where we are, and it will not work.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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