The Moral Dimensions of Illegal Immigration

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

The New Old Debate Over Illegal Immigration

The debate over illegal immigration is mostly fossilized. We know the predictable contours. Despite different realities on the ground, they have not changed much from the 1960s. The narrative for half-a-century has gone something like this: a callous America welcomed in cheap laborers. It treated them not so well and then panicked when their numbers grew and workers did not go home after harvest — changing the very demography of several states. Undeniable racism and discrimination fueled the tensions. That was ironic inasmuch as the American Southwest was once taken by the Yanquis from Mexico.

Readers could add sidebars about the weird open-borders alliance: the corporate Right wanted access to plentiful cheap labor; the therapeutic Left saw constituent advantage in millions of illegal aliens without English, legality, and education — but with apparent need of elite self-appointed representatives in academia, journalism, and politics. If supposedly right-wing American employers had been often predatory, so in response grew a new left-wing grievance industry that enhanced the status of some second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans, who, in salad-bowl rather than melting-pot fashion, now saw their ethnicity as essential and not incidental to new more partisan personas.

But time moves on, even if interested groups do not. And now the debate has vastly metamorphosized in often mysterious ways.


Poverty is the burden of illegal immigration — understandable when poor indigenous peoples from the Mexican interior left everything behind and started at the bottom rung of American society with three strikes against them – illegal, undereducated, and without English. But recently Mexico has been the recipient of billions in remittances; estimates usually range from $20 to $25 billion per annum.

The new magnitude of such transfers raises a number of questions never quite adequately addressed. The profits certainly explain the loud editorializing of the Mexican government, which has opened dozens of new consulates and is now suing Arizona over the state’s new immigration laws. And they raise questions about American entitlements as well. Do the math. One assumes that most of the remittances are sent home from Mexican nationals. California, for example, is also thought to spend about $10 billion-plus for entitlements to ensure minimal parity for illegal aliens. California is also believed to be the home of 25%-40% of those illegal aliens now residing in the US — or probably between 2 and 4 million in the state.

In some sense, then, California allots about the same amount of cash to help illegal aliens as the latter may well send home to relatives in Mexico. That might raise all sorts of ethical questions: Is the undeniable poverty of illegal aliens in part due not to a stinginess on the part of the California taxpayer or the rapacity of the employer, but rather also to the choice to send thousands of dollars per year back to Mexico? Both the capital flight from California, coupled with the staggering increase in entitlements, may well nullify any advantage rendered the state by industrious and rather inexpensive workers. Is it ethical to take state support and still send money back to Mexico?

Visitor and Host

The debate over illegal immigration was always located in the context of an immigrant bewildered by a foreign land. That was the theme of a number of 1960s-like documentaries. But an 11-million-plus community creates in some areas majority realities that often turn such moral questions upside down.

If a neighbor brings in four Winnebagos to his yard, violates zoning laws, and rents the trailers out to illegal aliens, is he a victim of cultural disorientation or cynically choosing to disobey the laws of his host, either on the premise that so many of his associates are doing similar things that the law simply cannot be enforced, or that his controversial immigration status conveys political exemption from tradition statute enforcement? Bilingual services originated on the premise that a small minority was needlessly overwhelmed by a difficult language like English. Somehow that allowance has evolved into an entitlement that almost ensures an illegal alien that he need not learn the language of his resident country — while ensuring needless waste in time and efficiency to millions of Californians, who must push buttons on phones to get to English information or flip through bulky manuals in duplicate languages. And when one sees state and federal jobs with requisites of Spanish fluency, one wonders if the same listing demands English fluency as well? Nearly 50,000 Mexican nationals are now part of the California state penal system and the county jails — at a cost of over $1.5 billion. Is there a new lack of respect for the host, in a manner unlike that legal adherence of prior waves of immigration?


Current immigration policy is unfortunately embedded in questions of racial politics and ethnic tribalism. When Barack Obama urges Latinos “to punish our enemies,” or jokes about illiberal Republicans wanting “moats and alligators,” or skips immigration reform when he had both houses of Congress, only to demagogue the issue when Republicans won back the House, he apparently reasons that Hispanics/Latinos/Mexican-Americans will vote for him on the premise that he will help illegal aliens find legality in the US. Note that Mexican-Americans en masse are assumed (I think often quite wrongly) to place ethnic solidarity over the enforcement of federal law. Strange questions then follow: if 11 million Chinese were landing by barge on the California coast, would the Latino political community favor such illegal immigration, be indifferent, or worry about the cost, and the effect on the sanctity of the law?

Who, then, becomes the ethnic chauvinist — the advocate of amnesty or open borders by virtue of a shared ethnic heritage, or the citizens of all races worried that any one particular constituency does not wish to comply with the law? When a group like the National Council of La Raza demands amnesty, are we to laugh or cry that “The Race” is engaged in the issue not on behalf on South Koreans or Ugandans who have overstayed their student visas?


In one of the more brilliant public relations feats in recent memory, the Mexican government has managed to play the aggrieved party, whose citizens are supposedly lured away by rapacious American capitalists. The cynicism has become unmistakable. Let us count the ways: a) Mexico reaps billions — remittances are the second largest source of foreign exchange for the Mexican government — from the hard toil of its own expatriates. (I say cynical because it has published a comic book on how to cross the border illegally — assuming, apparently, that legality is of no importance, and most of its own emigrants are illiterate.); b) Mexico seems little interested in creating conditions in its interior that might improve the lot of its indigenous citizenry, in the manner it has managed to accomplish in Baja to attract the capital of mostly affluent American vacation-home owners; c) Mexico would never allow conditions on its own southern border that it insists should apply on its northern; Why so?; d) Mexico is more concerned about galvanizing a potent expatriate community once it is gone from Mexico than in pursuing social equitability that might lead to improved conditions to keep Mexicans home. I could go on, but the debate over illegal immigration must focus on Mexico as a cynical player, one that sees the lives of millions of its own citizens not in terms of moral concern, but largely through foreign exchange and geopolitical leverage.

The Nature of Work

The labor of Mexican nationals was traditionally associated with agriculture, as in referents like the Bracero Program and the unionizing efforts of Cesar Chavez [1]. But due to mechanization, suburbanization, and the massive influxes of Mexican national laborers, agriculture is now only a small source of employment — dwarfed by employment in landscaping, meat-packing, construction, restaurants, and hotels. In other words, “them” — the proverbial rapacious agribusiness person — long ago was replaced by “us,” the upper middle class, whose nannies, gardeners, cooks, and housekeepers may well be, in Meg Whitman fashion, illegal. And given that 37% of the state’s population is self-described as Hispanic, we should assume a great number of illegal aliens work themselves for Mexican-American employers. The old stereotypes of oppressor and oppressed simply do not make any sense.


“Raza” is now also an anachronistic term in so many ways in the American Southwest. “White,” to the degree it is even distinguishable (why, for government purposes, is a darker-skinned Armenian-American considered “white,” while a lighter-skinned Mexican national is sometimes not?), is obsolete, in an intermarried, integrated, and assimilated culture. Who, then, is white? My half-Mexican-American nieces and nephews? My neighbor’s ¼ Japanese, ¼ white, ½ Mexican grandson? And who is the establishment — poor Bakersfield whites, upscale Palo Alto Asians, wealthy Central Valley Sikhs, super-wealthy Beverly Hills Iranians? And what incites contemporary prejudice — the turban of a bearded dark-skinned Punjabi or the name Gonzales of a half-Mexican-American valley girl? As the debate ages to the point of senility, we are now often in the fourth and fifth generation of Mexican-Americans, who know as much about Oaxaca as I do about Lund, Sweden. In other words, race, in the sense of identification with a Hispanic surname, is no longer defined by a look, a culture, a language even, much less demonstrable racial prejudice and social disadvantage. Instead nomenclature is a brand of sorts used mostly for identity politics, sometimes in the most bizarre distortions — a fact that gets us back to illegal immigration.

An affluent Chilean immigrant can piggyback onto the ordeal of the illegal alien, and find affirmative action help, by the fact his name is Pedro Lopez. I have seen just that happen often in the California State University system. But if his father were a German-immigrant to Chile with a name like Beck, and if he were foolish enough to Anglicize his first name, then a Peter Beck would have little luck in the American bureaucratic archipelago. Hispanic surnames, often superficially so, can become keys to unlock a calcified system of preferences, but which often offer little guidance any more about half-century-old issues like minority identity, oppression, and victimization.

Illegal Immigration in Perpetuity

So I end with another related disconnect: the absolute importance of illegal immigration to the existing liberal Mexican-American hierarchy. Without a yearly influx of hundreds of thousands of Mexican or Latin American nationals, the formidable powers of the American melting pot would render “Mexican” analogous to “Italian”, ”Armenian” or “Danish”—no identifiable grievance, no identifiable claim on privilege,just more Americans who lost their hyphenation. But add millions of poor Mexican nationals clumsily into the equation, and all statistics become distorted: for each impoverished Mexican national from Oaxaca who crosses the border, one middle-class Mexican-American more likely remains part of a statistically disadvantaged group—and thus, in theory,in need of special compensation.

Note as well, that Mexican-Americans, at least in the first and second generation, share many of the same conservative values as most other ethnics. What distinguishes them from conservative Cubans are not necessarily ideas about religion, abortion, gay marriage, drug legalization, or deficit spending, but continual, rather than one-time immigration, and loyalty to politicians who promise de facto open borders and eventual amnesty. Stop illegal immigration and the present Mexican-American community would insidiously either lose tribal identification or become far more conservative — or both. In counterintuitive fashion, the best way that conservative politicians could appeal to Latino voters is not short-term pandering to facilitate open borders, but long-term efforts to close them and help channel the Mexican diaspora along the assimilationist lines of other ethnic immigrations — that eventually became sources of support for conservative causes.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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