The New Immigration Politics

Wherein, for example, the rich and poor join hands.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

[A shorter version of this essay appeared in the June 5, 2006 issue of National Review magazine.]

The debate over illegal immigration seems to have grown hackneyed. The same old controversies are rehashed — do illegal aliens contribute more or less than the entitlements they receive? Do they or their children assimilate at more or less the same rate as did previous groups? Is the present mess any different from past waves of foreign immigration? And so on.

Facts, usually lacking or compiled by partisans, are twisted to score points, as the issue of who benefits has replaced that of the sanctity of law. Various bodies of experts, none of whom know how many illegal aliens are residing inside our borders, offer mutually exclusive testimonies. In exasperation at the lack of reliable data the argument often devolves into personal anecdote — ‘Juan is the most hard-working and reliable roofer I’ve hired’; or, in contrast: “This is the second time that an unlicensed driver without insurance or registration has rammed me and tried to flee the scene.”

Yet, the illegal immigration controversy is not static, as a number of new considerations have recently surfaced to reenergize the debate as it is played out in Congress.

First, class and regional fault lines, rather than racial and political differences, now define the issue. Views about illegal immigration have become mostly a divide between the poor and wealthy versus the middle class of the American Southwest. Those who have enough money not to worry about taxes and those who receive entitlements combine against beleaguered middle-class voters. The latter feel squeezed by ever more taxes and yet receive little government help for their children’s college tuition or their own health care.

Similarly, those affluent enough to hire nannies, landscapers, and pool sweepers, and who frequently go out to eat and use hotels, are not bothered that their service help is here illegally. In contrast, carpenters, truck drivers, and janitors, who have little opportunity for travel and entertainment and do their own chores at home, bitterly resent cheap alternative labor that is not subject to the same rules as American workers. Upscale suburbanites who see illegal aliens as hard-working servants from 8-5 rarely live near them or their children — and so are less aware how poor schools, the lack of English, poverty, gangs, illegality, and crowded housing change the landscape of formerly middle class neighborhoods in cities like Fresno, San Jose, or Bakersfield.

For example, entire towns in California’s San Joaquin Valley — Malaga, Mendota, Orange Cove, or Parlier — are de facto apartheid communities, whose illegal aliens often commute to work in construction, landscaping, and service industries to an upscale north Fresno that spills into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Most who are served have never set foot in the poor towns of their help a few miles away, and have little interest whether English is spoken or the municipal coffers are perennially empty.

Politically, the result is that the U.S. Senate in bipartisan fashion tends to be more lax on the issue than the more populist House. The open-borders Wall Street Journal often lines up on the same side of the issue as the National Council of La Raza — in dire opposition to prairie-fire talk show hosts, bloggers, and cable news anchormen who tap into the growing backlash of the proverbial man in the street.

This widening class divide skews party politics. Boutique multiculturalism of the Left collides with bread-and-butter concerns of old-style blue-collar Democratic households. African-Americans, many of whom compete for low-wage jobs and may not often hire Hispanic nannies and gardeners or have the capital to demonstrate noblesse oblige, gravitate more toward the position of Rep. Tom Tancredo than that of a Sen. Barbara Boxer.

In turn, suburban neoconservatives grate at fed-up traditionalists who bluntly demand deportation and a wall. Upscale Republicans can’t quite figure out whether their libertarian open-border philosophy will lose more of their conservative base than what it might gain in new Hispanic voters.

In the same way, Democrats are worried that non-Hispanic minorities and ethnics are repelled by fiery constituent La Razistas who chant “¡Sí, Se puede!” And what will liberals do about affirmative action mandates, when confronted with possible naturalization of more than ten million aliens, who fit the targeted Hispanic profile, but not the canard that they are deserving of special treatment due to decades of historic and endemic discrimination inside the United States?

The recent massive public demonstrations of illegal aliens have also complicated things. The first round of protests — ubiquitous Mexican flags, ethnic placards and racialist sloganeering — turned millions of Americans off, especially those outside the American Southwest that had little firsthand experience with the thirty-year controversy over bilingualism in schools, drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens, the stridency of Chicano Studies Departments, and Reconquista romance.

In response to the backlash, the organizers of the second round of such protests changed tactics somewhat by waving as many American as Mexican flags, along with displaying placards demanding amnesty and citizenship.

But this tact also raised as many problems as it solved. Had the illegal alien strategic planners unwittingly boxed themselves into a corner? When they attempted to stress their love of America by flying Old Glory and bearing placards asking for citizenship, then many Americans perhaps were willing to take them at their newfound word for unity rather than separatism. In theory, that would mean, in exchange for an end to illegal immigration through strict border enforcement and tough employer sanctions, many here illegally might be allowed to stay to start their citizenship process.

But citizenship also demands Americanization. In turn, the melting pot spells an end to bilingual government documents and the mythology of a growing separatist Hispanic culture. Would our May Day protestors really concede that there would no longer be a perpetual pool each year of 1-2 million illegal aliens — unassimilated, without English, and full of romance about Mexico — to provide fresh constituents for the La Causa?

After all, avenues for earned citizenship, coupled with the end of open borders and the absence of a guest worker program, would, as in the case of past one-time influxes of Cubans or Southeast Asians, cut off the continual supply of the newly aggrieved. With rapid assimilation, the need ends for Hispanic political caucuses, government Spanish-language interpreters, and demands for everything from special driver’s licenses to tuition discounts for illegals.

Finally, there is concern over the Latin American powder keg. After the example of what India, South Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and China have achieved by adopting free markets, how could Latin American democracies return to the bankrupt statist policies of the past? Other than the obvious answer that oil and natural gas at today’s astronomical prices can subsidize a great deal of failure well beyond Bolivia and Venezuela, the best explanation is that furor, not reason, guides popular politics. The problem is not that South Americans in general are any worse off than thirty years ago, but that some in their midst have become very much better off — and that such newfound and highly visible affluence has not been shared by all.

The ascendance of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia has revived the romance of creating an anti-Yankee bloc of revolutionaries who nationalize foreign companies, gratuitously goad the energy-hungry United States, and use petro-dollar profits to subsidize an otherwise unworkable socialism. Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega are no longer seen as has-beens of a failed Stalinist past, but enlisted as recycled avatars of radical change. And strident presidential candidates like Ollanta Humala in Peru and Lopez Obrador of Mexico sound even more radical in their denunciations of the United States and dreams of creating a neo-communist alternative to Western-style capitalism.

In that context, millions of observers found it unsettling on May Day, despite efforts to Americanize the protests, to watch hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens from Mexico and Latin America, shouting their demands for economic sanctions, and accompanied by fringe groups bearing pictures of Che Guevara. In Mexico City there was a simultaneous boycott of “gringos.” And some of the illegal alien sloganeering in the streets of the United States has long carried the same racialist flavor that characterizes the anger of indigenous people whipped up by Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales.

Just as it makes no sense for Latin Americans to vote in these new Peronists who will undo all the work of political and economic liberalization of the recent past, so too it was paradoxical this spring for angry protestors in Los Angeles and Chicago to wave the flag of the country they seek to avoid and shun the flag of the nation that they so desperately wish to reach. But that is precisely the point: anger and fury at “them” — that nebulous American bogeyman — is starting to override all else in the illegal alien movement here as it does now in general south of the border.

So where do all these developments leave us? If we worry most over balkanization of America and the potential radicalization of illegal aliens, then two issues should rise to the fore: border enforcement and assimilation. Consequently, there should be a sequence in policy implementation. Before adjudicating issues like amnesty and guest workers, first simply close the border now to stop the influx. That way we can define the problem as one of 11 million illegal aliens rather than of 15-20 should we become mired in a long drawn-out debate.

Second, to avoid both the current mess, and the even worse one that may be on the horizon in Latin America, all solutions must be relegated to the general aim of assimilation. The key would be to divorce the present expatriate Mexican community from their spiritual kindred in Mexico by ensuring that they are the last generation of illegal aliens. Prior amnesties failed because we kept the border open and allowed employers to cheat on enforcement. But if no more can cross our borders unlawfully, and we can insist on strict criterion for citizenship — a clean criminal record, English-language instruction, demonstrable proof of four or five years of residence in the United States — then within a decade our shadow population of monolingual Mexican aliens will vanish.

Accordingly, a guest worker program from Mexico makes little sense. It will only replenish the supply of perpetually aggrieved second-class citizens that fuel political separatism and radicalism — while lowering domestic wages of the very group of new citizens that we are trying to help. More importantly, the billions of dollars in remittances from illegal aliens in the United States sent to Mexico and Latin America, like oil, only prop up current failed policies.

Those have it wrong who warn that without remittances governments to the south would be in dire trouble. True, they might be so in the short-term, but dire trouble alone will provide the impetus for change — as subsidies cease that mask structural impediments to economic liberalization. Oil riches and money sent back from the United States have proven a dual bane for Mexico, since the government has never had to adopt policies to create wealth that was not bequeathed.

An end to massive remittances will also have two other positive results. First, newly legal immigrants can begin to save their money to ensure things like health insurance and suitable housing rather than sending nearly half their wages across the borders as they live in substandard conditions in the United States and look to entitlements to achieve a semblance of parity with their American-citizen counterparts.

Second, give the rhetoric of Chavez, Morales, and Abrador a chance to have real consequences — as Hispanics can no longer simply walk into the hated United States and then indulge in the romantic yearning for a distant mother country that they no longer have to endure. And, as in the case of Castro’s Cuba, quite soon the anger of aggrieved citizens stuck back home might turn on their own utopians rather than on an Uncle Sam that they can no longer reach.

So the immigration debate is being turned upside down. Open borders are no longer seen as liberal, but elitist and antithetical to the middle class, even as illegal aliens suddenly demand to be Americans — even as they may soon be asked to match word with deed. And while we thought cheap labor from Mexico, and its attendant social and political problems, were an exclusively American worry, we are starting to see instead that the United States is playing with an explosive mixture that may soon engulf much of the Americas.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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