This article appears in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
After the immigration bill failed in the U.S. Senate, the postmortems deplored the new power of bloggers and the Internet. A done deal cooked up behind closed doors was derailed by the voice of the people. “Talk radio is running America,” complained Mississippi’s Sen. Trent Lott. The Washington Post headlined a David Broder column on the subject, “A Mob-Rule Moment.” Often called the “dean” of Washington journalists, Broder was concerned that public opinion had been “exaggerated by modern communications and interest group pressure.”
That is a fascinating topic, but of more interest right now is the issue of immigration itself. To what extent are immigrants good for America? Are illegals all that bad? Does the continued performance of the U.S. economy require a sizable inflow of newcomers? Did the defeated bill deserve to lose?
In June, all we heard about was amnesty. The proposed new law addressed a far wider range of issues — guest workers; the reallocation of green cards in favor of skills rather than family ties; increased enforcement at the border and in the workplace — but that was one of its problems. Hardly anyone knew what lurked within the bill’s 500 pages. And no one at all, inside the Beltway or beyond it, knew how all those provisions would have worked out in practice.
The last major change in the law, in 1986, which also had an amnesty provision, did not turn out as expected; nor did the one before that — the big immigration reform act of 1965. This time, talk radio and the bloggers focused on the revival of amnesty for the apparently 12 million undocumented workers in the country. There was no effective response to that and so the bill was defeated.
The main problem with this year’s immigration debate was an overall lack of candor. I’ll explain that in a minute. But first let me disclose my own bias. I’m an immigrant myself. And I consider America to be a great country. Furthermore, after I had been here for a few years — in my case it took about four, as I recall — I began to suspect that I had a better appreciation of this country’s merits than many of those who were born here. That suspicion has grown with every passing year.
So whenever I hear criticism of immigrants, whether legal or not, I find myself suspecting that a lot of other immigrants may feel as I do: that America is a great country — and long may it prosper. Bear in mind that they (we) have had an experience that most home-grown Americans never have: we have lived somewhere else! To me, the real threat to this country comes not from immigrants who are ready and willing to work but from home-grown trustfund socialists in places like Vermont and Massachusetts. I could write a whole article saying why they are the problem, not the Mexicans doing stoop labor under a hot sun.
AS TO THE RECENT DEBATE, let’s posit that there were two sides: liberals (favoring the reform bill) and conservatives (opposed). I realize that that is misleading. Senator Kyl of Arizona, one of its principal backers, is a strong conservative. The measure was (partly) supported by the (conservative) Wall Street Journal editorial page. Some on the left opposed it. And so on.
In a nutshell, here is how the debate went. The conservative argument was: “We don’t need this new law. Just enforce the borders!” The liberals said: “We do need it because all these undocumented workers are living in the shadows.”
Those were the two positions. They could almost be reduced to six words: “Enforce the borders!” “In the shadows!” Candor was lacking, because the liberals had not the slightest interest in enforcing the borders. But they also knew that they couldn’t openly support lawbreaking. So they shuffled their feet and allowed for some increased border security (without really meaning to see it through, if the bill ever became law).
There was a parallel problem on the other side. When the liberals uttered their mantra — “workers are forced to live in the shadows” — the conservatives mostly didn’t know how to respond. That’s when they hit on their successful war cry, “No amnesty.” And that carried the day.
In case the argument about people living in the shadows comes up in the future, here’s how to respond. “What’s so bad about being in the shadows? Presumably the immigrants don’t mind it, or they wouldn’t have come here in the first place.”
The Washington Post told the story of a shadow-dweller called Ernesto, a 31-year-old handyman from El Salvador, whose last name was not given. He actually showed up on Capitol Hill “with a small group of immigrants” as the bill was being debated in the Senate. He sounded half out of the shadows to me, almost a lobbyist, in fact; but that’s okay. I’m glad we heard his story.
Ernesto “watched ruefully as the senators dealt their lethal blow to his prospects for a normal life on the right side of the law,” said the Post. How abnormal is his life? With the help of a “local non-profit,” he finds work several days a week and “sends $200 a month home to his family in El Salvador.” As a painter, carpenter, landscaper, and electrician, he does better here than he ever could in El Salvador. He talks to his wife by cell phone most days and hopes to bring her here. “It’s better than what he left behind,” the Post allowed, with enough “to nourish an immigrant’s dream of earning a little more, of working full time.”
The good news, as I see, it, is that “Ernesto does not intend to leave.” Good for him. I hope he finds lots more work and that he doesn’t get harassed by the government or by anti-immigrant vigilantes.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?