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Welfare State Immigrants

All is not well in the field of immigration, writes an anti-nativist.

By 2.27.05

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IMMIGRATION BENEFITS AMERICA -- as an immigrant I am the first to agree. I would go so far as to say that immigrants are often more pro-American than the native born. Because they (we) grew up somewhere else, we have a basis of comparison. When things are better here, as they often are, we can see it right away. Such comparisons are difficult for the home-grown, who are inclined to take their surroundings for granted. To do otherwise would be difficult for anyone.

Grumpy old New Englanders who have come down in the world illustrate the point. They see the U.S. less as a great country than as one in which their own ancestors were more important and often more prosperous than they are. Disgruntled, they vote for the most left-wing candidates on offer and dream up insane environmental schemes to bring economic activity to a halt wherever possible. They would like to reduce us to an arts-and-crafts economy in which they could flourish anew. Immigrants are not so crazy.

I hope that immunizes me against the charge of nativism, for my thesis is that all is not well in the field of immigration.

In the 1890s, U.S. immigration was essentially unrestricted, and I would be in favor of that today were it not for two things: the welfare state, and the campaign against the melting pot, waged over the past generation with some success. In 1890, when immigrants were 14.8% of the U.S. population, the welfare state did not exist. Today immigrants are 11.9%.

U.S. law has decreed that two major components of the welfare state cannot be denied even to those who came here illegally: education and "emergency" medical care. Since hospital emergency rooms are now frequented by ordinary (if unscrupulous) Americans for the treatment of almost any condition, including cold symptoms, illegals can in effect claim the right to treatment for almost any medical condition without fear of refusal.

When a country has reached the point where it cannot deny tax-funded benefits to those (or their offspring) who arrived illegally, then the rule of law has broken down. It's hard to predict the long-term consequences -- immigration policy is fraught with unintended consequences -- but here is one that is likely: Political support for immigration will be undermined. This has already happened in England, where refugees threaten "the apparatus of the welfare state and National Health Service," as the Spectator in the UK noted recently. "The ordinary taxpayer is ready to cough up for a system that ensures that Doris down the road can have her hip operation, but does not want to pay for the central African AIDS crisis."

There are said to be ten million illegal aliens in the United States. A new study claims they cost the California taxpayers alone about $10 billion a year for medical care, education, and incarceration. Their children constitute 15% of the state's K-12 student body. Nationwide, 31% of all immigrants now come from Mexico -- up from 16% in 1980.

Increased border surveillance in California and Texas has funneled more and more Mexicans through Arizona. Over 400,000 a year are arrested trying to enter the state, and the flood of illegals has forced some hospitals in Arizona into bankruptcy. In response, Proposition 200 was put on the Arizona ballot in November. Undocumented applicants would be ineligible for state benefits, including the privilege of voting.

According to a left-wing activist working to defeat the measure, Prop. 200 was opposed by the entire political class: "the Chamber of Commerce, the entire Congressional delegation, the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, civil rights groups, church groups, human rights groups, trade unions," and more. Still, it passed with 56% of the vote.

Those campaigning for progressive causes in the Southwest have focused on one thing: registering Hispanics to vote. Here is a condensed news story from the Los Angeles Times last September. No words have been changed, but I have removed ellipses:

"Slowly but inexorably activists across the region are moving more Latinos to the polls. Such progress is gradually strengthening Democratic prospects not only in Nevada and New Mexico, but also in Colorado and Arizona, which the GOP has dominated. In all four states, Latinos made up a larger share of voters today than in 1992. And they are a reliably Democratic bloc. [But] they are unlikely to become decisive until they overcome the barriers to political participation. From 1968 through 1998, the Southwest was so reliably Republican in the national vote that it was rarely contested."

What are those "barriers to political participation"? The reporters followed organizers knocking on doors in Nevada, who "signed up 3,000 new voters." But they "also contacted 20,000 Latinos who were not eligible to register."

THE LEADING PROPONENT of the argument that we should do nothing to stand in the way of Mexicans who want to come is Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute. Her articles in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere confuse opposition to the Mexican flood with opposition to immigration proper. She vehemently opposed Prop. 200 from a quasi-GOP perspective, arguing that "a polarizing, partisan fight would have serious repercussions for the state Republican Party." A comparable proposition in California in 1994 had "all but killed the party's chances with Latino voters."

Let's review the argument here. Democrats support the newcomers because they figure they can enlist them as foot soldiers in progressive causes. They are "a reliably Democratic bloc." Republicans are afraid to enforce the law because that will make them look mean. Democrats say: "We can't wait to get them in." Republicans say: "We can't afford to keep them out." The GOP hierarchy seems to have tacitly bought into the idea that nothing can or should be done at the border.

As to Prop. 200, a federal judge put it on hold within weeks, saying there were "serious questions whether it passes constitutional muster." The Wall Street Journal worried that the proposition had been put on the ballot with the help of "restrictionist outfits" which see all immigration, legal or not, "as a net negative for the U.S."

May I say this? Opposition to a flood of illegals crossing the border by midnight is not the same thing as opposition to immigration. I favor the latter but oppose the former. In fact, the illegal swarms from Mexico are not real immigrants at all.

The Bush administration position is that we should create a guest worker program. In one proposal, illegals already here would be granted a de facto amnesty. We are reassured that that would not put them on a path to citizenship. Sure it wouldn't. Federal judges would take about five minutes to strike down any such provision to restrict access to citizenship. The amnestied would in due course be registered to vote, and (optimistically) would go 60-40 to the Democrats. Within a decade the entire Southwest would be Blue State territory. It's tilting that way already.

I am all in favor of President Bush putting Latinos in his cabinet and in the judiciary. By all means let them know that Republicans are their friends. But if this means they must also be exempted from the normal procedures of immigration and naturalization we have lost control of our country. We might as well give up on politics.

The best thing may be to do little. Increase the Border Patrol, and withhold further supplemental appropriations for hospitals on the border. Get the voters to wise up that way. Neither "crackdowns" nor rewards are needed for those already here; let them remain in their "shadowy" state of legal limbo.

Finally, the Mexican economy. At any given moment, thousands of Mexicans are braving the rigors of the Sonora Desert to find work in a country where they don't even speak the language. Poor people especially would much rather work in their own country. But they are unable to do so because Mexico has bad laws. Property rights are messed up, and I have been told that the collectivized farms of the ejido system have never been properly privatized. Maybe the Bush team could help Vicente Fox figure out what's wrong with Mexico's economy.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).