(This article appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator.)
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.
All of which raises this question: What exactly is wrong with current law? Why did we need this whole new immigration arrangement to begin with? In the end, that more or less was the position of the Wall Street Journal: "Current policy is preferable to some vast new enforcement regime that harasses employers for hiring willing workers," the paper editorialized. "This makes no more sense today than when it was first proposed 20 years ago."
One of those who got it right, in my view, was the columnist Bruce Bartlett -- always sound on economic matters. He is the author of a book called Impostor (2006), arguing that President Bush "bankrupted America and betrayed the Reagan legacy." In a column in the Washington Times, Bartlett wrote that in the 19th and early 20th centuries the U.S. could enjoy the benefits of free immigration, with essentially open borders, because there was no welfare state. Now, however, overgenerous government benefits render free immigration untenable. But do we really need to do anything about those who are already here and working?
Bartlett pointed out that the undocumented often work for less than the minimum wage, often for cash. This in turn saves both them and their employers a lot of taxes. They obviously don't consider themselves to be exploited because all these transactions are consensual and they are free to go back at any time. In a passage that Herbert Spencer would have admired -- Spencer was the first to use the phrase "the survival of the fittest" and was a great admirer of markets free of government intervention -- Bartlett continued:
Illegal aliens are not very likely to complain to the Labor Department or a union if they have some grievance. They are more worried about being deported than exploited, so they have no leverage.… It is precisely their illegal status that makes these immigrants valuable and willing to work cheaply.
One problem now is that heedless crackdowns on undocumented workers are sure to increase. Arizona has already passed a new law imposing tough sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants. It could even cause power plants in the state to be shut down for hiring illegals. The impulse to crack down is "understandable," says the Washington Post, because towns and counties "bear the burden of providing immigrants with health care, education, law enforcement and other services." That is the problem right there. Who decided that they have that responsibility? The problem is the welfare entitlement, not foreigners willing and able to work.
Let those who want to work come, I say. Pay them their wages, give them raises where necessary. Let them send money back home to Mexico, El Salvador, and the rest. But let's also discourage government handouts, and keep them out of the embrace of union organizers. Let's also make sure that they don't vote. There is no "right" to vote. Furthermore, the present rule that foreigners become citizens if they are born here is absurdly lax. All these things should be tightened up. And voters -- all voters, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin -- should have to pass a civics test before being admitted to the polling stations. (I suspect that most undocumented workers couldn't care less about voting anyway.)
Liberals are horrified by such a worldview. They favor amnesty and legalization because for them the unpoliticized life is a life hardly worth living. The progressive minded would like to transform hardworking newcomers into union-organized, taxpaying, welfare-receiving, fully enrolled, voting Democrats, ready to file a grievance or a complaint at the drop of a hat. But that won't happen if their potential customers are hiding in the shadows and on their best behavior to avoid attracting attention. For god's sake, that's the way people used to be in this country, before the 1960s, when the welfare rot and the entitlement mentality began to spread.
The trouble arose this year because the liberals saw that they had the President partly on their side. The opinion in Texas, for example, is that if the GOP can capture 40 percent of the Latino vote, the state will remain under Republican control for a long time to come. President Bush and his family have long enjoyed amicable relations with Hispanics, and he has seen it as one of the missions of his presidency to let them know that the GOP welcomes them. Nothing wrong with that, but it's always hazardous to allow ideas about party affiliation to influence national policy.
Meanwhile, the border-enforcement lobby was strengthening, and in 2006, with Capitol Hill still under GOP control, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would have greatly increased border security. But it failed in the Senate.
By 2007, with the President essentially on their side on the issue, Democrats now controlling the Senate believed that they could cobble together a "comprehensive" package that would have legalized the illegals, and over the long haul put them on an (obstacle-strewn) path to citizenship. The bill would also have made some eminently desirable changes, such as reducing the family-reunification provision that has led to a chain migration from south of the border and increasing the quotas for skilled workers.
Do we need increased border security? I'm not sure that we do. Last year, I heard an interesting argument about this from Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe, who represented a district on the Mexican border. (He has since retired.) He pointed out something that is obvious when you think about it, but almost never mentioned. We have already sharply increased the "cost" of crossing the border, he said, and one consequence is that those who are already in the United States are less likely to return home, because they are not sure that they will be able to get back in. Illegals are therefore more likely to stay once they get here. This in turn increases the pressure for amnesty. Where they had once thought of themselves as transients, moving back and forth, they are now more inclined to think of themselves as residents. (I also have my doubts about the national-security rationale for higher fences.)
Recently I met Ben Wattenberg at a Washington function and asked him what he thought of the claims that I hear from some on the right, that the illegals will end up transforming the U.S. into Mexico North. He thought it at least as likely that we will end up Americanizing Mexico. He mentioned the growing numbers of Americans moving south (it is possible for foreigners to own property in Mexico, even beachfront property, but they need to follow certain procedures). Perhaps as many as a million Americans live in Mexico today. Meanwhile, Wattenberg pointed out, the fertility rate in Mexico has plunged to replacement levels-possibly below it. Fertility rates in Mexico and the U.S. may now be about the same.
Wattenberg, an AEI fellow, is the author of many books, including The Birth Dearth (1995) and Fewer (2004), the latter subtitled "How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future." For years he has resisted the Ehrlichian gloom about exploding populations, and has drawn much needed attention to population decline. Nonetheless, Wattenberg's claim (in Fewer) that Europe is losing about 700,000 people a year now looks exaggerated; but for a reason that is not at all reassuring. Lots of immigrants, many of them from Islamic countries in North Africa and Asia, have been flooding into Europe since he wrote his book. These immigrants have more children, too, which is why the apparent revival of fertility rates in countries like France and Britain is equally disquieting. We only have to think of the European situation today to realize how relatively minor (or non-existent) is our supposed Latino immigration problem here.
Anyway, the flood of job-seeking Mexicans into the U.S. will not continue indefinitely; maybe for no more than another decade. So border enforcement may well be increasing at a time when the need for it is declining. And if Mexico moves in a more capitalist direction, as is all-too-slowly happening, then the demand for labor south of the border could soar.
Sometimes I think the real dividing line in this debate is between those who think that the strong performance of the U.S. economy is of major importance, as I do, and those who either don't think that way, or who don't understand what an important contribution immigrants make to the economy. The numbers are amazing. According to Gordon H. Hanson of UC San Diego, the U.S. economy "absorbs around 300,000 new illegal laborers each year," building houses, harvesting crops, manning assembly lines, gardening, cleaning homes. They account for "nearly 30 percent of U.S. labor with less than a high-school education."
At the same time, almost 30 percent of the Mexican workforce is now in the United States, according to Steve Forbes. By the way, I wish some news organization would explain why Mexico is unable to create jobs for its own people. Workers do prefer to work in their own country, after all. (Mary Anastasia O'Grady of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, who says that taxes in Mexico are too high, among other major problems, seems to have an exclusive on the subject. How about someone from the Journal's famously "independent" newsroom taking a look at so newsworthy a topic?)
My sense is that ending the contribution of the illegals to the U.S. economy would have an effect comparable to that of a major tax increase. Possibly there would be a real economic contraction. Without an expanding, dynamic economy, America would soon be in a great mess. Far from having removed a source of tension, we would find that interest-group rivalries had become far more intense.
One of the main advocates of the idea that the economic contribution of immigrants is not that important is Peter Brimelow, the author of Alien Nation (1995) and like me an immigrant from Britain -- a Britain that is no longer Great. His book has many good things in it, and it belongs on the shelf of anyone interested not just in the immigration debate but in the American future.
Ultimately, my impression is that he is too preoccupied with the issue of America's ethnic and racial make-up. All I can say is that it would be nice if whites were reproducing themselves. But they don't seem to be, anywhere in the world that I know of. Brimelow and I hardly see eye to eye on immigration. But one thing I do admire is the intensity that he brings to the issue. He well illustrates my point that immigrants often care passionately about the future of America; more so, I dare say, than a good many of the native-born.