Radical Reason

"Nil sine ratione."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

April 7, 2006

The current hot topic in Washington is immigration. Political tempers on both sides of the aisle have flared at this emotional issue, and massive demonstrations in cities across the country have been an almost nightly component of the evening news. There’s a great deal of rhetoric and misinformation being hurled around, so let’s take a moment to highlight the facts of the issue.

By most estimates, there are between 11 and 12 million illegal immigrants in America right now. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, legal immigration has stayed relatively steady, at approximately 600,000 new immigrants each year, dating back to the 1980s. Illegal immigration, on the other hand, has spiked since 1995, averaging around 700,000 new illegal immigrants through 2004, as compared with only about 200,000 per year in the 1980s. The bulk of these immigrants are from Mexico and the vast majority is Spanish-speaking. This undocumented and illegal immigration is obviously a problem, as state and local governments face new strains like meeting the emergency health needs of generally uninsured illegal immigrants and the educational needs of new, primarily Spanish-speaking children.

The topic becomes especially sensitive because it is an election year, and all the legislative proposals are imbued with political as well as policy considerations. Conservative House Republicans are pushing a bill that emphasizes enforcement – more guards on the border, deportations of those here illegally, fines for businesses that hire illegals, and no path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has a similar bill in the Senate, emphasizing border control. Competing bills in the Senate include that of Senators McCain and Kennedy, which attempts to beef up border security while introducing a guest worker plan for those illegal immigrants who are already here and a defined path to attaining citizenship. There appears to be little hope of compromise, as conservative House Republicans see anything beyond enforcement to be amnesty for lawbreakers, while many other Republicans are split on what to do and Democrats are happy to block legislation in the Senate for political gain in the fall.

So what does this all mean? For starters, given the competing proposals and the political infighting on Capitol Hill, it appears that it will be impossible to pass the type of comprehensive package demanded by the public. 63% of Americans think that illegal immigration is an extremely or very serious problem, according to a recent poll. 71% of Americans say that they are more likely to vote for a candidate who favors tighter controls on immigration. Politicians are attempting to respond to these sentiments, but their efforts may not meet with much success.

But let’s look a little deeper at the immigration issue. Why are people coming here in the first place, even illegally? For the same reasons they always have – the twin ideals of economic and political freedom.

As long as the minimum wage in America is five times that in Mexico, Mexicans will continue to risk their lives for economic gain in the United States. It’s intellectually dishonest to say that illegal immigrants do jobs that Americans won’t do – it’s just that illegal immigrants are willing to do most low-skill jobs for wages lower than native-born citizens demand. So not only is there a demand for labor by employers because of the low unemployment rate, but there is also a large supply of people willing to do that labor cheaply because it’s so much better than the offer they have in their country of origin. America is still the land of opportunity to millions worldwide, and we’ve done nothing of note to stop people from responding to these simple economic forces.

The immigration debate takes on a new tone in our post September 11th environment, as border security is a necessarily hot topic. And 41% of the American public think that illegal immigration is actually a security issue. In order to address these concerns, obviously border security must be tightened. There are only 11,000 border patrol agents for our 2000 mile-long border. To put this in perspective, the New York City police is four times as large. It’s impractical to think that a force one-quarter the size of the NYPD can police a border 150 times the length of Manhattan.

So, what to do? I think any immigration legislation must take into account both the economic and security issues raised by illegal immigration. Conservatives are right to highlight border security – but hardliners are wrong to stop there. We must increase the number of border agents and the technology used to safeguard the border. This will be costly, but it is necessary if we are to tide the flow of illegal border crossings, which everyone is eager to do. As for those already here illegally, it is simply laughable to think that we will be able to expect them to leave voluntarily or to be deported. Most of these illegal immigrants have jobs and roots in their adopted communities. They are personally better off, and a move back to their country of origin – typically Mexico – would be tantamount to suicide. Plus, deporting 12 million people – 4% of the total U.S. population – would be logistically impossible. That number would fill buses stretched along the west coast from Tijuana to Alaska.

For a variety of reasons, we must find a way to integrate these immigrants into society. Economically, they contribute to society by and large by paying taxes. America has always fashioned itself as a country of immigrants, and even if this history is little more than national mythology, it is a powerful notion. Immigration is an intensely personal issue, largely because most of us came here from somewhere else. Philosophically, America has had trouble defining what it means to be an American citizen, but our national myth seems to dictate that all who want to be here are welcome. No one is entitled to anything, but whatever the benefits of citizenship, they are available to all who will reach for them.

We must, therefore, find a way to manage the flow of immigrants. The economic and social incentives are present for people to come here. Moderate proposals call for long waiting periods approaching 10 years for those petitioning for citizenship and payment of fines and back taxes. I far prefer this to any call for a guest worker program, which amounts to a giveaway to business of serf-like labor and a semi-permanent underclass of non-citizens. And furthermore, unskilled native-born workers are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs with these guest workers, who will generally work for lower wages. Finally, guest workers will have no incentives to assimilate into American society, because they have no hope of ever being Americans. The important thing is to integrate these immigrants into society and the economy – the free flow of labor is critical to the growth and prosperity of a global economy, just like the free flow of capital and ideas.

Which brings us to the 800-pound gorilla that no one addresses – the cultural transformation effected by immigrants. American history shows that we are primarily an Anglo-Protestant country, with our system of government and culture based on broad principles derived from the Anglo-Protestant tradition. Immigrants threaten that history and that culture, primarily through language. Any cultural transformation is unnerving to the native-born, and much of the sensitivity of the immigration issue is based upon a fear of cultural transformation caused by the massive influx of Hispanic immigrants. But I firmly believe that American culture and traditions are strong and sufficiently broad-based to withstand any potential cultural threat. Outcries over immigration have been a part of American history forever – whether the newcomers be Irish, Italian, Swedish, Russian, Jewish, Polish, or any other ethnicity. And the general Anglo-Protestant ethos of American society and culture has survived. Part of the reason that immigrants choose to come here is that culture of opportunity. Thus, I would hope that Congress and the public at-large will reflect on these issues and conduct the immigration debate with reason and temperance, avoiding the temptations of nativism and fear-mongering. Instead, we must respond to the economic and social realities of migration and address them in a constructive manner – all too often an impossible task in a world of political reality.

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