Compromised Immigration Reform

by Victor Davis Hanson
All the concessions are supposed to come from Republicans.

The immigration question, as it stands in 2013, is predicated on illiberal notions of race and politics. And this fact will eventually make any meaningful compromise unlikely.

In the past, there could not be comprehensive immigration reform supposedly because Republicans would not agree to allow some sort of amnesty. Now, however, liberals most likely will not follow their rhetoric of compromise with concrete action.

After all, today most conservatives would probably be willing to grant some sort of green-card status to illegal immigrants who fulfilled three general criteria: a history of work rather than of public assistance, a crime-free record in the United States, and a considerable time of residence in America. In addition, “comprehensive reform” always hinged on two other areas of discussion: strengthening border security and reformulating and expanding legal immigration. In other words, close the border and make immigration into the United States ethnically blind — based not on a particular ethnic profile or proximity to the border, but rather on universally applicable skill sets and education levels.

Yet while congressional liberals talk grandly in theory of protecting the Apple engineer from the Punjab who now faces deportation in Silicon Valley, in fact, they are silent about the fact that such discretion might also mean not welcoming the impoverished Honduran without a high-school diploma who crossed at night into Arizona.

In sum, the Republicans would probably now agree to allow millions of Latin American nationals who entered the United States illegally years ago, but who have worked steadily and do not have criminal records, a chance to get a green card and remain in the United States. And should these new green-card holders subsequently choose to fulfill further criteria (acquire English proficiency, pass a citizenship test, and pay a small fine for having violated federal immigration law), they would earn a “pathway to citizenship.”

Yet the concessions of compromise are mostly one way. Democrats are never asked whether, in fact, they would agree to the above outline. My hunch is that they would not — and for a variety of self-interested reasons.

First, illegal immigration is de facto mostly from Latin America and is based on proximity to the border. The presence of over 11 million foreign nationals who came illegally into the United States — and their American-born citizen offspring — has led to an enormous rise in influence for the so-called Latino community and, in turn, for the Democratic party in the American Southwest.

That most immigrants originally arrived without legality, English, or a high-school diploma has ensured, even through the second generation, a political constituency deeply invested in state entitlements — Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, housing, and legal assistance. A large percentage of illegal immigrants tend to be lumped together in polls and surveys under the generic rubric “Latino/Hispanic,” which offers statistical support to arguments for ensuring fairness and economic equality to the disparate. Somehow the idea arose that because a foreign national from Oaxaca is likely to remain poor after he crosses into the United States, therefore a third-generation Mexican-American or Cuban-American is in need of affirmative action. Without fresh influxes of poor foreign nationals, the present pool of upwardly mobile Latino-Americans would fully assimilate in the manner of Italian-Americans in the mid-20th century, their ethnicity statistically insignificant in terms of income and education. Eventually, they would lose some of their present ethnic resonance, as the name Lopez or Hernandez became no more politically useful for college admission or hiring than Gallo or Arpaio, and as the Hispanic political caucus shared the fate of the Greek or Italian lobby.

Second, does the liberal base really welcome reforms in legal immigration? The present illegal system de facto gives weight to two factors — proximity to the border and ethnic solidarity. I doubt whether the leadership of La Raza is as progressive as it professes, at least when it comes to making Mexican nationals compete on an equal footing with people from Chad, the Czech Republic, Peru, and Thailand for coveted legal-immigration slots on the basis of their skills and levels of education. Under such a system, the racial and ethnic profile of the legal immigrant — there would no longer be any illegal immigrants — would be irrelevant.

But would that irrelevance be acceptable? For all the professed liberalism of the present immigration advocates, the truth is that most are illiberal, their position on illegal immigration predicated, in tribal fashion, on matters of race and nationality. Were most illegal immigrants arriving on freighters from Southeast Asia, I fear that La Raza (the word itself gained wide currency from a racist Generalisimo Franco in fascist Spain) would be lobbying for strict coastal enforcement.

Third, so far the immigration debate turns on the question of amnesty: Who gets to stay and why? But putting it that way fudges the taboo question: Who does not get to stay and why? Under the present suggested reforms, millions might be given green cards and a pathway to citizenship — while fewer unqualified others (whose numbers still could be substantial) would do exactly what? Stay undocumented in the shadows, return home, or wait until the next round of amnesty?

In other words, I doubt whether the Democratic leadership would accept a non-DREAM act, under which those convicted of crimes, those habitually on public assistance, and those who only recently arrived would have to leave the United States and return to their native countries.

Fourth, we have strange notions about the role of Mexico, as if it were a partner in reform. Yet it is the recipient of perhaps $20 to $30 billion in annual remittances from the United States, and it sees the border as a safety valve for internal dissent. In brilliant fashion, Mexico has cloaked its understandable self-interest with a humanitarian veneer, championing its expatriates in the United States in a way it never did when they resided within its borders.

In our relationship with Mexico we accept a number of asymmetrical absurdities that are not supposed to arise in polite conversation about immigration reform: Mexico lectures the U.S. about proper treatment of its own population, whose current economic disparity is, in some part, a direct result of immigrants giving up large portions of their U.S. income in remittances to make up for the absence of a safety net for relatives left behind in Mexico. It assumes that the United States does not and should not mimic Mexico’s own favoritism for native-born citizens in matters of government employment, military service, and public assistance. And Mexico believes that the U.S. under no circumstances should emulate its own immigration policy and treat Mexican illegal immigrants here the way Mexico treats illegal immigrants from Central America.

Fifth, immigrant lobbies have never squared the circle of demanding citizenship from a country that in most activist literature is portrayed quite negatively. From the trivial (the illegal alien who fled Mexico but whose car is plastered with Mexican-flag decals) to the important (Chicano Studies departments that teach southwestern American history as melodramatic pathology to students who desperately wish to acquire U.S. citizenship and discard or ignore their Mexican citizenship), we are baffled by the idea that criticizing America in the abstract is compatible with wanting it in the concrete. That paradox leads ultimately to an unsustainable situation — as we saw in the surreal reception of the U.S. national soccer team by the jeering crowd at the Rose Bowl in 2011. For many Americans the idea that guests make demands on their hosts is odd enough; but the notion that the country that was glad to say goodbye to its millions is so often romanticized while the one that accepted them is so often faulted is incomprehensible.

Sixth, we face an existential crisis in the United States: We are suffering one of the two worst stretches of long-term unemployment since World War II while demanding the importation of foreign workers. Something is terribly wrong in a system that can welcome a foreign national into a job in a meat-packing plant or as a hotel janitor with the expectation that neither his own offspring nor any other American citizen would be willing to do such work — a fact ensuring yet more foreign-national workers in the future.

As a nation, we have lost respect for hard physical work. Our welfare, food stamps, and unemployment and disability insurances have made entry-level employment not worth the effort. A large farmer in Fresno County can lecture on the need for a guest-worker program to ensure him pickers from central Mexico, even as the unemployment rate hits 17 percent in the surrounding towns. His plea — “Americans won’t do the work” — may be true now; but it is nonetheless not a legitimate answer, at least not unless we ask why and how this anomaly happened. Until America makes being a busboy or thinning apricots more respected, and more remunerative than sitting at home, it has no business negotiating a “guest worker” program. And why do those who clamor the most loudly for cheap foreign labor seem to keep the farthest distant from the schools and homes of their workers?

To achieve comprehensive immigration reform, the Republicans would have to concede amnesty for most but without deportation for some, and accept that meritocratic legal immigration would be seen as inherently unfair and border enforcement as something always up for discussion.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals will appear in May from Bloomsbury Books.