Illegal Immigration: Elite Illiberality

by Victor Davis Hanson
The elite charm of comprehensive immigration reform

The divide over immigration reform is not primarily a Left/Right or Democratic/Republican divide; instead, it cuts, and sharply so, across class lines. Elites blur the distinction between legal and illegal immigration to ensure that the opponents of the latter appear to be against the former. They talk grandly of making legal immigration meritocratic, but fall silent when asked to what degree. They talk darkly of racist subtexts in the arguments of their opponents, but skip over the overt ethnic chauvinism of proponents of amnesty; they decry conservative paranoia over a new demography, but never liberal euphoria over just such a planned reset. They talk deprecatingly of rubes who do not understand the new global realties, but never of their own parochialism ensconced in New York or Washington or San Francisco. They talk of reactionaries who do not fathom the ins and outs of the debate; never of their own willful ignorance of the realities on the ground in East L.A. or southwest Fresno.

The elites favor de facto amnesty for a variety of self-interested reasons. For the corporate echelon, creating a guest-worker program and granting amnesty — without worrying about securing the border first — ensures continued access to millions of cheap laborers from Latin America. The United States may be suffering the most persistent unemployment since the Great Depression. There may be an unemployment rate of over 15 percent in many small towns in the American Southwest. American businesses may be flush with record amounts of cash, and farm prices may be at record levels. But we are still lectured that without cheap labor from south of the border, businesses simply cannot profit.

Unmentioned is the exploitation of illegal labor. Hard-working young Latin Americans, most of them from the interior of Mexico, cross the border illegally, usually to find jobs that pay over five times more per hour than anything they could find in Mexico, yet still less than the employer would have to pay an American. Between the ages of 18 and 40, illegal immigrants are among the hardest-working laborers in the world. However, the traditional entry-level jobs — picking peaches, nailing shingles, mowing lawns, changing diapers, cooking, making beds — for those without legality, education, or English often become a permanent dead end.

Many employers appreciate the myriad advantages of hiring illegal immigrants. Although supporters of amnesty are bold in leveling charges of illiberality against their critics, the unspoken truth is that insistence on access to cheap labor is about as reactionary and unethical as one can imagine. Off the record, employers will admit they are reluctant to hire jobless African-American youths, although the black community is suffering historic levels of unemployment. They are not even eager to hire second-generation Hispanics, who, according to the employers’ creed, have lost the firsthand memory of crushing Mexican poverty and thus their parents’ desperate work ethic.

Instead, employers want a continuing influx of young workers who will undercut the wages of American citizens. That the bargaining power of other minorities, Latino- and African-American citizens especially, is undercut by illegal labor matters little. How odd that elite Republicans pander to Latino grandees to win perhaps 35 percent of the Latino vote; that the party garners no more than 5 percent of the much larger African-American vote is never discussed. In the bizarre logic of the Republican elite, you must cater to the Hispanic elite in order to siphon votes from the liberal Latino bloc, while the much more important black demographic is simply written off. Is there one Republican politician who is more worried about the plight of unemployed African-American citizens than he is about granting amnesty to foreign nationals who broke U.S. laws to come here?

Employers do not care that the presence of 11 million illegal aliens has driven down entry-level wages. They are not concerned about the depressing cycle of illegal-immigrant labor: The young male from Latin America works extraordinarily hard for 20 years. But by the time he’s 40, he is married with children, and discovering that without education, English, or skill sets, he has no way forward.

Arms and backs that were near superhuman at 25 are often shot at 50. When the 45-year-old illegal alien can no longer pick, or cook, or rake as he once did, the employer loses interest, and the state steps in to provide him with rough parity through subsidies for housing, health care, food, and legal assistance, and meanwhile it has been educating his children. Because second-generation immigrants are deemed less industrious than their worn-out fathers and mothers — and Hispanic males in California graduate from high school at little more than a 60 percent rate — the need arises for another round of young hardy workers from Latin America.

In past times, this depressing cycle of exploitation was justified by low unemployment or ongoing wars that siphoned off American manpower. But why the need for imported labor in times of near-record joblessness, relative peace, and often-record profits? The elites simply turn a blind eye to out-of-work Americans, the low wages of illegal laborers, and the cynicism of using up human capital and letting the state pick up the subsequent social costs. How odd that profit-making from cheap labor is considered liberal, while concern for low-paid American workers is written off as xenophobia.

Most elites talk of nativism and racism as being what fuels opposition to their brand of comprehensive immigration reform. Yet I doubt that the wealthy Silicon Valley residents who clamor for “reform” send their children to public schools. Indeed, in the fashion of the Southern academies that popped up in the 1960s during court-ordered busing, Silicon Valley is currently experiencing an explosion in private schools.

Apple, Google, and Facebook 1-percenters are much too sophisticated to call these booming apartheid prep schools “academies,” but they are burgeoning in reaction to worries that the flood of illegal service workers from Latin America has finally lapped up to the outskirts of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Once-topnotch public schools like Menlo-Atherton are now whispered about as “problematic,” given the growing enrollment of the children of illegal aliens.

In truth, do not expect Washington politicians, La Raza leaders, or agribusiness owners to send their children to the Sanger school system in the outskirts of Fresno, or to enroll them in Cal State Bakersfield. Their elite status mostly exempts them from the ramifications of their own ideology in a myriad of ways. If taxes must rise in California to pay for one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients, or to prop up public schools that have descended to 48th in the nation in math and English test scores, or to bring some parity to the nation’s highest percentage of people below the poverty line, most of the elite can afford the increases. For some, the higher taxes even become a sort of penance — a kind of abstract generosity necessary to expiate their unwillingness to assimilate, integrate, and intermarry in the concrete.

Meanwhile, forget the tire-store owner and the electrical contractor who have no such margin of error, and are written off as mean-spirited for resenting rising taxes to pay for soaring subsidies to the growing immigrant underclass. That the caricatured Neanderthal followers of Sarah Palin resent the social costs of illegal immigration and the fact that their children’s education is directly affected by the entry of millions of new non-English-speakers is, well, their own fault.

Almost every aspect of illegal immigration is illiberal to the core. Respect for the law? The elite decides that for a particular political constituency, the law is now fluid. If you are a Bulgarian M.D. and overstay your visa, beware. A Korean engineer wouldn’t dare to fly to Mexico City and cross illegally into Arizona. Without ethnic bosses and millions of compatriots within our borders, all others are lawbreakers subject to deportation.

That well over $30 billion in remittances leaves the U.S. economy each year to prop up the Mexican and other Latin American economies is an afterthought. Indeed, Mexico is romanticized as an aggrieved partner, not excoriated as cynically opportunist for printing comic books to instruct its own citizens how to break U.S. law. How liberal is it to assist citizens to leave their own homeland, while assuming that they are almost certainly illiterate and thus need pictorial instruction?

To suggest that Mexico exports human capital in lieu of engaging in social reform, to suggest that indigenous peoples are the most likely to want to leave Mexico’s often racist social stratification, to suggest that Mexico does not care that its own expatriates suffer and scrimp to send back billions of dollars in cash to those ignored by the Mexican government, to suggest that Mexico appreciates that its citizens are more likely to cheer their homeland the longer they are away from it — all of this is considered reactionary and perhaps racist or at least culturally biased. But it is also absolutely true: Mexico, not the U.S., is the illiberal player in this entire sordid trafficking in human capital.

Mexico and American employers are not the only cynics in this drama. The La Raza elite understands well that only yearly massive infusions of the impoverished across the perpetually open border ensure a changed demography, anchored by a permanent Spanish-speaking underclass and periodically recharged by new illegal immigrants. Without massive immigration, the Latino population goes the way of the Italian or Greek community. Intermarriage, assimilation, and integration would gradually make the Chicano Studies department about as relevant as the Italian Studies department, La Raza about as catchy as La Razza, and the third-generation Hispanic with the accented last name about as much a minority in need of diversity favoritism as Rudy Giuliani’s son. How odd that illegal immigration is fueled by ethnic chauvinism, while those who criticize it are called ethnically biased. How could a Chicano Studies professor cite endemic poverty as a reason for federal attention if Mexican-Americans followed the Armenian- or Polish-American paradigm — and, of course, they soon would without the regular infusions of additional illegal immigrants.

Somehow, we have created an absurd situation in which a resident of Oaxaca, often fleeing racial and class oppression in Mexico, becomes defined as a victim of American pathologies the nanosecond he crosses the border. In turn, America, the generous host, is reinvented as a culpable oppressor that has treated the illegal alien so badly that his children deserve job and college-admission preference. Mexico likewise must be reinvented, from the exporter of superfluous human beings to the liberal champion of its stolen human assets.

Finally, there is the elite of the American Southwest, who believe that they are new 17th-century French aristocracy, entitled to $8-to-$10-an-hour nannies, gardeners, housekeepers, maids, and occasional day laborers. There are millions of white, Asian, Latino-American, and African-American youths out of work. We are simply told publicly that most of them would not do such work, and apparently if they did, they would not be trustworthy.

Indeed, the tragedy of illegal immigration is that it becomes the cornerstone for hundreds of agendas: those of the self-interested Mexican government, exploitative American employers, the new ethnic chauvinists, the upper middle classes who deem themselves lords of the manor, and, yes, the elite whose professions are as noble as their deeds are not.

Most Americans do not object to providing a green card to those who came to work, stayed off public assistance, did not commit crimes, and did not recently arrive in search of amnesty. They do not even object to offering a pathway to eventual citizenship to immigrants who pay a fine for their illegal entry, learned English, and go to the back of the legal-immigration line. But all this is a hypothetical if the border is not first secured — if we cannot guarantee that 2013 does not become another 1986, meaning that some future date will be a replay of 2013.

If we are to offer a second chance to the majority of illegal immigrants who, apart from their illegal entry, otherwise played by the rules, there must not be a second chance for the minority who broke all of them.

In the meantime, for those who profit both materially and psychologically from something that largely benefits the elite and hurts the mass, at least spare us the hypocritical aspersions and bottled pieties.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals is just out from Bloomsbury Books.