The Great Immigration Non-Debate

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Americans need to know about and debate a lot more than amnesty and security.

About seven and a half months have passed since last November’s general election sent the Republican political elite into a tailspin and rendered inevitable an attempt at immigration reform. Now we sit on the cusp of a Senate vote. “We’ve got to move forward on this legislation,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid insisted on Tuesday. “This may not be one of our normal weekends.”

Still, Americans could be forgiven for thinking this has been one of our normal debates. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) is another omnibus piece of legislation that has been shoddily scrutinized. So good has been the Gang of Eight’s master class in misdirection that they may well manage to push a sweeping reform bill past the world’s greatest deliberative body without the people’s having had any meaningful debate on its most important provisions.

Our language, always critical to healthy political culture, is all over the place. “Immigrant” has been co-opted and turned into a proxy word for “Hispanic”; “immigration reform” has effectively come to mean “dealing with the southern border and legalizing illegal immigrants”; and, while the word “comprehensive” has been used openly, most of the bill has been ignored. Those familiar with S.744 will know that its thousand pages touch pretty much everything: employment-based immigration, family-based immigration, asylum seekers and refugees, per-country quotas, STEM, employment law — the lot. Yet all anyone seems to want to talk about is Mexico.

Besides the few journalists and advocates who have closely followed the deliberations, there has been almost no review of what is a serious reinvention of the legal immigration regime.

We relentlessly argue the merits and demerits of a “path to citizenship” for those who have broken in without our permission; we prattle ad nauseam about “border security” and its role as a “trigger” for “amnesty”; we constantly poll the same question.

Most of all, we argue the politics of the thing. News-watching Americans are treated to gossip about Marco Rubio and Chuck Schumer; they are shown profiles of people “living in the shadows”; they are asked to think about the 2016 election; and they are reminded that the president thinks that “the time is now.” The soon-to-be-revolutionized legal process by which one and a half million people per year will come into the country and live among us apparently merits no consideration.

In the Washington Examiner, Byron York cited a fascinating exchange between Senators Sessions and Schumer in which Schumer himself demonstrated the reflexive and instructive assumption that all immigrants to the United States are coming across our southern border, legally or illegally.

There was a striking moment in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s debate on the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill when Republican Jeff Sessions and Democrat Charles Schumer argued over the number of immigrants who would be allowed into the country under the new legislation.

Sessions cited reports suggesting the figure would be more than 20 million over the next decade in addition to the 11 million or so who are already in the United States illegally. Schumer took issue with that, although he wouldn’t name a figure of his own.

Then Schumer declared the whole dispute beside the point. “It is not that, ‘Oh, this bill is allowing many more people to come into this country than would have come,’” he said. “They are coming. They’re either coming under law or not under law.”

Given the incessant focus on “Hispanics,” I do not blame Americans who labor under the false impression that this is a bill designed solely to addresses the fate of illegal immigrants. Nevertheless, they should be made aware that it does an awful lot more than that. If S.744 becomes the law of the land, the United States will welcome around half a million more legal immigrants into the country annually than it does under current law. (This chart from the Center for American Progress is useful if you ignore the brazen lie about the likely effects of the border-security provisions.) That this hasn’t been subjected to hardier perlustration is astonishing.

Usually, I am an outspoken critic of democracy. Unless it is severely checked, majoritarianism carries with it the inherent and ineluctable flaw that voters may use their power to deprive their fellow citizens of their liberty and their property.

Immigration, however, is a virtuous exception to the rule. Immigrants do not have a “right” to live in the United States but are admitted only with the permission of the native polity. Which of our national issues could be more deserving of widespread public input than that of who is to join the country’s ranks? Why is it missing?

Serious questions proliferate. In its search for a compromise, the Gang of Eight has pretty much wiped away the current legal-immigration system and started over. Do Americans know how that system worked and what they are losing? More important, do they know what they are gaining in its stead, and with what they will likely be stuck for the next 30 or so years?

Do they want the total amount of immigration to increase significantly, as S.744 allows? What mixture of skilled and unskilled immigrants does the public consider appropriate for a nation with an unemployment problem and a dysfunctional welfare state? Is the bill right to abolish the green-card lottery, which grants permanent residency to a randomly chosen 50,000 people per year?

Is establishing a points regime for skilled immigrants — similar to the systems used by Britain, Australia, and Canada — a good thing?

The bill lifts country-specific limits on employment-based immigrant visas, which opens the door for new immigrant populations to be dominated by India and China. Is it a sensible thing for the United States to abandon its long-held policy goal of ensuring that the country is not asked to assimilate too many immigrants from one place at any given time? If so, what price “diversity”?

And do Americans know that, as the Immigration Policy Center notes, “family- or employment-based applicants whose applications have been pending five years or more under the current system will become eligible for a visa”? Or that the new system abolishes the “immigrant category for siblings of U.S. citizens,” and that “visas will no longer be available to married sons or daughters of U.S. citizens who are over 30 years of age”? Do they recognize that, even after these changes, family connections and not skills will still serve as the way in for the vast majority of immigrants?

We are told by advocates of amnesty that we must at least acknowledge that the Hispanic beneficiaries of S.744 are “already here.” This is indisputably true, so surely the more important demographic question is, “Who new will this bill let in, and does that suit us?”

As with most things, Americans have various responses to these questions. Still, they can answer them only if they are asked — and they have not been asked. Harry Reid had better rush his bill through before a national debate breaks out.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.