We are fast approaching what promises to be the year of “comprehensive immigration reform.” In the manner of the “Affordable Care Act,” it will not be comprehensive nor will it reform immigration.
All sorts of new trends have emerged in the American Southwest to address the fact that federal immigration law does not really apply to those who arrived here illegally from Mexico or Latin America. In-state tuition discounts at public universities are now customarily extended to those without citizenship — in effect, privileging the foreign national over the U.S.-citizen student from out of state who helps subsidize the cost. Cities establish sanctuary zones that protect illegal immigrants from the enforcement of federal immigration laws — and the taxpayer picks up the additional tab in social services. Imagine what might happen should a city declare in similar fashion that it was exempt from enforcing federal gun-control laws.
In other words, there is an effort to make the idea of immigration law per se mostly irrelevant, and instead to focus only on the immigrant in terms of his ethnic makeup and place of origin. Otherwise, who would oppose simply closing the border? Many Latinos, of course, would object should Kenyans, Slovakians, and Koreans be coming by boat by the thousands and landing illegally on the coast near San Diego. Like other Americans, they would probably demand enforcement of common-sense federal immigration law.
If the present political conundrum were not about identity but only about the issue of immigration per se, then compromise would be rather easy. For example, in regard to the several million foreign nationals estimated to be residing in the U.S. illegally, but without arrest records, not on public assistance, and with a record of residence going back several years, many Americans would be willing to offer some sort of path to citizenship that would entail paying a fine, demonstrating English proficiency, and passing a basic citizenship test — while in the meantime allowing the applicant provisional legal residence on a green card.
Unfortunately, open-borders advocates would object to the idea that the borders should be closed and thus illegal immigration from Latin America and Mexico, as we have known it, should essentially end. Especially bothersome would be establishing criteria to determine whether those who broke the law to enter the U.S. at least have not arrived only recently on rumors of amnesty, have been able to avoid arrest, and have worked steadily and not gone on public assistance.
Who would oppose deportation for those who did not meet such reasonable requisites? After all, would any country in the world allow foreign nationals to cross illegally into its territory, commit crimes, draw public assistance — and then be rewarded with citizenship?
If there were good-faith efforts to reform legal immigration, again compromise would be easy. We would simply establish criteria that would privilege those with educational degrees and skill sets, make completely crime-free backgrounds mandatory, and ignore ethnic and racial makeup. Yet in the topsy-turvy world we live in today, such reasonable criteria would be anathema to the open-borders lobby, which will fight ferociously against the idea that conviction for a crime or public dependency should be grounds for not extending amnesties to those who came illegally and broke laws to remain in the United States. This, after all, might result not, as is the case at present, in the vast majority of new immigrants coming from Latin America and Mexico but, instead, in classically liberal fashion, in a true diversity of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Europe as well as our own hemisphere.
If the illegal-immigration debate is not just about providing amnesty for long-residing aliens who, after once breaking immigration law, have avoided arrest and who have been gainfully employed, and if the legal-immigration controversy is not about establishing meritocratic criteria that would promote diversity and ignore race and ethnicity, then what drives the current acrimony?
Identity politics. The crux of present-day immigration, both legal and illegal, is the agenda of demography and politics. In crude terms, that translates into absorbing a large pool of mostly liberal future voters who look to government to provide themselves some sort of rough parity with their hosts. If someone comes from Oaxaca to Fresno without English, a diploma, and legality, then soon in his life a government program will have to offer him some sort of assistance, whether for legal advice, food, housing, education, or health care.
More important, a vast cadre of Spanish-speaking citizens is needed to serve the illegal-immigrant community, whether as translators in emergency rooms or to facilitate licensing at the DMV. They too are invested in expansions of state and federal government — as are left-wing politicians.
The only hindrances to rapid assimilation of Mexican and Latin American nationals are numbers and illegality. When, just a half-century ago, immigration was measured and largely legal, Latinos were following roughly the Italian-American paradigm of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Had illegal immigrants not flooded into the United States in the last 30 years, the so-called Hispanic community would by now be largely amorphous and mostly assimilated, integrated, intermarried, and English-speaking.
After 50 years, La Raza would have resonated as much as Italian Studies now does. A politician with the name Lopez would have been as hard to peg politically as one named Arpaio, Ferraro, Cuomo, or Giuliani — given that ethnicity would have become largely irrelevant to political outlook. Long ago, affirmative action for third- and fourth-generation Latinos would have been seen to be as ridiculous as providing such an edge to Italian-, Punjabi-, or Arab-Americans.
In contrast, massive yearly illegal immigration has ensured that assimilation has been protracted. Only the steady insertion of millions of impoverished Mexican and Latin American nationals into the so-called Latino community could ensure that, as a whole, the group did not reach educational and economic levels commensurate with other communities. The result is another paradox, as middle-class people with Hispanic last names piggybacked on statistics that mostly reflected the ordeal of illegal immigrants, and thus found enhanced opportunities for government employment and college admissions.
In short, the point is not to envision the problem as a 30-year aberration but to find ingenious ways to make the traditional border irrelevant and to ensure a steady stream of Latin American and Mexican immigrants, whose presence, at least in theory and in the short term, serves the Democratic party, liberal elites, and the ethnic industry.
The result is bitter irony. Homogeneity, not diversity, is the aim of amnesty advocates. In illiberal fashion, racial and ethnic identification are to be essential, not incidental, to immigrant identities. Elites, both in the United States and in Mexico, are the prime beneficiaries of the influx of the abject poor from south of the border.
There is a final paradox.
The subtext of the movement toward blanket amnesty is that Mexico has failed millions of its own citizens — most recently, indigenous peoples without the influence and advantages of the Mexico City elite. In response, the illegal immigrant votes with his feet de facto to reject the culture and protocols of Mexico and to accept their antitheses in the United States.
Such a radical gamble is not just for the sake of economic opportunity. America, after all, still struggles with persistently high unemployment. Rather, the unmentioned catalyst is dignity — the fact that an impoverished resident of central Mexico is not treated equally under Mexican law and battles a veritable caste system in which upward mobility is nearly impossible. Yet the moment he crosses the border, he enters a society far more meritocratic for the foreigner than his homeland is for the native, with far more social and cultural opportunities that are not pegged to race, class, appearance, and ancestry. Indigenous ancestry can be a plus for an Oaxacan applying for college in the United States, while it remains mostly a minus in Mexico City.
And the irony still continues. Whereas the immigrant senses the fact that millions of people seek northward passage, while almost no American citizen seeks to immigrate southward — wealthy retirees excluded — the ethnic industry apparently does not. The advocates of illegal immigration almost never explain why there is illegal immigration in the first place. Instead, their politics assumes resentments and claims against the majority culture and politics of the United States. Given that incoherence, it is no wonder that the majority of Americans oppose illegal immigration and the assorted amnesties that are offered as its remedies.
The incoherent message of far too many open-borders advocates distills down to little more than this: “Millions have fled Mexico to America — historically an insensitive, racist and unfair place. Yet it nonetheless must extend amnesty to millions of Mexican nationals who prefer the morally suspect United States over their native Latino culture in Mexico.”
What the immigration debate is not about is ensuring that illegal immigration ends and that legal immigration becomes liberal, meritocratic, and ethnically blind.
Remember that, and all the absurd rhetoric of the upcoming 2014 debate will make sense.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.