On immigration, short-term questions have dominated. Will President Obama nullify all immigration law? Will Republicans go along with the White House immigration agenda? What will be the electoral consequences of passing or not passing a big immigration-reform bill? Much of the media conversation about the immigration bill has been dominated by partisan politics, focusing on the short term (with 2016 standing as the farthest horizon). The fact that many talking heads treat immigration as an issue to be “taken off the table” reveals how a short-sighted consultant-ese has infected our public discourse. Immigration can’t be fully taken off the table because immigration shapes the future of the American body politic. Since the earliest days of the United States, immigrants from all corners of the world have contributed to and enriched this nation. The sundry contributions of immigrants of all stripes merit much celebration, and future generations of immigrants will make their own worthy additions to American life.
However, the fact that we can’t take immigration off the table means that we will have to consider the long-term effects of a set of immigration policies upon the nation. The kind of immigration policy supported by the White House, passed by the Senate, and being (potentially) considered by the House has good and bad components, but one of the most troubling aspects of this approach to immigration may be its potential to weaken the civic fabric of the United States by undermining American aspirations for civic equality and integration. This change in civil fabric has nothing to do with race or ethnicity — we can have a republic of diverse colors and ancestries — and everything to do with the institutional integrity of our nation and the relationships of residents to one another.
The kind of “comprehensive immigration reform” that enamors some in the upper echelons of both parties might be called bad-faith open borders, which is a distorted hybrid of the United States’ tradition of ordered borders and of the transnationalist aim of entirely open borders. Lacking the principled clarity of open borders, bad-faith open borders holds that immigration laws should remain on the books but that they should be enforced only marginally, thereby inculcating a sense of disregard for the law. Bad-faith open-borders policy encourages an increase in illegal immigration. We could see the demand for an increased number of guest-workers as a feature of bad-faith open borders: Rather than the free flow of people who have full rights to citizenship and freedom to move within the U.S. economy, guest-worker programs provide a supply of immigrants who have neither total freedom in the marketplace nor political enfranchisement. Guest-worker programs pretend to be free-market activities when, in actuality, they pervert the market.
The Senate immigration bill models some of the tendencies of bad-faith open borders. It increases the number of guest workers. Its immediate mass legalization of the current illegal-immigrant population would probably provide further incentive for more illegal immigration in the future. It offers many promises of future enforcement, but these promises of enforcement have been broken repeatedly in the past. And even if those promises are kept, the Congressional Budget Office — that favorite Beltway oracle — projects that the Senate bill would cut future illegal immigration in half, at most. And that cut presumes that future immigration laws will be enforced. For some in Washington, the fact that promises of future enforcement will be broken is a feature, not a bug, of “comprehensive” reform that pushes through legalization first.
This approach to immigration treats Americans to a spectacle where the government claims the power to decide what kind of light bulb you can use but chooses not to enforce the basic laws of protecting the border or ensuring workplace compliance with federal immigration laws. It sends the message that, as long as you are willing to break the law, there is a place for you in the United States. It undermines present and future immigrants. The legal shadows necessary for the continuation of bad-faith open borders mean that the body politic will be permeated with legal blind spots, in which all sorts of extralegal activities can take place. Bad-faith open-borders policy fuels increased human trafficking, provides a shield for violations of worker-safety and other labor laws, and weakens society’s sense of trust in its elected leaders. By undermining the civic foundations of the United States, having bad-faith open borders increases long-term human misery.