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.