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Response to Codevilla



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I appreciate Prof. Codevilla’s responding last week to my response to his article on the futility of border controls in the Claremont Review of Books (the original article now appears to be online).

Our basic difference appears to be this: He says, as summarized in the final paragraph of his CRB piece, that border enforcement is pointless because too many Americans are lazy, drug-addled, unpatriotic welfare freeloaders. In other words, until we fix all the social and political problems facing us, we must not attempt to control the border. And attempting to so will anger Mexico, an outcome we must avoid at almost any cost.

I counter that control of the border, and the larger immigration system of which it is a part, is more important than ever precisely because of the social problems Prof. Codevilla bemoans. That is to say, until Americans figure out how, in his words, “to take citizenship seriously, to dismantle the welfare state’s bureaucratic and psychological culture of entitlement, to dismiss the image of themselves as white-gloved administrators, and to banish America’s drug culture,” we need extra attention to our frontiers to keep things from getting worse. And our decision to harden our border is purely a matter of sovereignty to which Mexico is not privy.

Let me address several of his specific concerns. Right at the top of his Corner posting, he protests: “My article says nothing about what tools the U.S. government ought to have with regard to immigration, much less how it ought to use them, and precisely zero about how much or how little immigration we should have.”

He may imagine that to be the case, but it’s hard to agree based on what he’s written. He piously asserts that “It should not be necessary to point out that the following is not an argument for the libertarian option of ‘open borders’ …” — but it’s not clear there’s a difference. First of all, in his Corner posting, he specifically praises an imagined tradition of “unguarded borders” ranging from John Quincy Adams (during whose lifetime our borders were guarded by the oceans) to Dwight Eisenhower (who launched “Operation Wetback,” which rounded up and deported hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens). How are “unguarded” borders different from “open” borders?

What’s more, he adopts the open-borders terminology of the libertarians: “a fence and its massive infrastructure would merely protect us against people who just want to work here.” Border enforcement “turns good labor-seekers into bad imitations of immigrants.” Perhaps he would claim that he’s talking about “labor migration” rather than “immigration,” but that would be sophistry. Almost all immigrants come to work, and every flow of supposedly temporary workers creates large-scale permanent immigration.

The clear implication is that Prof. Codevilla agrees with President Bush’s vision, laid out in January 2004, where any “willing worker” could arrive here with a job offer from any “willing employer” in any occupation at any pay above minimum wage. If this is not so, perhaps Prof. Codevilla could explain how opposition to border enforcement can mean anything other than open immigration. Libertarians at least aren’t coy about it.

I’ll address several other misconceptions in his article below the fold.

Jobs Americans won’t do: At the center of Prof. Codevilla’s jeremiad is the hoary claim that there just aren’t enough Americans suited to do the hard work our society needs to function, and therefore Mexican workers are necessary to fill the vacuum.

Simply as a matter of numbers, this is incorrect. There are perhaps 7 million illegal aliens in the labor force (the other four million or so don’t work), but there are three times that many native-born Americans of working age, with no more than a high-school education, who aren’t even in the labor force. And this doesn’t count those who are unemployed (i.e., actually looking for work) or underemployed (for instance, they have a part-time job but want a full-time one).

What’s more, a detailed look at immigrants by occupation shows that virtually every occupation contains a majority of native-born workers. Some examples:

  • Maids and housekeepers: 55 percent native-born
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs: 58 percent native-born
  • Butchers and meat processors: 63 percent native-born
  • Grounds maintenance workers: 65 percent native-born
  • Construction laborers: 65 percent native-born
  • Porters, bellhops, and concierges: 71 percent native-born
  • Janitors: 75 percent native-born

How can an occupation be described as “a job Americans won’t do” when most people who do it are, in fact, native-born Americans?

Nor is this just the tail end of some better time, with Americans represented by aging holdovers still willing to do blue-collar work; fully one-third of the native-born in high-immigrant occupations are under 30.

What’s more, the presence of large-scale immigration appears to exacerbate the exodus of Americans from blue-collar occupations. One of my colleagues frequently drives from Washington to central Pennsylvania and notes that it’s remarkable how, as you leave the immigrant-heavy Washington area, the fast food places at each subsequent interchange seem to somehow find a larger and larger share of American kids able to flip burgers.

The data on teen employment bear this out. While it is true that labor force participation for teenagers — the “swarms of youth in malls and campuses” Prof. Codevilla sniffs at — has been declining across all ethnic groups and levels of education, immigration accelerates the process. My colleague Steven Camarota has estimated that “On average, a 10 percentage-point increase in the immigrant share of the labor force reduces the labor force participation rate of U.S.-born teenagers by 5.79 percentage points in 1994-95 and 4.57 percentage points in 2006-07.” More immigrants means fewer teenagers working.

Even the harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables — occupying a relatively minor part of the illegal workforce but an area where Prof. Codevilla claims expertise, “Having run a farm in California for some years” — doesn’t require the continued importation of foreign labor. The large-scale importation of Mexican workers was begun during WWII not out of necessity but as a way to prevent demands for higher pay and new USDA data suggest that border enforcement before the current recession had caused farmworker wages to increase. What’s more, the wave of Mexican labor migration that began in the late 1970s has actually retarded the process of mechanizing the harvest. Prof. Codevilla asks “what would we do without Mexicans?” — the answer is offer better wages and benefits to attract legal workers and find ways to increase their productivity through innovation.

We do, indeed, face the problem that blue-collar work is increasingly seen as fit only for underlings from abroad. Karl Rove expressed this pithily: “I don’t want my 17-year-old son to have to pick tomatoes or make beds in Las Vegas.” Prof. Codevilla obviously agrees that restoring a sense of the nobility of labor is a pressing concern, one getting increasing attention, as seen in the popularity of books such as Shop Class as Soulcraft. But border control is part of what’s needed to effect this restoration, and embracing Prof. Codevilla’s willing worker/willing employer approach would only worsen the problem.

One last point on economics; Prof. Codevilla says Mexicans increasingly think that “All the gringos are racists, from the greedy businessmen who exploit Mexican labor to the lazy unions that restrict it.” Unions? Unions were at the forefront of restrictionism years ago, but are now the foot soldiers for Codevilla’s own anti-enforcement approach. Has he not read a newspaper in the last decade?

Circularity of migration: Codevilla relies on another cliché of the anti-enforcement crowd: Illegal immigrants just want to work and get back home and our efforts at the border are making that circulation more difficult, so people just come to stay instead.

He writes, presumably from his deep experience running a farm, that “most illegal border crossers are not ‘immigrants.’ They do not come to stay, much less for American citizenship. They are overwhelmingly young men who have left their women behind, and who yearn to get back to them. They have no intention of living the rest of their lives without their families. Most do not come with any desire to take part in American life.” But our nasty enforcement policies intervened:  “Yet increased border control is turning some of these labor-seekers into de facto maladjusted immigrants. … Because crossing the border was becoming more difficult, there was greater incentive to bring families and stay.”

The chief peddler of this point of view of Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Penn. But his own data belie his statements. For instance, see this pdf of Massey’s testimony at a House hearing; the key graph is Figure 7 on p. 20:

massey return migration

The red line shows the likelihood of a Mexican migrant returning after seasonal work in the U.S. You see that there are no significant changes in the downward slope since Massey began collecting data in 1980 — most notably no sharp drop after the mid-90s buildup of border enforcement, which is what would have happened if this theory had any validity.

The reason the number of Mexican-born people in the U.S. has ballooned from less than 800,000 in 1970 to more than 11 million today is not that they’re trapped here by border enforcement but that their country has undergone the shift from rural to urban that all developing countries experience. As agriculture modernizes, the excess rural labor moves to the cities — but because of our feckless border and immigration policies, too much of Mexico’s excess rural labor has been able to move to our cities instead of their own. This is why, for instance, contrary to Prof. Codevilla’s assertion that illegal aliens are “overwhelmingly young men,” fully 40 percent of adult illegals are women.

Welfare: This is another area where Prof. Codevilla’s assertions are unsupported by facts. He writes “Although the American welfare state’s agencies seek out Mexicans as clients, most — especially those just arrived — tend to rely on their own community.” I don’t know who seeks out whom, but this claim is laughable. A recent CIS report found that 75 percent of Mexican households in the U.S. with children used at least one major welfare program in 2009 (the figure was 57 percent for immigrants overall). Even among “those just arrived” — here less than 3 years — the majority used welfare.

Nor is this simply a system that “these workers and their families could turn [to] between jobs,” as Prof. Codevilla claims; in fact, the welfare system in this country hasn’t worked that way for 15 years. Virtually all welfare-collecting households with children contain at least one worker, but because their low levels of education are a mismatch for a modern economy, their wages are so low that they qualify for welfare.

Prof. Codevilla is right, though, in criticizing the notion that “if America’s schools, hospitals, and social services were available only to legal residents, our welfare state would be solvent, or at least closer to solvency.” It’s all low-skilled immigration that must be curtailed, not just the illegal variety, because immigration overall does have a significant impact on the solvency of our welfare state — nearly one-third of all the uninsured, for instance, are immigrants or their young children.

It’s true that “the welfare state is another problem made in America, by and for Americans,” but immigration makes that problem significantly worse than it has to be.

Security: Another open-borders platitude is that perimeter control cannot improve security or, in Prof. Codevilla’s words, “The ‘dang fence’ will be irrelevant to terrorism.” While it can be a useful corrective to emphasize that fencing alone is inadequate, it’s important to understand that any border a dishwasher can sneak through is one that a terrorist or criminal can sneak through as well. Contrary to Prof. Codevilla’s unsupported assertion that “It takes little sophistication for any terrorist organization to put together identity packages that ensure legal entry,” many terrorists have indeed snuck into the country. Mahmoud Kourani, brother of Hezbollah’s chief of military security in southern Lebanon and described in a federal indictment as “a member, fighter, recruiter and fund-raiser” of the terrorist group, bribed his way into Mexico and  was snuck into the U.S. hidden in a car. Millennium Plot conspirators Abdelghani Meskini and Abdel Hakim Tizegha both originally entered the United States as stowaways on ships that docked at a U.S. port. New York subway plotter Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer was caught — three times — trying to sneak across the Canadian border (though because of a lack of detention space, he was paroled into the U.S.). Terrorists aren’t the supervillains from the movies; they’re often not all that bright or professional, and border control plays a part in stopping a significant share of them.

Drugs. I have no expertise in the area of narcotics, and clearly Prof. Codevilla doesn’t either. But his binary presentation of total legalization, with “Darwinian” selection of those who gorge on drugs, or “serious criminalization of possession, Singapore-style, which would send users to prison for years of hard labor and corporal punishment, or to the gallows” is a phony choice (he seems to prefer option #2). There is no chance either of these things is going to happen. I personally favor legalization of marijuana and think that might make some modest impact on cross-border smuggling. But it would take years for such a significant change to work its way through our federal system, and the cartels’ other lines of business — harder drugs, but also kidnapping, extortion, etc. — would be unaffected.

It’s one thing to say that it is inadequate to address the drug problem through border controls alone. But Prof. Codevilla’s insistence that we must not — must not — even attempt to enforce our sovereign border as part of a larger anti-drug strategy is foolish. And to posit that our only permissible options are to engineer a mass die-off of the weak or to launch a totalitarian campaign of repression on the scale of Mao’s suppression of opium use in China is an abomination.

Mexico will go commie. The last-ditch argument against enforcing our southern border is some version of the “escape valve” rationale — if we actually try to stop large-scale illegal flows, the Reds will take over Mexico. Prof. Codevilla obliges here as well, arguing that our attempts to restrict illicit movements of people and drugs across our border will cause Mexicans to elect a government hostile to us, which “may even align Mexico with Iran, Venezuela, and other countries that wish America ill.” Maybe Zimbabwe too.

This is alarmist and irrelevant. Alarmist because the likely winner in next year’s Mexican presidential election is not the nominee of the leftist PRD, but Enrique Pena Nieto, a member of the PRI, the dinosaur institution that ruled the country for decades (which despite its name of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, is much more institutional than revolutionary). Even the leftist candidate in the 2006 election, Lopez Obrador, has nothing to do with Hugo Chavez, who is “extraordinarily unpopular” in Mexico, according to a scholar acquaintance of mine; so much so that Lopez Obrador lost in part because his attacks on the incumbent President Vicente Fox were seen as echoing Chavez’s (completely separate) attacks.

Mexicans understand that they need us much more than we need them; what’s more, the cartels are obviously a manifestation of the pre-existing weakness and corruption of their  institutions and society; after all, there aren’t any Canadian cartels sneaking masses of drugs into Montana. It’ll have to take a much more serious crisis, more directly brought about by the U.S., to turn the constant background resentment against us there into a “truly hostile Mexico”.

And, anyway, so what? While we should never seek to cause our neighbor gratuitous offense, our domestic matters are no concern of theirs. Prof. Codevilla, in the nearly 4,000 words of his CRB piece, never once writes the most important word in relations between nations: “sovereignty.”

What he does write is this: “The next Mexican government is also likely to support some American politicians’ efforts to transform Mexican immigrants into yet another aggrieved ‘racial’ group — though they are not even a ‘race’ much less a repressed one — further poisoning American politics.” This is perhaps the most unintentionally funny sentence in the CRB article, because this train left the station a long time ago. As I set out in some detail in my book, the Mexican foreign ministry for years has been aggressively engaged in U.S. identity politics on behalf of not just Mexicans, not just Mexican Americans, but Hispanics overall. Its network of nearly 50 consulates throughout the U.S. — the largest number any country has in another — operates not only in a diplomatic capacity but in a political one, lobbying sheriffs, threatening state legislators, providing curricula for public schools.

Of course, all this is in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs — not to mention simple mutual respect — but we do nothing in response, so Mexico keeps pushing the envelope. Here, finally, is a shortcoming of ours that can quickly and easily be addressed — simply declaring one especially egregious consul persona non grata would correct this behavior quickly.

Factual and conceptual errors are common enough in the immigration debate; the proportion of people who imagine themselves experts — because they endured the green card process or their grandma came through Ellis island or because they have an immigrant servant — is quite high. But the tone of Codevilla’s piece is especially disturbing, even creepy. He seems to be washing his hands of America because it fails to live up to his standards. Look again at his concluding sentence:

Were Americans once again to take citizenship seriously, to dismantle the welfare state’s bureaucratic and psychological culture of entitlement, to dismiss the image of themselves as white-gloved administrators, and to banish America’s drug culture, then Americans could safely stop worrying about our southern border.

Some commenters to my original post thought I misunderstood him; after all, these problems are indeed the source of much of the concern for our borders. But when you combine these sentiments with Codevilla’s repeated assertions that attempting to enforce our southern border is futile and will only give rise to a hostile Mexico possibly allied with Iran, then his message is clear: until we end the welfare state, American taxpayers must keep funding the demands of infiltrators; until we send drug users to the gallows, we must not do anything to try to stop those peddling poison; until American youngsters go back to the fields, we must permit more and more occupations to be colonized by outsiders.

In other words, we deserve it.



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