Immigration Odds and Ends

by Ramesh Ponnuru

1. David Brooks is among those who think that it makes no sense to object to the Senate immigration bill on the ground that it reduces illegal immigration by only 30 to 50 percent (according to the Congressional Budget Office). That’s still better than the status quo, he argues. If I understand him correctly, he’s saying it would be irrational to object to the bill even if it reduced illegal immigration by only 10 percent. Here’s what I think he’s missing. Let’s say you’re one of those people who consider legalization a blow to the rule of law that should be done only in return for a big achievement — for example, for a degree of immigration enforcement that makes the law credible going forward and means there will be no possibility of further mass legalizations. Or let’s say you’re someone who objects to other provisions of the bill, such as the guest-worker programs, but might be willing to put up with them in return for bringing illegal immigration to a negligible level. The lower your payoff, the less likely you are to pay what you consider to be a cost.

And if the rule of law is your concern, then perceptions matter. After all the political strife necessary to pass a bill that is supposed to end illegal immigration–as some backers have put it–we could end up with a country in which there was no visible difference in illegal immigration. CBO’s projection is that illegal immigration is going to increase in the absence of a bill, which means that if you compare the pre-bill inflow of illegal immigrants to the post-bill inflow the reduction will be less than 30 to 50 percent. At that point we will have set the stage for another debate about how to handle the illegal-immigrant population and another round of legalization will be on the table. It does not seem to me to be irrational to think that that situation will make a mockery of the law. It is especially not irrational if you think that junking this bill might make it possible to get a better law through some future Congress.

2. On the idea of passing a different bill later, Ezra Klein writes that “‘later,’ of course, is a very long time for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants who are suffering now. That, ultimately, is the moral failing of ‘later’ arguments: They tend to be airy abstractions by political strategists unaffected by the issues at hand. It’s always easy to wait for a more perfect bill if you’re unaffected by the status quo.” (Klein is responding to this Bill Kristol/Rich Lowry op-ed.) I think that arguments that an immigration bill can wait do indeed assume that we don’t have a strong moral obligation to provide legal status to illegal immigrants. I think that assumption is correct (and in this I agree with Senator Marco Rubio, by the way). I think the interests of illegal immigrants have some weight, because they’re people, and if the lot of any group of people can be improved that is, all else equal, worth doing. But offering them legalization is not a requirement of justice, and so it’s fine to haggle over terms.

3. Even opponents of the Senate bill tend to refer to it as “immigration reform,” which strikes me as a tactical mistake on their part, as it was for opponents of Obamacare to call it “health-care reform.” Reform implies improvement, and presumably opponents of these proposals think they qualify. For the same reason, people who are trying to describe the controversy over these pieces of legislation neutrally should avoid the term. And it isn’t hard to avoid it.