Politics & Policy

Next Battle: Immigration

What we will -- and will not -- hear in the upcoming debate over illegal immigration.

After the health-care fight, we can expect the Obama administration to use the same template to pass “comprehensive immigration reform.” That is a euphemism for permanently ceasing construction of the still-incomplete border fence; institutionalizing a large guest-worker program; treating illegal residents as de facto citizens in terms of receiving earned-income credits, health care, and general entitlements; and providing virtual amnesty for 11 million illegal aliens.

And what exactly is that model for passage of something that promises to be so unpopular?

We know the boilerplate well after a year of health-care acrimony. First, immigration policy — like health care, and cap-and-trade to come — will be cast as a civil-rights issue. That is, free access to the United States and, for some, its entitlement industry for millions of impoverished Mexicans will be redefined as comparable to ending discrimination in the South in the 1960s.

Next, skeptics will be branded “racists” and “nativists,” as is being done now to the tea partiers. A few House members will wade through anti-illegal-immigration rallies, and within minutes the media will announce “racial slurs” and “a scary atmosphere” suggesting “violence” and “hatred.”

This polarization is critical for the bill’s passage, since it does not have 50 percent public support — and won’t unless a series of constituencies can be united to see the issue in polarities such as us vs. them, whites vs. people of color, rich vs. poor. Blacks will be told it is Birmingham all over again. The Mexican-American middle class, highly skeptical of open borders, will be told that opposition to amnesty is “anti-Hispanic.”

So the debate will be personalized — and, above all, blurred. Opponents, we will also be told, are not bothered by illegal immigration per se. Rather they are “anti-immigrant” — as the issue is transmuted into one of hating real people rather than opposing an illegal activity.

Fence-sitting House members will be promised all sorts of special multi-million-dollar earmarks to allay “voter concern.” Executive orders will be pledged to override the more disturbing elements of congressional legislation. Anecdotes about starving children, and accusations of responsibility for the deaths of hundreds trying to cross the border in the desert, will pepper the rhetoric of open-border advocates.

The key will be to redefine as liberal something as inherently illiberal as illegal immigration. Thus there will be no discussion of what the surge over the last two decades of more than 11 million illegal aliens has done to poorer American workers.

We won’t hear from the Democrats that upper-middle-class suburbanites — many quite liberal –apparently see themselves as aristocratic, at least in the sense of being entitled to cheap labor for their lawn care, domestic cleaning, and child care.

They will not talk about the crisis that will occur in entitlement funding for the American poor, once additional millions of Mexican nationals overburden a finite system of health, housing, and food subsidies.

There will absolutely no discussion of the $40 to $50 billion that is sent annually back to Latin America in remittances, a great part of it by illegal aliens, who, in turn, rely on American federal, state, and local governments to make up the shortfall in their weekly paychecks. In effect, the off-the-hook Mexican government is the beneficiary of American tax dollars.

Expect silence about the current status of legal immigration from Mexico — specifically, that we accept more legal immigrants from Mexico than from any other nation in the world, hardly the behavior of a racist or nativist society.

Also, don’t mention the deleterious effects that sudden influxes of millions of illegal immigrants have on the processes of assimilation, intermarriage, and integration — the traditional mechanisms by which legal arrivals successfully melt into the American mainstream. To suggest that one’s tribe, race, or ethnicity should be incidental to being an American, or to point out that vast enclaves of unassimilated aliens live in virtual segregation, is now a heresy of the first order.

We can be sure that no one on the left side of the aisle will cite the utter cynicism of the Mexican government, which exports poor brown people from its interior, whom it does not wish to help, even as it welcomes largely rich white people to its picturesque coast. What else but cynical is it to provide little housing support for millions of your own in Oaxaca while encouraging second-home construction by foreigners in Baja?

So Obama and his congressional allies will make every effort to prevent discussion of the issues, because they revolve around a simple matter of following the law and ensuring that those who emigrate from Mexico do so in the same manner as thousands do from Kenya, South Korea, or Russia — legally and in reasonable numbers.

There would be no debate if each day freighters were arriving to unload on the coast of Texas or California 3,000 illegal aliens from Nigeria or China, most of whom did not speak English or have a high-school diploma.

So-called immigration reform, in other words, is not about the concept of illegal immigration from poor countries in general; rather, it is about massive illegal immigration from Latin America and in particular Mexico — and it hinges entirely on political considerations.

Millions of illegal aliens have become citizens through past blanket amnesties, and they are likely, at least for a while, to vote in bloc for liberal and/or Hispanic candidates. The idea of enlarging that pool of loyal constituents by another 5 to 6 million people of voting age is too great a temptation to refuse, especially given the decisive effects to be expected on close elections in the American southwest. The more entitlements are extended to illegal aliens, the more liberal politicians can remind continued generations that they alone were responsible for such institutionalized federal subsidies.

For a smaller fringe of Hispanic activists — found largely in academia, the foundations, journalism, and politics — illegal immigration is a matter of ethnic pride, some racial chauvinism (cf. the old MEChA slogan, “For the race everything; outside the race, nothing”), and a welcomed sense of irony that demography is now redefining the old Spanish northern provinces once lost through war. After all, in 2010 there is still a national lobbying organization with the fossilized name La Raza (The Race), a racially chauvinistic term that would be considered uncouth if employed by whites — but one that enhances a small group of Spanish-surnamed elites through their self-appointed representation of millions of illegal aliens.

Unfortunately, though, this is not only a left-wing issue. The corporate Right in many industries — tourism, hotels, restaurants, meat-packing, landscaping, agriculture — also welcomes illiegal immigrants. These employers are as happy to have hard-working first-generation poor immigrants on their payroll as they are willing to outsource the subsequent problems of acculturation to society at large.

Will the bill pass?

We can be assured only that the debate will be as nasty as the one over health care. Yet recent developments may suggest greater difficulty than the administration imagines.

We are in a deep recession. Unemployment is still over 9 percent in some of the southwestern states, and nearly 20 percent in the inland counties of California. The old myth that native-born Americans will not clean hotel rooms or weed gardens is fading, as the unemployed now seem willing to work at jobs once considered taboo. That trend will only increase if the recession endures and unemployment benefits finally wind down.

State budgets are in a mess, and even liberals grant, for example, that some part of the California meltdown is due to the presence of some 5 to 7 million resident illegal aliens, which drives up the cost of everything from education to incarceration. Liberal teachers — California has the highest-paid teachers in the nation while its student scores rank nearly dead last — don’t like to acknowledge that the abject failure of their public schools is due to poor teaching and administration rather than in part the presence of millions who do not speak English.

The public is sensitive to the overused charge of racism. When everything from health care to immigration law is to be defined in terms of racial prejudice, it has a dulling effect. This round of the immigration debate comes after the acrimony over Eric Holder’s “cowards,” the president’s “acting stupidly” reference in the Professor Gates affair, Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina,” Van Jones’s “white polluters” — all on top of the president’s earlier quips about a “typical white person” and rural whites “clinging” to guns and religion. By now millions see the evocation of race as more reflective of the biases of the accuser than his target.

In 2010 we are also subjected to almost nightly news stories of horrific violence in Mexico, much of it along the border. Fairly or not, many Americans associate Mexico with lawlessness, corruption, and mayhem — the death tolls there have been far higher recently than in either Afghanistan or Iraq — and want its problems to stay on the southern side of the border.

A wiser administration would call in opponents and, in bipartisan fashion, agree to finish the border fence, toughen up employer sanctions, issue a tamper-proof ID, deport alien felons and recent arrivals, and then work out a process through which illegal aliens who are long-standing residents of the United States could reapply for residency and embark on a pathway to eventual citizenship, contingent upon payment of fines, lack of criminality, compliance with current law, and mastery of English. Then legitimate debate could take place over the thorny issue of whether aliens would first need to return home in order to begin going through these legal channels and processes.

Instead, we will see a replay of the health-care controversy. The administration has decided that winning another legislative victory in an agenda aimed at remaking America is worth the cost of dividing the country and whipping up heroes and demons. Momentum, not compromise, is the order of the day.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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