Politics & Policy

Incoherent Immigration Reform

Farm workers near Bakersfield, Calif.
The present system serves many lobbies very well, and the public interest very poorly.

Nothing about illegal immigration quite adds up.

Conservative corporate employers still support the idea of imported, cheap, non-union labor — in a strange alliance with liberal activists who want the larger blocs of Latino voters that eventually follow massive influxes from Latin America.

Yet how conservative are businesses that in the past flouted federal law — and how liberal are activists who undermined the bargaining power of American minimum-wage, entry-level workers, many of them minorities?

The remedies for illegal immigration under discussion are just as incoherent. If the government now plans to offer some foreign nationals a pathway to citizenship, does it also suddenly have the will to determine who among illegal immigrants does not qualify for citizenship?

Millions of illegal immigrants have resided in the United States for some time. They have not been convicted of crimes. And they have been hard-working and self-supporting. But if the majority deserve a chance to obtain legal residence and begin the process of citizenship, what about others who would not qualify under those same considerations?

#ad#There is talk of reforming legal immigration as well. Under the proposed system, from now on we would select most immigrants for citizenship not by their place of origin, or by the fact of their prior illegal residence in the United States, but on the basis of needed skill sets and education and their willingness to wait in line legally.

Yet are loud proponents of “comprehensive immigration reform” really willing to embrace the reforms they boast about? It might spell the end of privileging millions from Latin America to enter the United States without requisite concern about legality, education, English fluency, or particular skill sets. 

Massive illegal immigration is not ethnically blind or based on education. For decades it has favored more proximate Latin American arrivals who can easily cross the U.S.-Mexican border over those from distant Asia, Africa, or Europe who simply cannot.

The politics of immigration are just as weird. Democrats, buoyed by the two election victories of Barack Obama, now welcome large pools of new Latino citizens to vote en bloc for Democratic candidates. But if the border were actually closed and immigration were once again handled through a legal, systematic process, then in time Latinos — in the pattern of Greek, Italian, and Armenian Americans — would follow most other ethnic minorities and decouple their ethnic allegiances from politics.

Republicans seem more confused. After needlessly bombastic talk in the 2012 presidential primaries, they have gone to the other extreme of emphasizing amnesties instead of enforcement — largely in efforts to pander to growing numbers of Latino voters.

Here, too, paradoxes abound. Various polls suggest that immigration was not the primary reason why Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama.

When the Pew Research Center recently surveyed Latinos and asked whether they preferred high taxes and big government or low taxes and small government, they preferred high taxes and big government by a 75–19 margin. And they usually see liberal Democrats as far better stewards of redistributionist government, and Republicans more as heartless advocates of a capricious free market.

Asian Americans, for whom illegal immigration is not really an issue, voted for Democrats by about the same margins as did Latinos — and perhaps because of similar perceptions of minority-friendly big government.  

Moreover, the largest concentrations of Latino voters are in southwestern blue states such as California, New Mexico, and Nevada, where Republicans usually lose anyway, and for a variety of reasons other than immigration. Ironically, the best long-term strategy for Republicans would be to close the border and allow the forces of upward mobility, assimilation, and the natural social conservatism of Latinos to work.

Everyone talks grandly of passing bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform as if the present system had not sprung up to serve the needs of all sorts of special interests that certainly have not gone away.  

We forget that too many employers still want the cheap labor of foreign nationals.

The Mexican government still promotes illegal immigration as a political safety valve and a valuable source of cash remittances.

Too many ethnic activists, whose support derives from large numbers of under-assimilated Latinos, don’t want to deport anyone and do not welcome legal immigration redefined by ethnically blind, skill-based criteria.

Democratic politicos don’t want closed borders, only to see the melting pot someday turn their loyal supporters into independent voters. And panicky Republicans simply have no idea what they want — other than to cater to as many constituencies as they can.

The present system of immigration is far too often illegal and immoral. But it is also weirdly rational in the way that it serves so well so many lobbies — and so poorly the shared public interest at large.

 NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals will appear in the spring from Bloomsbury Books.(c) 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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