Why are over 11 million foreign nationals residing illegally in the United States? If we can answer that question, then we can fathom the purpose of “comprehensive immigration reform,” and understand why special-interest groups mostly favor what the majority of Americans oppose. Illegal immigration goes on because, in the Roman sense, it serves the interest (cui bono?) of tens of millions of people. In practical terms, “comprehensive immigration reform” is a way not to end the present chaos but to legitimize it.
Let us count the concerned beneficiaries.
1) Mexico. Someday Mexico, a nation rich in natural resources, may achieve rough parity with the other North American economies and develop truly consensual and transparent government. Someday the declining birth rate in Mexico may make Mexico City husband its suddenly precious manpower. Someday the Rio Grande may become as abstract as the border between the U.S. and Canada.
That someday, however, is not now. At present, Mexico views the United States as a safety valve for potential social unrest, seeing it in much the same way as Easterners once envisioned the American West — a place that the impoverished but audacious might flee to rather than agitate against vast inequality at home.
No one knows how many billions of dollars illegal aliens annually send back to Mexico and other Latin American countries, but the figure may exceed $30 billion — a source of foreign exchange as valuable as oil exports or tourism. That Mexico’s own citizens residing in the United States often live in poverty in order to budget for their weekly remittances, or that U.S. taxpayers subsidize such beneficence through entitlements, is of little, if any, concern to Mexico City.
Finally, the export of millions of Mexican nationals gives Mexico City political leverage with the United States, whether exercised through the ubiquity of Mexican consulates here, the constant sermonizing about the plight of the dispossessed, or the surreal lawsuits against particular American states. For real reform to succeed, Mexico would have to resign itself to far fewer remittances, potentially greater social unrest, landmark social reform at home, and less traction with the American government. For those reasons alone, it will bitterly oppose real, rather than the present Potemkin, reform.
2) Business. Employers in the restaurant and hospitality industries, and in meat-packing, agribusiness, construction, and landscaping, find Mexican nationals wonderful workers. They are. The lack of legality, English, and a high-school diploma are not drawbacks for the physically demanding jobs in these fields, but in a tragically paradoxical way become advantages — turning what would otherwise be entry-level or temporary employment into a multi-year ordeal. The employer reaps the benefit of industrious young and healthy workers, and the greater society picks up the eventual tab for the aging and injured and for dependents in terms of health-care, education, and law-enforcement costs.
In an economy of long-standing 7-plus percent unemployment, employers could surely find American workers, but not, by and large, workers as industrious as Mexican nationals, and not as low-paid, since the assorted costs of the Mexican workers’ achieving nominal parity with American citizens are borne by the society at large. Do not expect business to favor any reform that changes the advantageous status quo.
To be fair to employers, if our society wishes to close the border, then it must be prepared to pay higher prices for some commodities, at least in the short term, on the theory that, in terms of social stability and economic justice, training and employing American citizens might in the long run be less expensive than permitting the influx of illegal aliens to continue. Bottom line: Expect employers to resent bitterly true immigration reform that would halt the influx of cheap labor. In every “grand bargain,” there will be a Republican shilling for big business.
3) The elite. Inexpensive foreign “household help” — gardeners, nannies, housekeepers, cooks — is now a fixture among the wealthy and upper-middle classes of the American Southwest, which are emulating the values and lifestyle of the 19th-century aristocracy. For many American suburban elites, illegal immigration is largely seen in personal terms as a patron-client relationship with particular immigrants. The Atherton or Newport investment banker or computer engineer sees himself as a concerned noble offering needed employment to an equally noble client — as a sort of American version of the patrón who assumes social obligations in addition to paying wages. In psychological terms, the member of the blue-state elite envisions himself not as an exploiter of cheap labor, but rather more as a benefactor of the greater social good. That the Burlingame software executive would never hire an unemployed African-American youth to cut his lawn, given his preference for a Mexican landscaper, is somehow seen as liberal.
Anecdotes (e.g., “I give all my extra clothes to Herlinda”; “We bought a used car for José”), not statistics, guide these people’s thinking. In the elite mind, there is no contradiction between hiring Roberto to build a redwood fence in the backyard and ensuring that one’s own kids go to private schools to avoid joining Roberto’s kids in the neighborhood school in nearby Redwood City. Roberto is a wonderful handyman, but his children are not the sort of chums that Stanford-bound offspring should associate with or be forced to slow down with in an English class. Crass nativists and racists live in places like southern Arizona and Bakersfield; liberal apartheid progressives, eager to ensure social justice, hire illegal aliens in places like Atherton to help the proverbial people. They use their ample income and capital to ensure a social apartness that avoids the realities that those without their disposable income deal with in a quite different fashion. Expect a suburban elite to oppose any true reform that would imperil their own psychological penance and clear material benefits.
4) La Raza. The presence of 11 million illegal aliens — largely from the poorer provinces of Mexico, the majority non-English-speaking and without high-school educations — warps all civic statistics about the upward mobility of Latinos. Translated, that means a third-generation American of partial Mexican ancestry, with a Latinate last name but not speaking Spanish, qualifies as a minority for purposes of hiring and admissions. The apparent theory is that his cohort has not achieved statistical parity with the majority, ostensibly because of ongoing but rectifiable discrimination, rather than because of the continuing influx of newcomers from impoverished Oaxaca.
Why would ethnic elites in journalism, politics, academia, and public employment wish to alter the present advantageous non-system? Illegal immigration has turned much of the American Southwest into a blue political haven. What the La Raza elite fears is a collective ethnic trajectory analogous to the Italian-American experience, where Latinate tribal identification becomes incidental rather than essential to one’s character, and where politics are predicated on issues rather than a quid-pro-quo patron-client bargain. Is there a La Razza that clamors for more immigration from bankrupt Sicily or seeks affirmative action for Italians tarred by slurs of affinity with La Cosa Nostra? Does any other identity group adopt the nomenclature “The Race”?
With the end of illegal immigration, in a generation or two the very word La Raza or Chicano would disappear from the American parlance, buried under the juggernaut of assimilation, intermarriage, and integration. Only the influx of millions of illegal aliens replenishes the unassimilated ethnic pool and thereby ensures through the ensuing disparities that the Latino caucus, the Chicano Studies Department, and the accented name of the evening newsreader do not go the way of Italian-, Armenian-, or Greek-American assimilation.
Under the present win-win scenario, expect the ethnic elite to oppose bitterly any true reform measure that would close the border and someday make “Hispanic” or “Latino” as significant as “German,” “Romanian,” or “Polish” — a rubric of occasional ethnic pride but without any measurable political clout.
5) The Democratic party. If it was true that under the 1986 amnesty, less than half of the concerned foreign nationals chose to become citizens, that would not be the case with an updated version. Much has changed politically in the last 30 years. We can disagree over the reasons why “Latino” has become synonymous with “Democratic,” but not over the political results. The Left cites conservative insensitivity to the plight of the Latin American poor; the Right points to cynical political manipulation that offers assorted entitlements in exchange for ethnic loyalty manifested by second-generation voters and a sense of solidarity that permeates American citizens of Latin American ancestry. No matter — any amnesty this time around would see much greater participation rates to fuel ongoing political momentum.
In any Gang of Eight–style caucus, assume that its Democratic members would not wish to endanger the present political realities that have changed the electoral map of the southwestern United States. In cynical fashion, Democrats will grant concessions on guest workers to pacify Republican grandees fronting for business, in exchange for amnesties that will maintain demographic dividends and their own political futures. As a general rule of thumb, any time a Democratic legislator praises a Republican counterpart for being reasonable and sensitive, we can equate such magnanimity with private guffaws about the naïveté — if not greed — of his opposite number. How ironic that the “Latino” vote is probably not what lost the Republicans the last election — instead, it was the working-class whites who stayed home because they sensed that they were not a part of Mitt Romney’s world, and who mostly oppose blanket amnesties unless they come with ironclad assurances of closed borders.
And what about the American people? The public that feels most immediately the social costs of illegal immigration bitterly resents the cynical non-enforcement of the law. Whereas professors in Maine or Wisconsin may see a liberal civil-rights issue, ranchers along the border or parents whose children are at a school in Tulare see only illiberality: the public bearing the social costs of employers’ greed, and an ethnic lobby practicing a disturbing chauvinism concerned not with illegal immigration per se, but only with illegal immigration from Latin America. (Were 1 million Chinese arriving illegally each year, La Raza would be decrying non-enforcement of the law and unfair competition to American workers.)
In the same manner in which principled skepticism concerning gay marriage became homophobia, support for fracking made one a polluter, doubts about the government’s responsibility to provide wealthy women with free birth control equated with misogyny, or worries over curbing the Second Amendment were synonymous with redneck heartlessness, so too border enforcement is now tantamount to nativism and racism — charges analogous to child molestation for most Americans today.
Solutions? Close the border. Deport illegal aliens who are not working and have been regularly on public assistance, have violated U.S. criminal laws, or have just recently arrived. After that, allow the law-abiding, employed long-term resident to pay a fine and remain on U.S. soil, while learning English and applying for citizenship — from the rear of the line. Aid the transition of American citizens off state support into the labor force; take the moral high ground with Mexico and demand respect for U.S. sovereignty and U.S. laws. Do not be bullied by La Raza, and instead understand the basis of its philological reality. Do not let yourself be demagogued by false charges of nativism and racism. Worry more about unemployed American citizens and stressed taxpayers than about Mexican nationals who are fleeing a nation rich in natural resources and in need of millions of reformers.
All that should be the basis for immigration reform — and thereby will ensure outrage from the special interests that are so heavily vested in the present violation of the law.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals will appear later this month from Bloomsbury Books.