Politics & Policy

How to Think about Immigration

(John Moore/Getty)
The U.S. government is generally expected to act in the interest of the people of the United States.

The influx of children across our southern border is troubling. First, because they are not all children — not by a sight — but images of children are useful for stirring emotions to muddy the policy waters. Second, because it is not all that unusual: As the Wall Street Journal reports, between 23,000 and 47,000 minors illegally entered the United States and were apprehended in each of the past five years; in 2013, we ordered only 3,525 deportations, suggesting that something on the order of nine in ten, or more, of minor illegal aliens — again, of the number apprehended — are allowed to stay. The number not apprehended is very large, the number of non-minors is very large, and that is how we find ourselves with not millions but tens of millions of illegal aliens resident in these United States.

Don’t tell my friend Mark Krikorian, who recently praised my views on immigration as “patriotic,” but I am something of a liberal on the question. I am generally in favor of relatively high levels of immigration, at least of certain kinds of immigrants. But whether you are a hawk like Krikorian or a squish like me, there are some things we can and should agree upon.

1. Borders are a fundamental aspect of national sovereignty. They are, in part, what defines a country — indeed, the word “define” means to put borders around something. In the United States, we have a federal system, in which the national government exists to do things that are impossible or impractical for the states to do severally. The federal government generally comes into play when the states have disputes with one another or when they interact with foreign powers and foreign peoples. National governments set the terms under which non-nationals may enter a country or immigrate to it. Even putative open-borders schemes realistically incorporate a role for the national government, inasmuch as they assume that it will do things such as screen for diseases or contraband, that it will distinguish between immigrants and foreign agents or militaries, etc.

2. Where the national government acts to establish rules and standards for immigration, it must first establish the controlling criterion, answering the question of what it intends to accomplish through its immigration policies. While some governments may be liberal in the sense that Robert Frost understood the term — too broadminded to take their own side in a fight — the government of the United States is generally expected to act in the interest of the people of the United States. Sometimes it engages in humanitarian efforts in service to a consistently ungrateful world, but its controlling principle is the national interest of the United States.

3. The United States, like any country, has many kinds of national interests: economic, military, cultural, etc. It is not chauvinistic, jingoistic, or yahooistic to recognize that fact and to expect that our national immigration policy, like our defense policy and our economic policy, is organized around those interests.

4. Immigrants often serve our national economic interests by bringing skills and resources to the service of the U.S. economy. That is not the case for the largely unskilled and uneducated agricultural workers and casual laborers who make up the bulk of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico and Latin America. There is not very much in the way of plausible argument that these immigrants are very important to our economy, much less so very important that we should set aside law, caution, and sovereignty for their sake. Again, the national government acts for the sake of its citizens, not for the sake of citizens of other countries.

5. Immigration from nearby countries — and, to some extent, all modern immigration — presents absorption problems that were not present with, say, European immigrants in the late 18th and early 19th century. To have a few unassimilated ethnic and linguistic minorities is normal in a large, modern country. But it is one thing to have a couple of Ukrainian churches in Philadelphia or a handful of German-speaking communities in Texas. It is another thing to have a socio-linguistic Berlin Wall or three running through practically every community in the country. Adjacency to Mexico, along with easier travel and communication, makes assimilating Mexican immigrants more difficult than assimilating the Irish generations ago. This is not at all helped by opportunistic political entrepreneurs such as La Raza and MEChA, which cultivate racial sentiment and separatism within Hispanic communities. Some parts of the country, such as my native West Texas, have long been Anglo-Hispanic cultural hybrids, and that can be a wonderful thing. It is not necessarily a good model for the country at large.

6. The United States of America is not the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federal Register. It is not a legal entity, and it is not an abstraction. It is a particular people, with a particular culture and particular institutions. It is an open society — you can become American in a sense that you cannot become Mongolian — but it is not an infinitely plastic one. The English language, and the culture associated with it, are as basic to the American identity as the Japanese language is to the Japanese identity. Pat Buchanan was mocked and derided for noting that the immigration of 1 million Englishmen to Virginia would be less disruptive than the immigration of 1 million Zulus, because mockery and derision are what one turns to when the opposition is clearly and inarguably in the right.

7. We write our laws down for a reason. The point of having general, enforceable rules is that they are generally enforced. There is, as Andrew C. McCarthy likes to point out, room for prosecutorial discretion. There is not room for refusing to enforce the law in tens of millions of cases, and then creating a post facto regime of non-enforcement. That is simple chaos.

Finally, we might consider that an administration that can find the time and resources to illegally quiz unwelcome political groups about the contents of their prayers under penalty of federal prosecution but not the time and resources to see to basic questions of public order is either comprehensively incompetent or acting in service of something other than the national interest.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


The Latest