Politics & Policy

‘But I Thought You Were Only Against Illegal Immigration’

Within the torrent of shoddy arguments that has been unleashed since the White House put its weight behind the Cotton-Perdue immigration bill yesterday, one line has stood out to me. “Conservatives,” this argument goes, “have said they were only against illegal immigration, but now we find out they are against legal immigration, too.” Politically, I’m sure this slogan will have an effect. Logically, though, it makes little sense.

Simply put, there is no reason that one’s views on illegal immigration and one’s views on legal immigration have to conform — unless, that is, one is against absolutely all immigration with no exceptions. If one is not, there exists an infinite amount of flexibility in how one cuts the cake. Most people who oppose illegal immigration do so because they think it undermines the rule of law, and/or because they believe that the existing polity gets to decide who joins it and on what grounds. In consequence, they oppose it flatly, completely, and without ifs or buts. They are, one might say “against illegal immigration.”

The question of legal immigration, by contrast, tends to invite a range of views. Some voters want only a few immigrants; some want an unlimited number; some want a points system, as in Canada or Britain; some want to prioritize family reunification; some want to privilege refugees or economic migrants or what you will. And while they differ on the particulars, all of these people believe the same thing at root: Namely, that we should have some legal immigration, and that, because Congress is in charge of the process, that such immigration is qualitatively different. Indeed, in our age of terrorism even “open borders” types tend to want some form of processing or evaluation at the border, even if they wouldn’t end up turning many people away. All of these groups, one might say, are “in favor of legal immigration.”

In order to sell the line that the people who want to reduce immigration numbers are “against legal immigration” — and thus that, having said they were “only against illegal immigration,” they have exposed themselves as liars or hypocrites or bigots — one has to play a clever linguistic game by which “for, with qualifications” is transmuted into “against in toto.” That game, if yesterday’s “debate” was anything to go by, is about to be played incessantly, and bring with it all the corrupting effects you might imagine. It is a trick that leads otherwise smart people to propose that any reduction in the numbers — or any change in their makeup — is a personal insult to the Statue of Liberty. It is a trick that leads immigrants such as myself to be told we want to “slam the door behind us” because we don’t believe that 80-plus percent of the people moving to the United States should be admitted solely because they have a family member already here (which, I’d note, is an argument against interest, given that any change would make it more difficult for me to bring over the rest of my family). It is a trick that leads the present status quo — which was unpopular when ushered in in 1965, and which has been amended piecemeal for good and ill since — to be regarded as some sort of inviolable, sacrosanct gold standard, any departure from which signifies the destruction of the American way.

It is a trick, moreover, that is going to lead to a great deal of anger and astonishment and frustration, as good people find themselves cast as Klansmen for debating a rubric that’s more like Canada’s, and numbers that, while diminished, would still be extremely generous indeed. There are good arguments against the Cotton-Perdue bill, and they should be aired and debated and respected. But if the reflexive response of those who advance them is, “agree with me or you’re against immigrants,” we will get nowhere at all.

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