One of the most interesting features of the United States of America is the pronounced tension that often exists between the country’s interests and its values. No other country measures itself against such a clear and lofty definition of its own national character as we find in America’s founding documents. Bereft of this propositional identity, other nations are free to pursue their own naked self-interest on the world stage without appearing hypocritical. They cannot contradict their stated principles of conduct because they have no stated principles of conduct to contradict. For this reason, Lord Palmerston was able to say of his own country, Great Britain, that “we have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
The United States doesn’t have this luxury. Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et al. bound their successors to a higher and more complicated calling by authoring and signing the documents they did. During the subsequent centuries the United States has always had to reconcile the conflicting impulses of its founding values and its conventional interests when faced with political and economic challenges. (Dan Carlin talks through how this tension manifested itself in a fascinating way during the Spanish–American War in this episode of his fantastic Hardcore History podcast.)
It’s striking that neither the Left nor the Right is able any longer to wrestle with this tension in a productive way on the subject of immigration. For a long time, the American Left has displayed an admirable but myopic and often ill-thought-through devotion to America’s historic character as a nation of immigrants and a refuge for the downtrodden of the world. They are very good on the values question, but they often leave the question of America’s interests — in the form of border enforcement, effective bureaucracy, and orderly procedure — unanswered.
During George W. Bush’s presidency, Republicans in Washington tried to do justice to values and interests alike where immigration was concerned and to bring them to a principled and workable rapprochement. Rank-and-file conservatives were not interested and the proposals failed.
Earlier this week, President Bush took to the media circuit to address the topic of immigration once again. It dovetails well with his new book of portraits, painted by the former president himself of various American immigrants. As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru summed up in his column for Bloomberg Opinion on Bush’s recent immigration tour, the former president’s views haven’t changed much during the last 14 years:
Bush thinks the U.S. should grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants who grew up here, and allow other undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship if they meet conditions such as learning English. He wants a “modernized” asylum system that accommodates legitimate refugees faster while preventing abuse.
To stop illegal immigration, he would both strengthen border enforcement and promote economic development among “our neighbors.” Temporary work programs would expand if he had his way, as would legal immigration “focused on employment and skills.”
Ramesh notes that conservative distrust in the federal government’s ability and/or willingness to enforce existing immigration laws stands in the way of support for immigration reform on the right. He concedes that the former president’s proposals for beefing up enforcement “go part of the way toward” addressing that issue, but Ramesh then proceeds to make an exclusively interests-based case for immigration restrictionism, a case that takes no account of historic American values on the issue. “Why shouldn’t people on the bottom rungs of the economy,” he asks, “native-born Americans and immigrants alike, worry that an influx of newcomers will undermine their position?” He also laments Bush’s alleged failure to explain “why, if we need more high-skilled immigrants, we have to raise the total level of immigration instead of changing its composition. What’s in it for the people who are already here?” From a nakedly economic perspective, Ramesh notes that “the standard answer is that it makes us richer overall,” but he doubts that this is actually the case.
As far as America’s economic interests are concerned, the argument that high-skilled immigrants are a significant economic boon to the country doesn’t deserve the kind of casual dismissal Ramesh gives it. The economist Michael Clemens, for instance, has argued persuasively that restrictions on international labor movement amount to leaving “trillion dollar bills on the sidewalk.”
But the question of economics is only incidental to the matter at hand. The real issue I would take with Ramesh’s column, and with a similar piece written by our editor in chief Rich Lowry earlier this week, is the absence of any reckoning with America’s historic self-image. Rich writes that “the party’s old consensus on immigration is no longer sustainable.” But “sustainable” in what sense? Is it no longer morally sustainable? Or civically sustainable for the social fabric of the country? Or is it simply unsustainable in terms of the base alloy of electoral calculation? To be sure, politics is the art of the possible, and public opinion constrains what can be accomplished, but it’s not the way of the American statesman always to be a prisoner of the Machiavellian “is.” “Ought” must have its day in the sun as well, else what are America’s founding documents but empty “parchment guarantees”?
It may be the case that Republican voters doubt the integrity of attempts to offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but it’s nevertheless true that their doubts are unfounded on both principled and practical grounds, at least as far as President Bush’s proposals are concerned. His call for “a gradual process in which legal residency and citizenship must be earned,” by requiring “proof of work history, payment of a fine and back taxes, English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and civics, and a clean background check” is not only morally right but practically inevitable. Right now, illegal immigrants, many of whom have contributed admirably to American life after one inexcusable but — from their perspective — understandable violation of the law, are bereft of the legal protections that accrue to citizens and to legal immigrants. Consequently, they’re often at the mercy of predatory and unscrupulous employers, human traffickers, and worse. Americans won’t stand for any kind of mass prosecution or deportation of these illegal immigrants, either, who are already in the States. Once again, it’s neither ethically conscionable nor practically realistic. At the end of the day, something like what President Bush is proposing is both just and inevitable.
It’s perfectly legitimate for the United States to apply precisely the same kind of self-interested calculus to the matter of immigration as every other country does. But Americans can’t eat their cake and have it. If America is going to pursue a nakedly restrictionist immigration policy, let’s dispense with all the talk of shining cities on hills and last best hopes of Earth. And, while we’re at it, we can scrape Emma Lazarus’s words off the plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”