The Corner

Conflating Immigrants and Immigration

Speaking of President Bush, he spoke this week at a conference in Dallas as part of a coordinated push by immigration expansionists on the right. He said all the usual stuff — immigrants “invigorate our souls,” “fill a critical gap in our labor market,” blah, blah, blah. But one thing he said stood out:

“As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration, I hope we will do so with a benevolent spirit …”

Two points: First, such a “benevolent spirit” was noticeably lacking when he pushed his proposal in 2006–2007. As Peggy Noonan notes:

President Bush himself suggested opponents of his bill were unpatriotic: “They don’t want what’s right for America.” His ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said, “We’re gonna tell the bigots to shut up.” The homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, suggested opponents would prefer illegal immigrants be killed; Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez accused those opposing the bill of wanting “mass deportation,” and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said those who oppose the bill were “anti-immigrant” and suggested they suffered from “rage” and “national chauvinism.”

You can imagine that Gerson wanted to type “national socialism,” but was stopped by his editor.

Hypocrisy aside, there’s a more important underlying point. Conducting debate with a “benevolent spirit” would appear to mean that we should not only be civil among ourselves but also always keep in mind the humanity of immigrants and prospective immigrants. McCain did the same in a 2008 ad making the banal assertion that immigrants are God’s children.

But of course no one disagrees. My own Center for Immigration Studies has for years made the case for a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration. Numbers USA has had at the top of its home page, from the very beginning, “No to Immigrant Bashing.” Sure, there are kooks everywhere, just like there are pro-life kooks and Second Amendment kooks. But no relevant participant in the immigration debate, and no meaningful share of the public, imagines that immigrants are not God’s children.

Rather, what immigration expansionists like Bush are doing, and have always done, is conflate immigrant policy with immigration policy. They’re saying that if you acknowledge that foreigners have souls then you have to support lax enforcement and unlimited future flows. But immigrant policy (how we treat people we have admitted to live among us) is distinct from immigration policy (how many such people to admit, on what terms, and how to enforce the rules). By conflating the two, expansionists engage in moral blackmail, asserting that those who want to change immigration policy are, by definition, anti-immigrant.

By separating these two fields, we can make the case for a policy that welcomes foreigners — benevolently! — but limits their numbers, as you would guests in your own home. The sooner the expansionist side acknowledges and internalizes this distinction, the healthier the debate will be.


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