The Corner

The Moral Low Road in the Immigration Debate

Now elites are wistfully recalling the Bracero Program as a sort of model for the new “guest worker” provisions. Yet right now in California’s Central Valley, farm prices are booming, and, despite regional unemployment rates of over 15 percent, employers are paying record wages to legally-residing farm laborers — which I think is what is supposed to happen in a capitalist system. I don’t think those who are thinning peaches for climbing wages want thousands of foreign-national guest workers to be brought in from Mexico to undercut their pay.

Most of those in D.C. never-never land who dream of reviving the Braceros Program and who blame unions for the program’s end in 1964 have no idea of the program’s reality. I remember smaller farmers in this area lamenting that braceros went mostly to larger agribusinesses who were well connected. Braceros did not wish to return home. Most were usually eager for permanent green-card status or simply left government camps to find jobs elsewhere.

Some of their wages were held in Mexican banks to force them to return home — and were then simply stolen. An entire industry of novels, songs, and documentaries lamented the idea of the braceros being “good enough to do our work, not good enough to stay.” By 1964, it was a thoroughly discredited program, and I can’t think of anything more exploitative  – to the new versions of the braceros, to American entry-level workers, and to the middle-class state taxpayer — than reviving the idea of “guest workers.”

The “comprehensive immigration” deal is backed by Mexico, which prefers (I think that is a fair word when it subsidizes a comic book to facilitate illegal border crossing) that the indigenous people from its impoverished interior provinces enter the U.S. illegally, scrimp while abroad, are subsidized by the U.S. for housing, health care, and education, and send back billions of dollars in remittances to provide the sort of support that the Mexican government apparently will not.

Big businesses are supposedly flush with cash, but they are not so flush as to pay competitive wages to attract U.S. workers, even during high unemployment. In the pre-illegal-immigration days, the upper-middle class of the American Southwest did not consider itself an entitled aristocracy which assumed that its cooking, child care, and landscaping were to provided by low-paid and off-the-books foreign nationals, who are largely subsidized by on-average poorer taxpayers. Most of the current elites who talk grandly of comprehensive immigration reform have the capital and influence to insulate themselves from the direct consequences of massive illegal immigration. They don’t live along the border, or put their children in central or southern California public schools.

Immigration activists apparently do not wish to make all immigration legal, ethnically blind, and meritocratic — at least when it is a question of forging a new political constituency fueled by illegal immigrants from Latin America. The idea that current applicants for legal immigration are discriminated against because they choose to follow the law, and do not live near the border can hardly be liberal. In ancient times, the liberal position was a blind legal system in which we did not pick and chose which laws we found convenient and which were not.

Race is said to be an unfortunate part of the debate, and discrimination against Latin American nationals is an odious thing. But right now, the La Raza (note the Franco-era history and classical etymology of that illiberal term) elite is largely interested in immigration in terms of one particular ethnic constituency, and would probably not support meritocratic legal immigration if it were ethnically blind and resulted in lower percentages of Latin American immigrants.

The old liberal idea of an integrating, assimilating, and intermarrying melting pot has likewise been reinvented into classically illiberal multiculturalism (e.g., “punish our enemies”).

Despite the deception of the 1986 amnesty, most Americans would still support a one-time pathway to citizenship for those who are without arrest records  are working rather than on public assistance, and are long-term residents — if the border is closed and immigration made entirely legal and meritocratic first. Don’t expect that to happen because too many are invested in both the current non-system and the supposedly comprehensive reform.

For now, the divide is not Left vs. Right, or Democratic against Republican, but mostly an illiberal political, academic, media, and corporate elite versus the proverbial middle class and entry-level U.S. workers.







NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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