The Corner

Not Left/Right, But Up/Down

Richard: On to what you did address in your post: You suggest that in a direct democracy, I’d win on immigration, but that since we have a representative form of government, the passions of the people are cooled and mediated through the work of interest groups. This is true, as far as it goes. But the reason for our immigration policy mess is that it’s not an issue that neatly divides into opposing factions of right and left, where conflicting interests duke it out as Madison described in Federalist 10. Rather, it’s an issue that pits elites against the public; see our summary and analysis of survey research on this done by the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations, as well as two pieces (here and here) by a foreign observer/participant in our amnesty debates. The policy outcomes from such a situation are tough-sounding measures (to mollify the public), which are then gutted by the interest groups concerned with the issue.

Immigration is an example of “client politics,” where small groups reap benefits from a government action and pass the cost onto society as a whole, like, say, tariffs. But it’s an extreme case of client politics; corporations that make steel may want a tariff, but other corporations that use steel don’t, and they are have paid lobbyists and campaign contributions and all the rest to make their case. In immigration politics, there is no countervailing force to the interest groups that want looser enforcement and higher numbers, other that a couple of citizen groups, chief among which is Numbers USA; fully 98 percent of the groups registered to lobby Congress on immigration are expansionists. Some businesses want cheap, easily controlled labor (whether Mexican farmworkers or Indian programmers); ethnic chauvinist groups want more warm bodies to pretend to represent; libertarians and leftists reject the legitimacy of state sovereignty altogether; Democratic operatives want to lock in extra congressional and state legislative seats by padding the census count; Republican politicians want an issue allowing them to preen about how anti-racist they are.

But there is one interest group on the other side — the public. And this is why the center of elite discourse on immigration has gradually moved toward the pro-enforcement end of the spectrum. It is only because of public resistance to open borders that lawmakers and lobbyists who would earlier have scoffed in contempt at the idea of worksite verification (or border fencing or fraud-resistant IDs or screening jails for illegals, etc.) now pretend to embrace such policies: because they know they can’t get what they really want — amnesty and ever-increasing future immigration — without striking such poses. I’m happy to accept this newfound support for law enforcement at face value, but I want proof first. As President Reagan used to say, “doveryai, no proveryai,” trust but verify.

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