The Corner

Responding to Ramesh

I’ve been meaning to comment on Ramesh’s article on immigration in the magazine, which was posted online Wednesday. In a nutshell, he says that none of the conservative factions on immigration is politically realistic and that while we should focus on enforcement, we shouldn’t preclude the possibility of amnesty in the future.

Let me start by agreeing with Ramesh’s punch line: the way to go is “Stepping up enforcement while deferring the question of amnesty.” But there are details I disagree with.

First, and maybe least important, I think his threefold division of conservatives on immigration is not entirely accurate. The three groups are (to use terminology slightly different from his) those who support more legal and illegal immigration (comprehensivists), those who support legal but not illegal immigration (the attrition-through-enforcement folks), and those who want less of both legal and illegal immigration (my own CIS and others). But the second and third groups are not as distinct as Ramesh suggests; the “legal-good/illegal-bad” approach is more a (sincere and genuine) attempt to maintain cognitive balance than a logical or viable policy stance. In other words, most opponents of illegal immigration honestly support legal immigration — but how much and who is never specified. What they’re really saying is that they support legal immigrants who are already here, which is hard to argue with.

But if illegal immigration were, in fact, to be dramatically curtailed, the problems now blamed on it wouldn’t disappear and you’d see many of the legal-good/illegal-bad people move to critiques of various legal immigration categories as well; the visa lottery, for instance, and the extended family categories just don’t have the level of political support Ramesh’s typology would suggest. The one place where there is a genuine distinction between the two kinds of immigration hawks is in high-skilled immigration.

Secondly, I think Ramesh underestimates the level of lawbreaking that results from illegal immigration; he writes, “while illegal immigrants’ lawbreaking is wrong, it is not a grave wrong.” Yes and no. Sneaking across the border is not the same as murder or even drug-pushing; while Border Patrol agents express genuine sympathy for many of those they arrest, you don’t hear comparable sympathy from cops for, say, pickpockets, let alone rapists.

On the other hand, there’s a lot more crime involved in being an illegal alien that just jumping over a fence or overstaying a visa. A major category of such crimes is identity fraud: buying fake documents, stealing Americans’ Social Security numbers (leading to costly, often devastating, lifelong problems for children, who are frequently the targets of such identity theft), presenting fake documents when getting a job (which involves perjury when you sign the I-9 form). Driving without a license or insurance or registration. Not registering for the draft (which illegals are required to do). Tax crimes (since maybe 40 percent of employed illegals work off the books). Also, there may be as many as one million of the illegals who are either fugitives from deportation orders or who re-entered after deportation, which is a felony.

And, even apart from identity theft, illegal immigration is not a victimless crime. What about the borderline American kid whose education suffers because illegal immigration has overwhelmed his school? Or the blue-collar worker whose future prospects were sabotaged by illegal-immigrant competition? Or the American who died because the local hospital had to close its emergency room due to unbearable unreimbursed costs? In such cases, we can never really know which specific people were victimized by illegal immigration, but we know that some were.

In short, how much wrong do you have to do before it becomes a “grave wrong”?

And finally, I think Ramesh’s advice has already been taken. He writes: “If the pro-amnesty conservatives need to accept that it would be unwise to push for amnesty now, the anti-amnesty conservatives ought to entertain the possibility that at some point it would make sense.” I think many, probably most, anti-amnesty conservatives have already entertained that possibility. That’s why “enforcement first” is the way that stance is often described by its proponents; “enforcement only” is the open-borders side’s label, not ours.

He also writes, I suspect more with hope than conviction, that leaving the door open to the possibility of amnesty in the future “might slightly soften those objections and make it easier to show that the policy is not based on racial hostility.” I wish that were so, but the evidence so far suggests that it’s not.

Ramesh is right to warn that opposition to amnesty shouldn’t be categorical in theory, because at some point in the future we might find it in the national interest to conduct yet another legalization program (we’ve had seven amnesties since 1986). But political debate is about what to do now, and now is not the right time even for a discussion of amnesty.

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