Magazine | September 10, 2012, Issue

Deconstructing the Land of Opportunity

The errors of Obama’s immigration policy

It seems to be generally agreed that President Obama’s decision to order the Homeland Security Department not to prioritize the enforcement of immigration law, but instead to grant illegal immigrants under 30 years of age the right to stay and work in the United States provided they have no criminal record, is a political masterstroke. Tycoon Rupert Murdoch and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, on their Billionaires for Open Borders speaking tour, described it as “brilliant.” Republicans from Governor Mitt Romney on down have largely avoided talking about it. And opinion polls, at least initially, have been favorable, reflecting simple human sympathy for young people whose illegal status was chosen for them by their parents.

At the same time, the number of applicants, at between 1 and 2 million, is larger than forecast. Some will compete in the labor market with native-born Americans, including minority and low-paid workers, at a time of high unemployment. Others will compete for college admissions, some of them on favorable terms. Their amnesty — for that is what it is — will be an incentive to millions of potential illegal immigrants in Mexico and Central America to head north because it confers the right to live and work in the U.S. — rights they want far more than U.S. citizenship. And it was achieved by an exercise of executive authority that was transparently deceitful, on the face of it unconstitutional, and, if allowed to stand, amounting to a mandate for untrammeled presidential power. (A legal challenge is in the works.)

Much of the reaction to this policy, however, is rooted in the feeling that this is a one-off solution to a singular and pressing problem. Once this has been solved, people tell themselves, we can put in place a more rational immigration policy that will suit our long-term economic and other needs. This is an alcoholic’s reasoning. And in fact, far from being an aberration, the Executive DREAM Act (double entendre intended) is our post-1965 de facto immigration policy in miniature. This larger policy includes turning a blind eye to immigration violations, allowing a large illegal population to accumulate, regulating legal immigration strictly but illegal immigration much less so, soothing a worried public by launching occasional raids or promising tougher border security, and finally, when the problem assumes crisis proportions, proposing a package of measures in which legalization of the illegals is the most important element.

This is a cycle that repeats itself over periods of about 20 years. The last major amnesty — there have been several minor ones — was in 1986. In the years afterwards, when the policy’s disappointing results were still sharp in the mind, the conventional wisdom was that there could be no more amnesties, since they functioned mainly as invitation cards. But that memory faded, and right on cue the two party leaderships joined together to bring in a succession of “comprehensive” immigration reforms in the mid-Noughties. Though supported by an alliance of almost every social, political, and economic establishment in America, these proposals were blocked and defeated by mass opposition from the voters. Reporters regularly described this opposition as coming from “the Republican base.” But the Democrats in Congress refused to support such reforms unless they had substantial Republican cover, because they knew rank-and-file Democrats were equally hostile to them. That political reality would have been revealing (if it had been revealed).

#page#If the people were against it, who was for it? The coalition for a lax immigration policy includes corporate America, especially those industries dependent on cheap labor; wealthy homeowners wanting domestic servants and gardeners; labor unions needing new members; ethnic lobbies seeking larger constituencies; the Catholic Church seeking new faithful; and the Democrats recruiting new voters as the Roosevelt coalition has splintered and blue-collar workers and “white ethnics” have drifted toward the GOP. This is a heterogeneous but powerful coalition, and it has not been deterred by its recent defeats. As Murdoch and Bloomberg have made clear on their tour, they expect Congress and the president to bring in an immigration-reform package about two years after this election when — the hidden assumption is — all the political players will have a freer hand.

Both in the election and afterwards, Democrats and immigrationists (versus restrictionists — both sides of the debate claim to be “reformers”) will enjoy two psychological advantages. The minor one is the Ellis Island myth — the sense that America is a nation of immigrants, and that it is hypocritical to enjoy its advantages while refusing them to later arrivals. Samuel Huntington demolished that in his magisterial Who Are We? almost a decade ago. He pointed out that the U.S. is originally a nation of settlers. Unlike immigrants, settlers create a new polity with its own distinctive culture and institutions. They thus acquire a right to determine who will join the polity and on what terms. Later immigrants met these terms, assimilated, and now have the rights of the original settlers but also a duty to safeguard the polity. Most Americans sense this truth, but most traditional rhetoric (nation of immigrants, give me your poor, etc.) is on the side of the myth.

Explaining it all is difficult in an age of sound bites. If I were advising a president, I would suggest that he maneuver a U.N. agency dealing with migrants into challenging some aspect of U.S. immigration policy. He could then respond boldly (echoing John Howard in Australia): “We will decide who comes to America and on what terms.” That should do the trick.

The second psychological obstacle is more intractable, because it is an occupational disease of democratic politics. It is the disease of suffering situations. A real living “victim” on the screen or even in print trumps 100 notional victims in the unemployment or college-entry statistics. A story about a poor restaurant worker facing deportation dramatizes the plight of all illegal aliens and wins public support for legalization. The “invisible American victims” in the statistics of those who have stopped looking for work move no hearts and change few minds.

In theory this game could be played in reverse. Restrictionists could identify illegal immigrants who have committed terrible crimes — but that would invite charges of stigmatizing minorities. Or they could give examples of poor and minority Americans who have lost jobs, contracts, or college places because of immigrant competition — but that would lead to charges of sowing ethnic division. And though Democrats often stigmatize the majority of Americans, this is not an accusation known to political journalism. So restrictionists and, in this election, Republicans have no choice but patiently to make a largely statistical and carefully reasoned general case for an immigration policy that is tighter but also more balanced than the present mess.

#page#How to begin? Well, maybe the most useful aspect of the current de facto policy to the immigrationist coalition is that it concentrates the attention of both voters and politicians on illegal immigration. Indeed, it bestows on legal immigration an unconsidered seal of bipartisan approval. Yet what matters most about our present immigration intake is not its legal status (though that is important) but the numbers, skill levels, usefulness to the economy, and, yes, diversity of all immigrants, legal and illegal. Anyone interested in these questions is now indebted to Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies (with which I sometimes work), who has produced a full and fair-minded study of the foreign-born population (and their children) in the U.S. The study is a treasure trove of information for both sides of the debate, but its main conclusions are stark. Immigration brings into America people who are less skilled, less educated, and poorer than most Americans. As a result they worsen almost all the social problems and increase the costs of dealing with them.

A few examples out of many must suffice: Immigrants and their children account for one-fourth of all people in poverty; 36 percent of immigrant-headed households in 2010 received at least one welfare benefit, compared with 23 percent of native-headed households; 29 percent of immigrants and their children lacked health insurance in 2010, compared with 13.8 percent of native Americans and their children; and the poverty rate of adult immigrants who have lived in America for 20 years is 50 percent higher than that of native households. All of this produces the need for higher social spending and thus, ultimately, for higher taxes — and, of course, a new group of voters who will demand such policies.

Camarota makes clear that this is not because immigrants are unwilling to work. On the contrary, male immigrants have slightly higher work-force participation than male native Americans. But this has another consequence: There has been what he calls a “huge deterioration” in the number of young and less educated native-born Americans holding a job. It has declined from two-thirds to one-half of this group. This has the makings of a social disaster.

Against these grim facts, the immigrationists argue that there is an overall favorable economic impact from immigration. Indeed, skepticism about this claim is now thought to be a sign of a low IQ. But it dissolves upon examination. Because immigrants themselves receive most of the economic benefits of immigration, there is little or no per capita increase in national income and thus no net benefit to native-born Americans. This point has been demonstrated by a meta-analysis of immigration studies by a British academic duo (Cambridge economist Robert Rowthorn and Oxford demographer David Coleman, neither presumably lacking in IQ) who concluded: “The claim that U.S. prosperity has been driven by immigration, as opposed to driving it, appears to lack any academic support.”

What all this points to is the need for immigration reform that reduces the total number of immigrants, increases their skill and educational levels, and limits family reunification to husbands, wives, and children. Billionaires for Open Borders have some reasonable suggestions here. Even then, however, immigration policy should not be treated as a substitute for improving American education. Imitating Saudi Arabia by bringing in uneducated immigrants to be our servants and educated ones to run our companies would lead away from rather than towards the kind of free but socially cooperative society that is the real American Dream.

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