The Agenda

Quick Note on the Politics of Immigration

Recently, Matt Yglesias made the following observation via tweet regarding my arguments on immigration: 

His position is super-Salamian. Clever, unorthodox reasoning deployed to back GOP stance on live controversy!

Close readers are aware that my views are often at odds with Republicans — in Congress, in state legislatures, etc. — on live controversies. But I nevertheless enjoyed this tweet: it is in keeping with Matt’s brand as an irreverent, devil-may-care truth-teller. 

What I’d like to suggest is that the conventional take on immigration reform — that amnesty or a path to earned legalization — is the decent and humane position is in fact deeply political. This is not to say that everyone who embraces this position does so on political grounds. I’m confident that virtually all advocates of this position are entirely sincere. But I think that the larger debate is shaped by political imperatives, as I’ve tried to explain in this space:


Mexican migrants, like Malaysian or Dutch or Korean migrants, should be allowed to take their chances in what we might call the non-humanitarian track. But I can’t see how citizens of Mexico, an upper-middle-income country, merit slots that would otherwise go to families that would otherwise face the threat of dire poverty (i.e., lives led under the two-dollar-a-day standard), ritual mutilation, and much else. 

Basically, we’re dealing with coalition politics. One coalition recognizes that there is a large, energized minority in the United States that identifies with migrants from Mexico and the Central American states, and that there are political gains to be made by emphasizing family reunification and earned legalization as part of a comprehensive immigration reform. There is no large, energized minority devoted to the interests of potential migrants from the world’s poorest countries. And so we’re told that an immigration settlement that entrenches the interests of one set of relatively affluent countries, just as the immigration settlement of the 1920s privileged potential migrants from northern Europe over all others, is the “humanitarian” approach. 

Again, I think that the all of the options we’re dealing with are departures from an approach that emphasizes universal brotherhood over all other considerations, and it’s far from obvious to me that earned legalization for a number of children of unauthorized migrants is preferable to welcoming even a small number of workers from the world’s poorest countries, who will send remittances home that could prove transformative for the families and communities left behind. [Emphasis added]

In the immigration debate, moral outrage has been aligned with the political interests of one of the two major electoral coalitions. This might be (emphasis on might) why any “third way” position, e.g., let’s increase legal immigration, including a humanitarian program designed to broaden access to less-skilled migrants from the world’s highly-indebted poor countries, while enforcing existing immigration laws, merits condemnation: it undermines a false moral clarity that can prove politically useful.



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