Thursday, September 21, 2006

My Immigration Manifesto

Immigration is certainly a fashionable hot issue these days. It is not, however, an issue that gets me particularly all hot and bothered. It's just not one of the things that keeps me up at night. But I do have opinions on the topic, and since I actually went to the trouble of writing them up in email to a friend a few months ago, I figure I ought to republish those thoughts (with an editorial transition from email to blog), especially given the context they provide for my English Only treatise I published earlier.

I think that the biggest problem we have with respect to the immigration debate in this country, frankly, is that the two sides (not strictly liberals vs. conservatives) seem to be talking completely past one another. Not only are they not recognizing common ground and properly debating the areas of contention, but I think a number of key issues end up essentially ignored.

For example, here are some examples of stupidity on the pro-immigrant side of the debate (I think labeling this group "the left" is a gross simplification, but do not have a better name for this group) such as those who have been marching of late for amnesty and legalization over the past few months:

  • Blanket legalization of the 11-15 million that are here illegally. This is just wrong. We've done amnesty before (late 80s) and it didn't stem the flow of illegal immigrants. We have laws for a reason; one can claim extenuating circumstances that made it unavoidable to break the law (e.g., self defense), but simply claiming to have been otherwise law abiding and a contributor to the economy is not sufficient reason to pardon them for breaking the law. (But see below, because I think that the notion that they should all be deported and/or denied the right to be here legally is also stubborn ideology divorced from reality and practicality)
  • Being here illegally should not be considered a criminal offense (whether misdemeanor or felony). If someone is breaking the law to be here, by what logic should that not be a crime? Certainly it should not be a capital offense (and some of the anti-immigration folks are proposing the immigration equivalent of capital punishment), but it is crazy in my opinion to claim that it should not be considered a criminal offense.
  • The importance of secure borders and immigration control. Secure borders and immigration control is necessary for both security and our economy, and the immigration-rights advocates are completely ignoring this fact. To wit: flying Mexican flags at rallies is a bad idea, it doesn't help one's cause. If one wants to arrest America's growing suspicions about its immigrants, one should learn English, embrace one's new country, help keep other immigrants off of welfare/Medicaid, etc. If one comes here illegally, one should not have an expectation of a right to these services.
Ahh, but the folks marching for immigrant rights hardly have a monopoly on stupidity or audacity. The Tancredos of the world have their own list:

  • Build a fence. If one's goal is to “stem the flow at any cost, I suppose that a fence is a reasonable approach, but I have a big problem with the "“at any cost" part. While it may stem the flow, it's probably the single most expensive approach to solving the problem imaginable, and it only addresses the symptoms, not the cause. In addition, it is a bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to the problem. There is a reason that people want to come here (and we should be proud of that), and there is a reason that many are willing to do it illegally. With so many illegals proudly proclaiming that they are honest, hardworking, and important to our economy (most of them are probably correct about that), we should be asking how we can lower the barrier to the honest/hardworking folks coming in while keeping the barrier high forundesirablesables. A fence, unfortunately, knows how to make no such distinctions.
  • Make illegal immigration a felony/deport all of the illegals This is also expensive, and we'll probably spend - no, waste - an enormous sum of money getting rid of otherwise law-abiding tax-paying people who really want to be citizens. Deportation is the immigration equivalent of capital punishment (if you oppose capital punishment, please remember that this is analogy, I'm not advocating putting illegals to death!). As such it needs to be an available option and the threat of its application needs to be real in every case, but applying it automatically to everyone seems like a gross simplification.
  • Screaming "“amnesty" at the notion that illegals be given any path to citizenship I think there are many anti-immigrant activists for whom the notion that an illegal could ever become a legal citizen is the ultimate insult, even when that path includes penalties for having broken the law. Reality check: an amnesty is forgiveness (or at least forgetfulness of the offense), so amnesties don't have penalties. If there's a reasonable penalty, then it's not an amnesty and people shouldn't label it as such. The penalty should be sufficient to make being here illegally less desirable than being here legally, and I think that's a point that keeps being missed by both sides. When you park your car illegally, we don't make you forfeit your car and take driving lessons all over.
  • Making it illegal to provide humanitarian aid to someone if theyillegallye illegaly. Wow. Let's turn everyone into INS agents. There'’s a difference between offering humanitarian support (like a priest might offer, or a family letting someone stay with them) and giving them a job. If our lawmakers can't distinguish the two, they shouldn't be making laws. Fortunately, the idea of this becoming law seems more remote now than it did this past spring.
  • Not distinguishing between lawful and unlawful immigration. Perhaps the most important thing that this side is missing is an acknowledgment that illegal immigration stems largely from a strong incentive for people to come here -– and it's not all people looking for asylum or to live off of our generosity. (In fact, most of them just want to work and would be excellent contributors to our society). Every other immigrant group to America in our history has ultimately assimilated, and contributed. What are we so afraid of?
So what do I think we should be doing?

Leverage the marketplace Since most of the strongest anti-immigration voices are conservative, I'll use a conservative argument: we're witnessing a marketplace, subject to market forces. There's a supply/demand force here that is strong enough to make people break laws to get into our country. We can fight this marketplace or we can try to leverage it to do what we want it to do. In particular, we should be making it easier for law-abiding folks to come here legally, we should be opening up the spigot, not closing it.

We have a lot of low-paying jobs to fill, and there is a pool of labor that is anxious to take those jobs, and by and large (especially w.r.t. Mexicans), they are not displacing American workers. And there is an economic imbalance between our countries. This is a force of nature that a wall can slow down, but cannot stop. Why not instead leverage this force, do the free-trade thing and instead figure out pathways to make it easier for workers to come here legally? I suppose this would be a "“guest worker program", but as Fareed Zakaria points out it really needs to have the opportunity/pathway for citizenship attached to it. But the most important point here is to reduce the incentive to be here illegally by offering a realistic path to be here legally. Yes, absolutely by all means, penalize being here illegally. But just as other crimes do not necessarily result in jail or deportation, use things like large fines and a higher bar for gaining legitimacy (English competency sure seems like a good start), removal from schools, etc.

I think that one of the best ways to do this is to make it harder to hire illegals AND easier to hire legal immigrants. You need both carrots and sticks, though. Many people advocate strong enforcement against employers who hire illegal aliens. I actually support that approach, but I also believe it is not only insufficient, but will fail unless paired with incentives for legal immigration. Specifically, it fails because it (a) doesn't do anything to address an employer's need for employees, all it does is cut off the pool, and (b) it puts the employer in the position of being INS, of having to be responsible for the documentation of its imployees.

If, however, you coupled strong enforcement against employers that hire illegal aliens with programs that make it easier for more law-abiding hardworking workers to enter the country legally and document that they are under a program allowing this, then the employer can have access to their labor pool and does not have to make their own decisions about whether to believe their employees. It's win-win; the employer now just has to keep a record that they have checked the INS-issued documentation, and the costs of being illegal would outweigh the costs of being legal.

And yes, this means letting more people into the country in total. This has always been our history, it's OK.

Provide rational pathways to becoming legal A blanket amnesty is a bad idea - it just encourages more illegal immigration. However, We should quit all the scare talk about amnesty. The problem with shouting "“amnesty" that one can't make it easier for people to come here legally without simultaneously making it easier for the illegals to become legal. (In the same way that you can'’t have a tax cut in a progressive-taxation world without the cuts going disproportionately to the rich; one comes with the other.)

But here's a secret: if making it easier for people to come here legally also makes it easier for illegals to become legal, that's actually OK. Otherwise, one is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. If an immigrant can meet whatever the new criteria is, let them in. And the ones who cannot are the ones we should be throwing out. Simply saying that someone who is here illegally should have no chance whatsoever to become legal is simply counterproductive.


The Wrath said...

"Every other immigrant group to America in our history has ultimately assimilated, and contributed."

I see your general points but I don't agree with this statement. What the heck does assimilation mean, anyway? African-Americans may speak (a variety of) English, but for centuries they've had a very distinct, very strong and quite separate culture of their own, which is in many respects fundamentally opposed to the main culture at large. Try driving around Harlem or east Chicago, Compton, Newark or Detroit sometime-- I have trouble remotely calling the culture in those locales *assimilated*. The people in those places contribute to our economy and to our culture, obviously, but they form a very distinct subgroup, not only ethnically but also culturally. Same deal with the native American reservations I've been on.

I don't know, it seems to me that we're more in a sort of salad bowl than a melting pot. 30 years ago I don't think this was a big concern, with 85% of the population being Euro-American, but with our share dropping below 50% very soon (and probably by 2025 if even that late), it's not going to be the same place, and there won't be a dominant culture. Moreover, this is mainly due to *legal* immigration levels more than illegal, even if we were to send home every illegal tomorrow, the demographic change is upon us nonetheless. IMHO language is probably the *least* important and overrated descriptors of a culture.

We already have maybe half a dozen subcultures in the US, and short of a moratorium on *both* legal and illegal immigration, and some serious acculturation exercises, it's becoming even more so. I'd think we'd have to take teaching our country's civics lessons a lot more seriously-- really requiring a thorough knowledge of the US Constitution and the Federalist Papers, reading about and respecting the Founding Fathers. What we have right now is a goo, and having people throughout the country crowding around TV sets to watch "American idol"-- sorry, that's not a "unified culture" in any sense.

Eric Berman said...

I think your comment about "sald bowl" vs. "melting pot" is quite accurate. But what I mean by every group having ultimately assimilated is that every group has ultimately become Americans first, (pick your subculture) 2nd. And there's nothing wrong with that - in fact, I think it's terrific that we don't try to homogonize our culture. But we all can communicate in English (even with our various dialects), we can be African Americans or Jewish Americans or Italian Americans or whatever, but all of these are Americans.

The biggest wave of immigrants over the last 20 years has been Hispanic, and so that's where we still see the biggest enclaves. But we saw Yiddish and Italian speaking enclaves in New York at the turn of the centuries too - and yet their children all grew up speaking English. And I think we're already seeing that with the Hispanic immigrants as well.