Grappling with Immigration

by Conor Friedersdorf

In an earlier post, I recommended Jim Manzi's piece, "Keeping America's Edge," and here I want to zero in on its recommendations about immigration policy, a debate that is certain to arise again sooner or later, especially if the current economic downturn long endures.

Is there any policy question as vexing? Every American citizen is something of a gatekeeper for this prosperous land, deciding via their franchise how many others might partake of its fruits. Prudence and necessity demand some limit, but setting any limit forces us to confront the existence of extreme material deprivation -- it is possible, living most places in the United States, to forget about poverty of the kind that is endemic in the Third World, whereas truly grappling with any cap on immigration requires knowingly preventing some number of people from escaping that kind of poverty.

My preference is for relatively high levels of immigration. It seems just to extend to others the means by which our forefathers arrived here; the benefits enjoyed by the average immigrant far exceeds the costs he or she imposes; and personally, I delight in immigrant culture, whether the Polish enclaves that endure in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the Latino diaspora that's brought street mangos to Pilsen, Chicago, or the sundry nationalities you find in the East Bay -- and it is no coincidence that my two favorite places on earth are California and Spain. Spend any time around representative immigrant communities and it is impossible to hear xenophobic nonsense without feeling one's blood boil, and pondering how absurd are many of the negative stereotypes served up by garden variety racists.

Of course, relatively high levels of immigration comes at a significantly lower cost to me, a writer raised in an upper middle class home and educated in Catholic schools, than it does to the lower middle class -- immigrants among them! -- who must compete for jobs with new immigrants, attend school in classrooms where progress is slowed by language barriers, and grapple with the higher crime rates and public health problems seen in some immigrant enclaves.

Partly for these reasons, there is a near consensus in America that unlimited immigration via entirely open borders is not viable. What frustrates me is that, among many of the folks who style themselves immigrant advocates or pro-immigration, there is an utter refusal to articulate specific, workable views about what the limits should be, let alone to abide enforcing limits that are duly signed into law. One pernicious effect is that restrictionists are the only game in town for folks who want to enforce some limits on immigration, hence the rise of demagogues like Joe Arapaio, who are able to cast their extra-legal racial profiling as a defense of American sovereignty, rather than the assault on even legal Latino immigrants that it frequently ends up being.

Even the ill-conceived, so-called comprehensive immigration reform championed by George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, legislation that would've institutionalized a second class of non-citizen guest workers at the mercy of their employers, wouldn't have resolved questions about limits and enforcement, except temporarily. What foolishness to imagine that short term boon was worth violating what ought to be a foundational aspect of any immigration regime: that the newcomers are welcomed as full citizens with the same rights as everyone else, an obvious enough arrangement if from them one expects commensurate loyalty.

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