Wealth of Nations May 2007

The Baffling Politics of Immigration

Disagreement over immigration cuts through every ideological alignment, setting brother against brother, and activist against activist.

As a recent immigrant, I find the politics of immigration in this country even more perplexing than the visa requirements—and in case you are unfamiliar with those rules, that is saying something. The issue throws up some strange arguments and alliances, some peculiar and memorable images.

One I won't forget is the sight of Christopher Hitchens, like me an Englishman by birth, celebrating his new American citizenship last week by having Lou Dobbs fasten an American flag pin to his lapel. The scourge of idle orthodoxy—who but Hitchens, peace be upon him, could be driven to rage by Mother Teresa and righteous compassion by Paul Wolfowitz?—meets the solemn tele-champion of populist demagoguery, a man who before much longer will be sporting epaulets and calling for Mexican heads on pikes all along the southern border. Dobbs himself expressed some doubts about the occasion. "I can imagine viewers right now asking, 'What is Dobbs doing, talking to Hitchens? What is Hitchens doing, taking on God?' " (Point of clarification: He wasn't referring to himself in that second part, I think, but to the subject of Hitchens's new book.)

Well, put my reaction down to envy.

If I ever meet the stringent requirements for citizenship—and did I mention I will do whatever it takes?—I want Dobbs to pin my flag on, too. Anyone can dream, can't he?

Democrats are split on immigration, Republicans are split, the unions are split, and the pro-business types are split. Are unskilled immigrants pushing down wages, taking American jobs, overburdening the schools, straining the public purse, slowing traffic on the freeways, and driving up crime? Yes, all of that and worse, say Dobbs and the other get-tough people. Are they indispensable to the American economy, doing jobs that no American would want, holding down prices, and generally paying their way? Yes, all of that and more, says the other side. The disagreement cuts through every ideological alignment, setting brother against brother, activist against activist, corporate spokesman against corporate spokesman.

The Heritage Foundation, for instance, a think tank that usually stands for freedom and enterprise (and which publishes each year the indispensable Index of Economic Freedom), is part of the get-tough crowd. One of its economists has just published a detailed analysis concluding that unskilled workers in general and immigrants in particular impose a heavy fiscal burden on the American taxpayer. If only unskilled workers could be entirely eliminated, and illegal immigrants shipped home, it seems to argue, we wouldn't need taxes and we'd all be tens of thousands of dollars a year better off. On the other hand, think what it would cost to get your house cleaned. It took the bleeding hearts at the Immigration Policy Center ("Mi casa, su casa") not only to point out that illegal immigrants have no entitlement to the benefits discussed in the Heritage paper but also to teach the free-market think tank a bit of classical-liberal economics—starting with the proposition that a person's value to society is not confined to his net position in the public-sector accounts.

The intraparty splits on Capitol Hill make it difficult to say what legislation on the issue, if any, Congress will eventually enact. At midweek, Arlen Specter emerged from tortuous negotiations in the Senate on immigration reform legislation to call for more time. Majority Leader Harry Reid had set a deadline of Monday for producing a consensus bill; if the talks between opposing sides have yielded no agreement by then, Reid said, he might put last year's Senate-passed bill on the floor for debate. In that case, Specter seemed to say, a filibuster was possible. Given more time, however, a "grand bargain" was within reach.

If the measure he sketched really is a breakthrough "grand bargain," please don't show me any squalid phony compromises. The senators appear to be focusing their attention on a show of standard punitive elements (a much bigger Border Patrol, sanctions on employers of undocumented immigrants, etc.) to prove they are firm on the subject, combined with a series of institutionalized delays (called, in an Orwellian flourish that Hitchens would enjoy, "triggers") to ensure that matters such as the status of the immigrants already here will not be addressed in the foreseeable future. Above all, let there be no talk of amnesty—a notion that now seems to encompass any measure that contemplates "legalization opportunities." We have millions of illegal immigrants, and whatever else happens, they are going to stay illegal.

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