The MSM and Immigration

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If you thought, like Matt and Mickey Kaus, that Dan Balz's "news analysis" was the sine qua non of mainstream media mindlessness on immigration, I invite you to consider Nathan Thornburgh's "case for amnesty" in Time Magazine - the most embarrassing venture in fact-free sanctimony I've read in some time. Not because there isn't a case to be made for amnesty, but because such a case - particularly coming from an ostensibly nonpartisan publication like Time - would need to actually address some of the arguments on the other side, and at least pretend to a knowledge of the actual contours of the immigration debate. (It might also help if the author didn't draw nearly all his examples from a single town: Beardstown, Illinois.)

I'll confine myself to sniping at a few passages.

Yes, it's true: Mexicans speak Spanish. Relax. Mexicans also know that English is the key to getting ahead in the U.S. When Beardstown opened a bilingual program for all the kids in the elementary school, Hispanic parents were as worried as white parents about missing out on an English-only education. Assimilation is slow, but it is inevitable. Beardstown was settled in the 19th century by unapologetically German immigrants, but you won't hear so much as a gesundheit uttered there today. What is lacking, in Beardstown as in Washington, is faith in America's undimmed ability to metabolize immigrants from around the world, to change them more than they change the U.S.

Hmmm ... could there be any reason to think that the trajectories of German immigrants and Mexican immigrants might turn out somewhat differently? Of course not - assimilation is "inevitable"! All you need is "faith"! As Beardstown goes, so goes the nation!

In one sense, Thornburgh undersells his case: If he'd produced statistics rather than anecdotes, he could have found evidence that immigrants from Mexico are making progress in education, English-acquisition, and intermarriage that matches the gains made by earlier generations of immigrants. The trouble is that you need a lot more education to compete in today's economy than you did in the economy of 1887 or 1921, which is why Mexican-Americans can make bigger strides than did, say, Italian-Americans in the 19th century, and still find themselves further behind, in socioeconomic terms, than that earlier generation did. Which explains, in turn, why so many second and third-generation Mexican-Americans are growing frustrated with the slow pace of socioeconomic progress and assimilating downward, toward underclass rather than middle-class norms. Thus crime rates, while low for new immigrants, are high for their children and grandchildren; thus, too, the use of welfare programs remains nearly as high in the second Mexican-American generation as in the first.

But that's all too complicated for Thornburgh - as is any serious analysis of the economics of immigration:

The economics of immigration remain a mysterious science. Everyone has a pet study proving immigration suppresses wages or it builds economies. A less malleable truth is that many towns, like many companies, are faced with a stark choice in the global economy: grow or die. So Beardstown is growing, a healthy economy surrounded by dying rural towns. The U.S. is in the same situation. For all the stresses of immigration, it is the only industrialized nation with a population that is growing fast enough and skews young enough to provide the kind of workforce that a dynamic economy needs. The illegals are part of the reason for that, and amnesty ensures that competitive advantage.

Statistics are hard! Anecdotes and generalizations are easy! Sure, the actual research consistently shows that low-skilled immigration has a small but appreciably negative impact on low-wage workers and a small but appreciably positive impact on overall economic growth, which would seem to suggest that we should have a debate about whether higher working-class wages or higher overall GDP growth is more important at the present pass. But why bother when you can pretend that unfettered Mexican immigration is the only thing standing between the U.S. and economic decline? (You know, just like in the long recession of the restrictionist 1950s and 1960s ...)

Or maybe we should slow down immigration. Never fear, Thornburgh has a plan for that:

A popular reading of recent history holds that the amnesty of 1986, which offered a path to citizenship for 3 million illegals, sparked the much larger wave of unlawful immigration that followed. According to that logic, the '86 amnesty showed would-be migrants from around the world that the U.S. was weak-willed and would eventually relent and give citizenship to its illegals. Duly encouraged, Mexicans and others stormed our borders with unprecedented vigor.

Illegal immigration did soar, but that's not why. Studies show that the valleys and peaks in migration have depended far less on changes in policy or policing and far more on the basic economic conditions in the U.S. and Mexico. If you want to truly tamp down illegal immigration, you could induce a recession in the U.S. A better idea might be to help Mexico create more jobs that pay better. A recent Council on Foreign Relations study found that when Mexican wages drop 10% relative to U.S. wages, attempts to cross the border illegally rise 6%. As complex and corrupt as the Mexican economy is, we ignore it at our peril.

Ah, so the solution to illegal immigration is for the United States to ... fix the Mexican economy, so that it creates "more jobs that pay better"? Fantastic: We'll get right on that. While we're at it, maybe we can have the federal government create "more health care options that cost less," and "cheaper schools that teach better," and a "more competent Iraqi government that governs better." Who knew that policy was this easy?

While we're waiting for George W. Bush and Harry Reid to fix the Mexican economy, Thornburgh allows that maybe we could, you know, beef up border security. A little. If we feel like it:

While Mexico patches itself up, at least the security options are better today than in 1986. There is both the political will and the technology to make enforcement a serious part of any amnesty plan. National ID cards, real employer verification, high-tech border controls can all aid in making sure that this would be the last amnesty of this size.

Except that a major reason the current immigration "compromise" has been derailed for now is that its opponents fear, with good reason, that the political will doesn't exist to "make enforcement a serious part of any amnesty plan." And a major argument advanced by those same opponents is that we should see if enforcement actually works and only then consider amnesty. These are things that Thornburgh would know if he had paid any attention to the actual debate on the subject he's writing about. But obviously that would be too much to ask.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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