The Sort of Tone-Deaf Immigration Rant That Kills Conservatives

Even when there's no racism involved, it's common to hear discussions of illegal immigration that make conservatives seem clueless and insensitive.

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Although I've always urged lawmakers to increase the number of people permitted to immigrate into the U.S. legally, I used to be a lot more sympathetic to the position of restrictionists. I felt that while I might prefer for America to welcome more newcomers, my fellow citizens felt differently, and fairness demanded that laws duly enacted by Congress be enforced.

Even today, I am inclined to listen respectfully to "rule of law" arguments. I also fear a radicalizing effect if restrictionists conclude that they have no incentive to work within the political system. But I've been persuaded by deeper reading into history that the restrictionist position is less just than I once imagined. I acknowledge that large-scale immigration benefits some Americans while it hurts others (people without high-school degrees especially). What I glean from the past is that bygone waves of immigration disrupted the lives of the people already here far more drastically and imposed costs far more extreme than anything seen today. Undoubtedly, my Scotch, German, and French Cajun relatives imposed costs on natural-born citizens when they first immigrated. As the beneficiary of that transaction, who am I to keep a Thai, Mexican, or South African family out, even if their presence does force the school where my kid goes to grapple with another language or adds another car or two to the freeways?

A lot of Americans see things differently in both the Democratic and Republican parties. In the years I spent as a California-based blogger covering immigration politics and policy, I interviewed countless restrictionists. Some of the most extreme were black Democrats who felt that Asian or Latino immigrants were taking over their neighborhoods. I talked to plenty of white conservatives about immigration too. Some favored another amnesty. Many others wanted to deport illegal immigrants. I heard some racist and many more non-racist arguments for that position.

Today, the Republican Party is trying to figure out how to retain the white restrictionists who make up an important part of its base while building support among Latinos and Asian Americans. Evolving policy stances are a possibility. The need to avoid blatant racism or race-baiting is obvious. But apart from all that, the conservative movement has got to get more sophisticated and less tone deaf when it talks immigration, even when it isn't trafficking in outright bigotry.

I'll give you an example.    

Let's listen in on talk radio's Hugh Hewitt, whose newsmaker interviews I've extolled on several occasions, speaking with Canadian-born writer Mark Steyn, who years ago contributed some fine pieces to this magazine, and now occasionally fills in for Rush Limbaugh as an AM-radio guest host.

An excerpt from the transcript:

Hugh Hewitt: Now Mark, I have been arguing that Republicans ought to get out ahead and put immigration reform on the table as a means of bringing new taxpayers out of the shadows, and getting ahead of the President's inevitable use of this again as a dividing wedge issue. What do you think the GOP and conservatives generally ought to be thinking and saying about immigration reform right now? And by that, I mean not amnesty, but regularization, I call it.

You get to stay, but don't be looking for a path to citizenship anytime.

Mark Steyn: Well you know something, I mean, I respect that argument, Hugh, but the reality is that I happened to be a U.S. immigration office a couple of weeks ago, because I made the mistake of being a legal immigrant.

And the fact of the matter is...

Hugh Hewitt: And they're still watching you?

Mark Steyn: Yeah, I mean, and by the way, when you say we need to bring these people out of the shadows, I speak as one guy who actually quite likes the sound of living in the shadows, out of the klieg lights of the U.S. Treasury and all the other enforcers of the United States government.

And I'm making a semi-serious point here, by the way, in that if you look at the way illegal immigrant communities live in the United States, for example, where they send these huge remittances back to Mexico, which are now basically Mexico's biggest source of revenue, it's bigger than tourism or oil, they would not be able to do that, by the way, if they were legal citizens and had to fill in legal annual tax returns declaring overseas foreign bank accounts and all the rest. They wouldn't be able just to keep sending all that money out of the country every month. So I think the idea that even illegal immigrants are itching to come out of the shadows and live under the klieg lights of the IRS is slightly doubtful. But you know, in effect, I accept something has to be done about that. But Republicans have to be wary about accepting the logic of this.

Steyn is a very smart man, stretched thin enough by his various commitments that, if you read and listen to him, you start to hear the same schtick repeated a lot. This bit about his preference for the shadows isn't coming off the top of his head. It's calculated in the way that all repeated bits are calculated -- at some point he thought about this and opted to add it to his repertoire. (Here he is on how nice it is to live in the shadows back in 2006; here he is earlier this year explaining one way his daughter, a legal immigrant from Canada, has it worse than illegal immigrants.)

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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