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.)

In the conversation above, the remark is used as a dodge -- Hewitt asks what Steyn thinks about normalizing the status of those here illegally, and Steyn avoids giving a direct answer by launching into a familiar riff. But Steyn is also adeptly telling the audience a story that plays to their prejudices. The older white conservatives who buy Steyn's books and listen to Hewitt's show hear an echo of a narrative that many have long told themselves about illegal immigrants. In their view, conservatives shell out their hard-earned money to pay their income taxes, their property taxes, their vehicle license fees, their auto-insurance premium, and their health-insurance bills, playing by all the rules, being responsible citizens ... only to have "these illegals" come into the country without permission, get paid under the table, get free care at the emergency room when they get the flu, and victimize law-abiding Americans when they rear-end them at a stop sign and flee because they're driving around without any auto insurance.

I've heard numerous conservatives, none of them poor, working class guys in stiff competition with illegal immigrants for jobs, claim that they are actually envious of illegal immigrants. This is our country, they'll say, and they've got it better than we do. Can you imagine what would happen if I was paid off the books / if I got pulled over by the cops and I didn't have a driver's license to show / if I went to the hospital and couldn't pay my bill / if I tried to enter their country illegally?

Of course, none of these people would ever dream of trading places with an illegal immigrant, as they'd surely realize if they gave the subject very much reflection, which they don't. It's disappointing that Steyn traffics in such unoriginal, thoughtless material these days, for he surely knows better. Even if he doesn't, it sounds particularly absurd for an exceptionally successful, well-traveled, relatively rich conservative demi-celebrity to deliver this schtick. Only someone who knows nothing about what it's like to be an illegal immigrant "living in the shadows" could listen without rolling their eyes to Steyn feigning envy of "living in the shadows."

It doesn't work even as a joke -- the premise is nonsense.

On a factual level, of course legal immigrants can send remittances back to their home country. Many do!

On a more visceral level, when I hear Steyn's schtick about how he'd prefer to live in the shadows, and he doubts many illegals want to come out of them, I think about all the people I've interviewed who were terrified that their undocumented status will cause them to be fired from their jobs, or separated from their children, or thrown into a nightmarish federal detention facility, people who would literally cut off a finger if in exchange they could be an American citizen.

I can only imagine how Steyn's "I'd prefer the shadows" schtick sounds to the subset of Hispanic and Asian-American voters who have personal contact with immigrants of all kids and understand what it's really like to be an illegal immigrant, as opposed to the pretend talk radio version of how easy they have it. I don't mean to imply that Steyn sounds racist. To me, he just sounds clueless, insensitive, and self-pitying. (Sort of like how Lawrence O'Donnell seems clueless and insensitive in this interview). Given the chance to immigrate legally to the United States, a privilege many would regard as akin to winning the lottery, one of Steyn's most frequent reflections is that he envies illegal immigrants because they face less scrutiny from the IRS!

One needn't embrace any particular position on immigration to acknowledge how difficult life is for so many people who are here illegally. Doing so signals to voters that you've got a basic grasp on reality and possess normal levels of human sympathy. Whereas a rich immigrant from Canada talking like he's got it tougher than "the illegals" .... I mean, really, do I need to explain why that is off-putting? Why it signals to voters a disconnect with reality? It's possible to win Hispanic votes while opposing amnesty. But winning Hispanic votes when you mostly treat illegal immigrants as conceits to invoke during anti-IRS rants that you deliver on talk radio? Probably a losing strategy. And one that reinforces the belief among many talk radio listeners that illegal immigrants really do mostly have it easy in America, easier even than the listeners themselves.

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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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