On immigration raids

[Conor Friedersdorf]

Bob Wright* is upset about recent immigration raids in California.

The sympathy I feel for illegal immigrants who've established roots in the United States is hard to exaggerate. Were I a poor citizen of Mexico or one of its southern neighbors, I'd do my utmost to get to America, legally if possible, but illegally if need be. The fate of my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be a weightier concern than any qualms I'd have about committing a misdemeanor without victims (well, sort of without victims -- the cumulative effect of illegal immigration is damaging, but the cost imposed by a law-abiding illegal immigrant is very small, or perhaps even non-existent depending on your income level and industry).

Is it really the case, however, that the United States sent a clear signal to illegal immigrants that they could reside here without incident? The act of physically sneaking across a border under cover of darkness cannot help but impart that on some level your presence is being actively discouraged. The illegal immigrants I've interviewed over the years were constantly worried about workplace raids, even during lulls in enforcement, and painfully aware that lots of Americans objected to their presence in the country.

It's tricky to tease out the signal that "America" is sending -- the reality is that we're sending lots of different signals. Nor is this unique to immigration. Certain signals suggest that Americans want lots of cocaine, prostitutes and pirated music. The large market for these -- and their varying level of tolerance by law enforcement -- can hardly be taken by drug dealers, pimps and Napster copycats as permission to break the law.

So what is the most legitimate signal that the United States is sending about immigration? Imperfect though it is, I'd have to say that the laws duly enacted by Congress are the best expression of the true desires of our polity. Opinion polls confirm that a majority of Americans have long wanted immigration laws enforced more stringently than is the case.

Personally, I oppose illegal immigration, favor a border wall and believe that a large population of non-citizen residents, particularly concentrated into enclaves, is corrosive of self-government -- it cannot be healthy to have municipalities where a large proportion of residents cannot vote for the elected officials they live under.

But like Bob Wright, I don't want law-abiding illegal immigrants rounded up and deported. Instead I favor these measures:

1) Large fines for companies caught knowingly employing illegal immigrant labor.

2) An expensive border wall that makes it much harder to get here illegally, thus enabling us to adopt generous policies to handle those already here without creating an incentive for further illegal immigration.

3) An amnesty that kicks in after illegal immigration is drastically cut.

4) Higher levels of legal immigration.

5) Resistance to a guest worker program at all costs.

Perhaps I'll post again to defend these proposals at greater length.

Bob Wright is also suspicious that the Bush Administration is orchestrating immigration raids for political purposes. I can't blame him.

Laws of great consequence, when sporadically enforced, afford great potential for government actors to abuse their power, whether for political gain, to advantage certain corporations over competitors (raid them), etc. I expect this will be a problem whether John McCain or Barack Obama is elected this fall. It is unimaginable that a newly elected administration would act on immigration without considering the political implications.

*My boss at Bloggingheads.tv, it should be noted.