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We like to consider ourselves to be a society that follows the law. I know: there are lots of reasons to challenge this self-conception — hell, the whole Occupy movement and (often more delusionally) much of the Tea Party movement are in the business of challenging that belief — but while that may make that self-conception less accurate it doesn’t make it less real.
Of the reasons to oppose illegal immigration — and while I try to avoid the term “illegal immigrant” to describe people, I don’t know of a better noun phrase than that to describe the phenomenon that gives rise to it, because “undocumented working” doesn’t just do the trick — one of the handful with which I have any sympathy is the notion that we don’t want to reward failure to follow the law, people who “cut in line.” (This begs the question of what “cutting in line” entails. Good luck convincing me that it applies to individuals seeking citizenship more than it does to corporations seeking bailouts.) My having sympathy for it doesn’t mean that I’m convinced by it; it just means that I don’t hold this opinion against someone who expresses it. It’s a reasonable thing that a reasonable person might say — even though, for reasons I’ll explain, it doesn’t convince me.
(The second argument I respect is that illegal immigration may be used undercut the minimum wage and prevent complaints about working conditions, something that I run into as part of my employment law practice from time to time. That one, though, is fixable by providing better enforcement of laws and immunity for complainants, so I tend to discount it as being fatal. The third argument is that if it results in de facto open borders, it may overwhelm the economy and ecology, but I think that we can have substantial immigration while still maintaining adequate rules.)
That I respect the above three arguments doesn’t mean that I support them; it just means that I consider them to be worthy of debate. Most of the arguments rattling around are ones that I don’t find worth debating.
- The notion that immigrants (especially unauthorized ones) would not make good American citizens due to their culture or personal habits or greater propensity towards crime
- The notion that immigrants (especially unauthorized ones) are a threat to the English language, American culture, national security, the status of women, etc.
- The notion that immigrants (especially unauthorized ones) hurt our economy — do the research, folks. They generally don’t, and when they do it’s only because they can be deported for complaining about low wages, etc.
- Any xenophobia that I left out of the above
And there’s one more bad argument that I’m not yet going to raise. You’ll see it below.
Yesterday and today are big days in the politics of immigration. As the former husband of an East African-born Indian and now-husband of a Filipina and father of three girls here, one of whom is closing in on citizenship this year, I’ve spent most of my life as part of immigrant communities by marriage or pre-marriage. On that personal experience — even without invoking all of my other experience as a professor, student, colleague, political activist, and such –I have zero doubt that immigrants (yes, including those who are in violation of immigration laws) augment our strength and vibrancy as a nation. Immigration makes us strong. It binds us together in terms of blood and affection in a way that China and India and Russia, generally less welcoming towards immigrants, will never achieve. (Yes, they can buy people to be their liaisons to other countries in the world — and then someone else care hire them away. It’s not the same thing.)
I’m also aware the the legal immigration system we have does not work. I’m not simply talking about leaving produce unpicked and leaving families (like mine) divided. It’s also byzantine, capricious, and unfair. A year or two after I broke up with the Japanese woman (here on an H-1B visa as a Japanese instructor) with whom I lived for 2+ years in New York, she was forced to leave the country for good in large part because her immigration lawyer — a respectable friend of mine on an asylum case to whom I’d referred her — accidentally ticked off the wrong box on a form and while the correction was underway her visa expired a few months before she could have gotten permanent residency. Our system of legal immigration can be unfair and cruel — worse, in my opinion, than tax law.
I want to return, though, to the point with which I began: the respectable belief that we are a system that follows the law and that illegal immigration must therefore be harshly punished.
Prisoners, as I understand it, tend not to tell interviewers that they are innocent, but only claim that they are no more guilty than anyone else — instead being simply unlucky or despised. This is the problem we have when corrupt public and private figures — cops, politicians, and teachers; business leaders, media, and military; clergy and parents and more — are allowed to run free and avoid penalty for their rejection of rule of law. People hate to be taken for suckers — and if someone else is getting away with something, they often don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to do the same.
And that brings me back to something that still pisses me off when I think of it in connection to the debate over illegal immigration: that apartment in Irvine that State Senator Mimi Walters passed off as her home so that she could stay in the legislature — and that the legislature decided not to challenge. This came to mind again recently because someone on OC Political got the scoop that Walters is now planning to run for the Fifth Supervisorial seat now held by Pat Bates — which includes the Walters mansion in Laguna Niguel but not, so far as I understand it, Walters’s uninhabited fig-leaf apartment in Irvine.
Walters broke the law and got away with it based on the defense that only the State Senate could address the issue — and it didn’t, despite the facts meticulously laid out by her opponent Steve Young and his colleagues. The message that gets sent out to the world is “see that thing down there that looks like a law? It’s not actually a law when we don’t want it to be a law.” The rest of the world isn’t going to be surprised by this; that’s how much of the world works. Yet that residency law is as much the law of the land in California as is the law regarding overstaying a visa. I could give thousands of other more significant examples of law-breaking where we as a society look the other way, but this one appeals to be because it involves the consequences — or the lack thereof — of being on the wrong side of the border because it suits one’s goals and purposes.
My guess is that a lot of people who are exercised about the illegal immigration debate purely on grounds of legal propriety — in other words, I’m not counting the xenophobes here — see nothing wrong with Mimi Walters serving in the State Senate despite living on the wrong side of the border. It’s just a stupid rule; it did not have to be enforced. Prisoners aren’t going to be surprised by the hypocrisy; others of us should strive to be. “Just a stupid rule, does not have to be enforced” is the same reasoning that many people present in the U.S. without authorization tell themselves — except for them the stakes may be the lives and well-being of their family back home rather than a mere political career.
And that brings me to the last reason, arguably even worse than xenophobia (though far more respectable), as to why some people oppose immigration reforms.
- Partisan political advantage
Here’s the problem. Latinos (and now Asians as well) tend to vote Democratic, partially because Republicans have tended to be so extremely lousy and disrespectful and downright xenophobic on the issue of immigration. So, let’s say that we recognize a whole bunch of new Latinos and Asians as citizens, once they do appropriate penance. What happens as a result? Here’s Markos “kos” Moulitsas explaining it succinctly:
Republicans can’t win a national election given their demographic problems. Per 2012 exit polling, whites made up 72 percent of voters and Mitt Romney won them by a dominant 59-39. Yet President Barack Obama won reelection by an easy four points.
So Republicans don’t need to win the Latino vote, they just need to dig into that massive 44-point Democratic advantage. But as I’ve noted before, it’s hard to play nice with Latinos when signing on to comprehensive immigration reform would mean 13 million new Latino voters, or a net eight million new Democratic voters. Remember, Obama won the 2012 elections by five million.
So there is little incentive for the GOP at large to indulge in any reform effort.
(He then goes onto explain why there may nevertheless be enough GOP votes to pass reforms because some individual Republicans might have to deal.)
Those Republicans probably won’t include Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA):
“It’s amnesty that America can’t afford,” Barletta said Monday. “We have to stop people from coming in illegally. This will be a green light for anyone who wants to come to America illegally and then be granted citizenship one day.” […]
“I hope politics is not at the root of why we’re rushing to pass a bill. Anyone who believes that they’re going to win over the Latino vote is grossly mistaken,” Barletta said. “The majority that are here illegally are low-skilled or may not even have a high school diploma. The Republican Party is not going to compete over who can give more social programs out. They will become Democrats because of the social programs they’ll depend on.”
So there you have it. You guys will have to trust me on this: we Democrats do not want to normalize the immigration status of longtime residents because we want more people on welfare. As it is, we’re struggling to keep afloat the social services that Republicans keep trying to shoot full of holes. If these new voters vote Democratic, it will because we earn their votes by, among other things, not demonizing them and their cultures. (Republicans, you’re welcome to try it anytime you’d like.) And most of us are not calling for open borders; if this sort of reform happens only every 25-30 years or so, one would be a fool to depend on it. (And pretty much everyone agrees that those who victimize others through criminal acts need to be put away, then sent away, and then kept out.)
What this points to, though, is that the new Republican approach to winning elections seems to be to engineer a more favorable electorate. This is of a piece with trying to keep eligible people from voting through creating long lines, with making it harder for them to get into those lines by making registration more difficult, and with changing the Electoral College rules to choose electors by district in blue states while still being winner-take-all in red states. It’s all a matter of trying to keep the current, extremely conservative version of the Republican Party in power. (Note: the Republican Party won’t actually go away if many new immigrants come in, it will just shift back to the left a bit, maybe to where it was in the 1990s, maybe the 1970s.) This is about a minority of the people imposing an ideology on the country rather than imposing a party. Let these people become citizens and … we may see a return to a somewhat normal Republican Party. Is that so bad?
For some Republicans, it is that bad. They are the ones standing in the way of a resolution to the immigration debate — because they think that it helps them achieve ideological victory by throttling the electorate. If there is any reason for opposing immigration reform that is worse than xenophobia, that would have to be it.