Half-Truths, Delusions and Immigration

The White House has leaked immigration legislation it’s preparing in case Congress fails to craft its own. According to USA Today, 11 million illegal aliens could apply for a “Lawful Prospective Immigrant” visa and after 8 years could get a green card. Criminals would be excluded — unless they served less than a year for their crime, or were convicted of 3 different crimes resulting in 90 days in jail. That will hearten the hit-and-run drivers and welfare cheats. Once they get a visa, their families will be in line for visas too. In other words, the president’s plan amounts to an amnesty that vaults lawbreakers, including some convicts, to the head of the immigration line.

The Republicans are squawking, but any plan they would sign off on will end up doing the same thing. Too many … believe that caving on illegal immigrants will get them more Latino votes. But even if the Republicans’ share of Latino voters reached the 40% George W. Bush got, the Dems would still net 1.5 million more votes if illegal aliens became citizens. That’s not much of a payoff for betraying principle. And reaching that 40% appears increasingly unlikely, given that 75% of Hispanics want bigger government and more services, according to a Pew Hispanic Center poll last April, while a 2011 poll from Moore Information found that 29% think the Republican party “favors only the rich” and Republicans are “selfish and out for themselves.” They are already Democrats no matter what happens with illegal immigrants.

More important, the public discourse about illegal immigration is filled with incoherence, duplicity, and wishful thinking. One problem is the constant confusion of legal and illegal immigration. People justifiably worried about the latter are constantly chided for being “anti-immigrant” and forgetting that America is “a nation of immigrants.” But these are two separate complex problems, and trying to fix both with some “comprehensive reform” will end up with new policies that likely will make both worse. Today legal immigration is marred by “family reunification” preferences that count not just spouses and minor children but parents and siblings as “family.” Two-thirds of legal immigrants have come under these provisions, which take no account of whether or not these “family” members have skills beneficial to this country or are likely to become public charges.

The other 250,000 aspirant immigrants are limited to 55,000 visas a year, for which they compete by lottery rather than on the basis of skills or professions useful for Americans. Indeed, only 6.5% of legal immigrants are admitted based on those skills. Fixing legal immigration means doing what most other countries like Canada do: letting in those who benefit this country and its economy, and getting rid of “family reunification” programs. And don’t forget, an amnesty for the 11 million illegal aliens likely means many millions more will be admitted through family reunification programs.

As for illegal immigration, the public conversation is filled with half-truths and wishful thinking. Florida governor Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, offered a typical example: “Most immigrants come here to secure a better life for themselves and their families. They cherish the values of hard work, faith, family, enterprise and patriotism that have made this country great.” Well, some do, some do not. The fact is, the federal government has shown no interest in sorting out one from the other. Nor will setting the amnesty bar at felony convictions or “serious crimes” help distinguish between those who fit Bush and Bolick’s description, and those receiving EBT cards, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) food aid, routine health care at emergency rooms, Medicaid and Medi-Cal, and those social welfare benefits, like social security disability payments, that are illegal for non-citizens but available through a forged social security card. And remember that the children of illegal aliens born in this country are eligible for means-tested welfare programs. Does anyone think that when the amnesty comes, the Feds will deem ineligible any illegal immigrant who has used these benefits?

Anyone who thinks the previous is a racist or xenophobic exaggeration is welcome to visit California’s San Joaquin Valley, where we have been living with the problems of illegal immigration for decades before it became a national issue. Come and see any hospital emergency room, or visit a prison, jail, or penitentiary, or sit in a schoolroom where English is a foreign language, or tour the rural Valley farm towns riddled with theft, gang violence, drugs, and broken city governments. (“In essence,” Victor Davis Hanson writes, “in rural central California, the most highly regulated among the states, there are de facto no longer building codes, dog ordinances, health requirements, or any of the basic rules and regulations of a civilized or caring society.”) And of course this disorder costs money. The direct costs just of schooling, healing, and incarcerating illegal immigrants in California were $4.2 billion a year in 2009. And that’s a very conservative estimate that leaves out indirect costs, which add up to billions more. The Federation for American Immigration Reform puts the 2009 tab at $22 billion.

Finally, the notion that, as Marco Rubio told the Wall Street Journal, immigrants “assimilate easily,” is another delusional notion. Notice how Rubio doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, or acknowledge the vast cultural variety within both sets of immigrants, a complexity routinely ignored in the use of meaningless categories like “Hispanic” and “Latino.” The fact is, since the rise of identity politics multiculturalism in the 60s, assimilation has become a dirty word, and rather than happening “easily” does so with difficulty and with little support from federal and state government. On the contrary, from ballots printed in a dozen languages other than English, to public school curricula teaching melodramas of white wickedness and mythic histories of non-white achievement and superiority, our public culture encourages and rewards the resistance to assimilation. That millions of legal and illegal immigrants in time assimilate anyway is testimony to their personal character, not the organs of our political culture.

This is the huge difference between immigration today and the great age of immigration between around 1880 and 1920 that often is cited as evidence that we are a “nation of immigrants.” Back then, immigrants were welcomed on the proviso that they become Americans if they wanted to reap all the benefits and opportunities for which they had made such an arduous journey. This meant learning English, American history and government, and American political virtues and principles. And it meant showing in word and deed loyalty to their new home. If they wanted to honor their home culture, they were free to do so on their own time through civic organizations, church leagues, private language school, and celebrating national holidays. But the public political and social culture and institutions were American, and if there were any conflicts between their new home and the old, in public behavior at least they had to choose the new. And if that choice was too hard, or they preferred their old culture, then they were free to go back.

That paradigm that made immigration a success in America has been weakened and compromised. Now immigrants, including illegal ones, are encouraged to demand public and political validation and recognition of the country and culture that failed them. They are encouraged to demand all the rights and benefits of living in a land of freedom, prosperity, and opportunity without paying any cost in loyalty or changing their beliefs or identity. Indeed, as victims of American imperialism, racism, and oppression, they are encouraged to consider these benefits as justified payback for those historical crimes. The result is to further the balkanization of American society that has eroded our common national identity.

Again, not all illegal immigrants have rejected becoming American. Millions are better Americans that many native-born Americans are. But as yet we have shown no inclination for sorting out the ones who are making that transformation from the ones who want to stay Mexican or Guatemalan or Ecuadoran yet still enjoy all the opportunity, rights, and benefits denied them by their home countries. And that is the major flaw in the “comprehensive reform” legislation both parties are touting. When they legalize 11 million illegal immigrants, they will not have a clue about the character of those upon whom they will bestow the gift of citizenship in the freest, most prosperous country in the world. Instead, these politicians simply repeat feel-good half-truths and sentimental myths as they prepare an amnesty that will worsen the problem rather than solve it.