James Kirchick on Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders by Jason Riley
Jason Riley. Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders. Gotham Books. 228 pages. $22.50
No issue more divides conservatives today than immigration. Every night on his highly rated cnn show, Lou Dobbs inveighs against the “army of invaders” scurrying across our country’s “Broken borders.” Angry calls urging immediate construction of a 2,000-mile-long wall along the Mexican border light up lines on talk radio stations. Even in states far removed from Mexico — where the bulk of America’s undocumented immigrants originate — questions like whether or not the government ought to bestow illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses have become a major campaign theme (Hillary Clinton’s once inevitable presidential nomination first began to show cracks when, asked during a debate about her home state then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to allow undocumented workers access to New York drivers’ licenses, she equivocated). The Minutemen — a vigilante group that patrols the Mexican border to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants — entered the public fascination upon its founding in April 2005, and has earned the vocal support of large elements of the conservative movement.
The conservative crack-up over immigration has been long brewing but reached its culmination in the spring of last year when President Bush announced his support for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and Arizona Senator John McCain. The bill attempted to fix the patchwork of regulations that have governed the nation’s immigration policies since the Immigration Act of 1965, the last major piece of legislation governing the country’s immigration laws. Most controversial about the 2007 bill was its attempt to bestow a form of legal status upon the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants believed to reside in the United States through the creation of new “z” and “y” visas that would grant them the right to remain here and eventually apply for citizenship provided they pay a fine and back taxes. This aspect of the legislation was immediately derided by immigration restrictionists as “amnesty,” a word that would come back to haunt McCain as he progressed through the Republican presidential primaries and eventually became the party’s presumptive nominee. The bill failed due largely to the hue and cry whipped up by conservative talk radio, which directed a storm of angry phone calls, faxes and emails to congressional offices. Columnist Peggy Noonan declared that President Bush had “torn the conservative coalition asunder” with his support for the measure.
Though the base of the Republican Party turned against him, Bush’s defenders responded with equal vitriol. The usually gracious former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said the bill’s opponents were “anti-immigrant” and afflicted with “rage” and “national chauvinism.” Linda Chavez, the first Hispanic female nominee to a presidential cabinet, alleged that some immigration critics “think Latinos are freeloaders and welfare cheats who are too lazy to learn English.” In April 2006, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol mocked the House Immigration Reform Caucus (a group of restrictionist representatives, almost entirely Republican) as the “House Caucus to Return the Republican Party to Minority Status” and called them “yahoos.” The animosity reached a crescendo when the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, the most prominent anti-restrictionist voice in the right-of-center immigration debate, ridiculed the editors and writers of National Review, who vehemently opposed the bipartisan bill. A proposed televised debate between the two publications about the legislation came to naught amidst mutual accusations of cowardice.
On one side of the immigration debate are what might fairly be called “pro-business” conservatives and libertarians, who argue that an ever-larger pool of skilled and unskilled workers enables employers to hire at lower salaries and in turn give consumers cheaper products, benefiting the overall American economy. This is a rather straightforward argument, and it has been made, vociferously, for decades on Capitol Hill by various business lobbies. Bill Gates, for instance, recently proposed that the government eliminate entirely the cap on hb-1 visas, the coveted spaces allotted to high-skilled workers in technology fields. Many Christian evangelicals, a critical gop constituency, also take a liberal stand on immigration, forming their opinion based upon biblical dictates about caring for the poor and dispossessed.
On the other side are immigration restrictionists, centered at a small set of issue-specific Washington think tanks and advocacy groups, who have widespread support in talk radio land. Many restrictionists oppose not only illegal immigration but also any “natural increase” in legal immigration. Some, like the paleoconservative eminence Pat Buchanan and Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, favor closing our borders to immigrants altogether. From these two irreconcilable schools is the war over immigration being waged.
Into this contentious debate enters Jason Riley, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and the author, presumably, of that newspaper’s fiercely pro-immigration masthead editorials. Here, in Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, he puts forth the most persuasive, sustained case for a liberal immigration policy yet published.
Riley begins by showing that however hyperbolic their reaction to resurgent anti-immigration sentiment may be, it is not for nothing that present and former Bush administration officials have characterized opposition to the immigration bill as an expression of “racist” or “nativist” sentiment. This is because the immigration restrictionist movement is demonstrably tied to white supremacists and eugenicists. For instance, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (fair), the leading anti-immigration group in Washington, has received $1.5 million from the Pioneer Fund, a eugenicist philanthropic organization. John Tanton, the preeminent funder of anti-immigration efforts, has openly speculated, “As Whites see their power and control over the their daily lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night?” Riley documents how much of modern day anti-immigration sentiment is predicated on centuries-old Malthusian fears of overpopulation proffered by long-since discredited population theorists like Paul Ehrlich. Careful students of American history will notice that the language of restrictionists — characterizing immigrants as shiftless, lazy, and crime-prone — borrows motifs from the openly racist arguments leveled against southern and eastern European immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Immigration critics frequently protest that people like John McCain and his colleague Lindsay Graham unfairly characterize them as racists and nativists. The problem is that so many of them are.
The unemployment rate has rarely risen above 5.5 percent in the past decade. How could illegal immigrants from Mexico be taking American jobs when so many Americans are working?
Of course, it is hardly the case that every opponent of liberal immigration reform is a racist, and having dispensed with the manifestly prejudicial, Riley devotes the bulk of his argument to convincing these rational, middle-of-the-road Americans why dramatically increasing the number of legal immigrants is good for the country as a whole. He does this in part by demolishing the argument trotted out most frequently by immigration opponents, that immigrants are “taking American jobs.” The claim is belied by the most obvious piece of economic data: the unemployment rate. For well over the past decade, the unemployment rate has rarely risen above 5.5 percent, one of the lowest in the developed world. How could illegal immigrants from Mexico — who pour into the country at a rate of some half a million a year, and whose numbers doubled between 1995 and 2004 — be taking American jobs when so many Americans are working? To be fair to economic populists, the oft-repeated saying that unskilled immigrants “do the jobs Americans won’t do” isn’t entirely accurate; if we deported 12 million people and closed the border, currently unemployed native-born Americans would probably take some of the janitorial, agricultural, and other menial jobs currently filled by low-wage immigrants. But many of these positions would remain unfilled, simply because the vast majority of able Americans, including those unemployed, are overqualified for this sort of work. And with the deportation of so many unskilled workers, the cost of filling these positions — picking crops, emptying wastepaper baskets, and the like — would dramatically rise, incurring a toll that would be transferred onto American consumers.
The claim that low-skill immigrants are lazy wards of the state is undermined by the fact that they have a higher labor-force participation rate and a lower unemployment rate than native-born Americans.
Another claim made by the anti-immigration lobby, one more salient for middle and upper-middle class voters not “threatened” by unskilled immigrant laborers, is that immigrants are freeloaders who come to the United States to suck off the teat of Uncle Sam. Never mind the absurdity of alleging that people who make death-defying trips across hundreds of miles of barren desert do so to live off a nonexistent welfare state, there is little factual basis for such a claim. Riley introduces a fascinating statistic: 60 percent of native-born Americans “collect more in government services than they pay in taxes.” Illegal immigrants, meanwhile, cannot receive federal welfare benefits. The only way in which they “take” from the government is indirectly, via their use of services provided to the general population like police and fire departments. While anti-immigration demagogues complain that illegal immigrants receive free health care — in 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187, which would have denied public schooling, health care and social services to illegal immigrants; the measure was overturned by a federal court — they are only able to take advantage of this benefit by visiting emergency rooms, something many illegal immigrants are hesitant to do in fear of being reported to immigration officials (Congress has made repeated attempts to require nurses and doctors working in hospitals that receive federal money to report suspected illegal immigrants to immigration authorities). Moreover, illegal immigrants make up for whatever benefits they might extract from the government via their contribution to the Social Security system (foreign workers, Riley claims, pay $5 trillion more in payroll taxes than they receive in Social Security). The claim that low-skill immigrants are lazy wards of the state is also undermined by the fact that they have a higher labor-force participation rate and a lower unemployment rate than native-born Americans. Moreover, welfare rolls have declined precipitously since the introduction of welfare reform in 1994, a decrease that has been concomitant with the rise in legal (and illegal) immigration. Immigration restrictionists have thus far been unable to explain away this salient trend.
Riley admires the work ethic of Hispanic immigrants. Hispanic males have the highest labor-participation rate in the country, he reports, a figure that must astound the likes of Patrick Buchanan and Lou Dobbs. Riley, who is black, contrasts this positive feature with the high unemployment and welfare roll rates for native-born African Americans. All this matters because an unlikely ally of the anti-immigration crowd has been poor blacks, attracted by the argument that newly arrived Mexicans willing to work for very little are taking their jobs. Riley argues, however, that 1960s Great Society programs have ingrained a welfare culture among many black males, and while the economy grew dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, work force participation among less-educated black men actually fell. African-Americans have to look deeper, Riley argues, to find the causes of persistent black unemployment rather than blame hardworking fellow ethnic minorities, as some African-American political leaders have done.
The most desperate argument of the restrictionists is one with the boradest potential appeal: national security. There are two parts to this argument. The first is that immigrants from Latin America are crime-prone; the second, related, point is that welcoming in large numbers of people from south of the border would leave us vulnerable to terrorists. Every week, Lou Dobbs and his pugnacious counterpart on Fox News, Bill O ’Reilly, go out of their way to cull local news stories and highlight crimes perpetrated by illegal immigrants. Yet as Riley shows, citing numerous government and nongovernmental studies, immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans and have been committing less crime for decades. According to the Justice Department, while noncitizens make up 7 percent of the population, they account for only 6.4 percent of prisoners. This should not be surprising, considering the fact that the vast majority of immigrants — especially those hailing from Latin America, who face great hazards in doing so — come to America to work and make a better life. As for the fear that a generous border policy would leave the country susceptible to Islamic terrorists, no potential terrorists have been caught sneaking across the southern border, and limited counter-terrorism funds would be far better spent on programs other than the construction of a massive wall that determined Islamists could easily penetrate if they so desired.
Moving on from the economic case against immigration, Riley gets to the heart of the debate, which is really a cultural one. Underlying the anti-immigration cause is a not-so-veiled concern about the type of people who are entering the country in such great numbers. One suspects that if the 12 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States hailed from Great Britain or Germany, those forces arrayed against comprehensive immigration reform would be lacking just a little bit of their ardor. Pat Buchanan admitted as much in 1991, when he asked, “If we had to take a million immigrants in, say Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them up in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?” A primary impulse of the restrictionists is a deep-seated fear of what Latino immigrants bring to the United States, and an apprehension that these newcomers will remake America in their own image. Riley presents the arresting statistic that 40 percent of new illegal immigrants are foreigners who overstay their visas. Surely the fact that these culprits are rarely ever mentioned in the vitriolic immigration debates has something to do with the fact that so many of them originate from places other than south of the border, seeing that so few visas are given to unskilled workers.
Many restrictionists attack what they claim is their latitudinarian adversaries’ nonchalance about illegal immigration, or complain that open-borders advocates somehow downplay its importance. This is a curious accusation to make: Senators McCain and Kennedy, along with President Bush, liberal immigration proponents all, supported a proposal that put an end to the gaping holes in the country’s immigration policy that had allowed for such massive numbers of illegal immigrants to enter the country. The 2007 proposal was modeled on a 1986 measure, signed by President Ronald Reagan, that provided a gradual path for immigrants residing illegally in the United States to legal citizenship (while also making it illegal to knowingly hire an undocumented worker). Yet neither the 1986 measure nor its 2007 counterpart addressed the reason why so many foreigners had entered the country illegally: The demand for their labor vastly outweighed the number of visas the government was willing to dispense. The problem has remained unresolved, but the solution is simple: Increase the number of visas for foreign workers to meet our economic needs. Favoring liberal immigration policy and border enforcement is hardly mutually exclusive, and too many immigration critics are presenting policymakers with a false choice. Writing recently in Commentary, former Bush administration official Peter Wehner described this either/or perception when he conceded that “Yes, McCain won the gop nomination (a strike against those preoccupied with stopping illegal immigration) but in the process he was forced to jettison his own Senate plan in favor of concentrating on border security first (a strike for those preoccupied with stopping illegal immigration).” This dichotomy ignores the method by which we can decrease illegal immigration and increase its legal alternative in one fell swoop. If the number of visas for Mexicans is increased so as to meet the demand necessitated by American businesses, those people risking their lives to cross the Rio Grande to live a life in the shadows will gladly opt to enter the country via a legal process that ensures they won’t be hunted down by immigration authorities and deported forthwith. “The question isn’t whether [illegal immigration] is a problem but how to solve it,” Riley writes.
If there’s one weakness in the book, it is Riley’s failure to tackle adequately the argument that last year’s immigration bill, with its path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally, would penalize those immigrants who obey the law in making their way to the United States. These immigrants rightfully protest that any such “amnesty” clause would allow other immigrants who “cheated” to “cut the line.” There is validity in this concern, and cause for anger as well, given the maddening process that is American immigration law and the very few coveted spots available. Riley ought to have at least addressed these concerns, even if just to brush them aside by pointing out that the monetary fine and garnishing of back taxes meted out to amnesty recipients were proper penalties. But at the end of the day, letting practically any qualified person into the country who is physically able and not a threat to national security would eliminate the problem of “lines” altogether.
If the economic and moral arguments for immigration do not weigh on the consciences of conservatives, surely the electoral ones must. The anti-immigration cause, whatever its merits, has proven disastrous on the campaign trail. The presidential campaign of Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, the gop’s standard-bearer of immigration restriction, barely registered in polls and was everywhere acknowledged for what it was: an exercise in vanity. He has described illegal immigration as nothing less than “a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation.” Yet the majority of Republican voters didn’t seem to think so. Nevertheless, the failure of the Tancredo message to take hold didn’t stop other candidates from trying to mimic his rhetoric, leading Tancredo to describe his pleasure at witnessing his rivals “trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo.” Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney repeatedly attacked former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for once operating a “sanctuary city” where illegal immigrants could live without fear of being apprehended by federal authorities. This tough image was undermined by the revelation that not long before, Romney had hired a landscaping company that had many undocumented workers in its employ. Former Arizona Congressman J.D. Hayworth, one of the severest critics of legal and illegal immigration and co-author of a book entitled Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror, lost his 2006 re-election bid to a Democratic challenger by 4 points. His district had been reliably Republican and lies about 100 miles, at its southernmost tip, from the Mexican border. All of these anecdotes are of a piece with the most important electoral trend in the immigration debate, the fact that Latinos will comprise 20 percent of the electorate by 2020. This is something that will just happen, no matter how hard Tom Tancredo wishes it away, and it is something to which Republicans must become accustomed.
Appealing to Latino voters is hardly a quixotic strategy for Republicans. Hispanics have a strong work ethic and are culturally conservative. Riley points to poll data showing that Republicans won 44 percent of Latino votes in the 2004 presidential election, but a June 2007 poll showed Democrats winning Hispanics 51 percent-21 percent. Lest this cold, political calculation in favor of increasing immigration appear cynical, it ought not detract from what is pragmatic public policy. With a presidential election on the horizon in which Hispanic voters will prove to be crucial swing voters in a number of states, Let Them In could not have arrived at a more opportune time.
Ultimately, illegal immigration appears to be a concern more for media elites than it does average voters. A Pew poll conducted last year found that only 6 percent of voters place illegal immigration as their top issue of concern, far behind the Iraq War, terrorism, and the economy. And beneath the din of talk radio demagoguery and sparring matches between intellectual conservative publications, there actually appears to be something of a right-of-center consensus on the issue. A New York Times poll taken during last year’s immigration debate found that 66 percent of Republicans supported the McCain-Kennedy bill’s legalization provisions. Another poll, commissioned by the Wall Street Journal and nbc News, reported that 75 percent of Republicans believed it was “not realistic” to make undocumented immigrants go back to their home countries in order to seek legal status here in the United States (a key concession sought by conservative opponents of the bill), and 81 percent found it impractical to demand their outright deportation. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll last year found that 60 percent of Americans supported “allowing illegal immigrants who have not committed crimes to become citizens if they pay fines, learn English and meet other requirements ” — essentially the provisions of the McCain/Kennedy “amnesty bill.” The American people, and even supposedly nativist conservatives, it seems, are naturally pro-immigration, which is hardly surprising given the unique history of our country.
If the history of immigration policy has taught us anything, it is that its presence as a political issue is not going to go away. Given the upheavals in the American economy caused by outward capital flows and the displacement of much of the American workforce due to an increasingly flexible labor market, a small, rarefied sector of Americans will continue to be wary of immigration, and immigrants themselves. They will back calls for sealing the border, deporting anyone who has entered the country illegally, and vote for candidates who make vaguely racist appeals. For the time being, we will have to endure the Lou Dobbses, Patrick Buchanans, and Tom Tancredos. The demands of our economy, however, insist that we reject them. The common sense and decency of the average American suggest we will.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.