Posted by: Jeff | May 3, 2010

They’re Gonna Keep Coming

From Ross Douthat’s op-ed yesterday on immigration:

There’s a good argument, on moral and self-interested grounds alike, that the United States should be as welcoming as possible to immigrants. But there’s no compelling reason that we should decide which immigrants to welcome based on their proximity to our border, and their ability to slip across.

Actually, proximity and ease of access strike me as two very good criteria for determining who gets in. Douthat’s a conservative, which means he ought to understand that you deal with the world as it is, as opposed to dealing with the world as you wish it to be. And in the world as it is, Mexico shares a long and porous border with us and it’s an economic basket case. America, by contrast, remains the wealthiest and one of the most productive countries in the world. Large numbers of people are going to keep flocking from the first to the second, whether we like it or not. Trying to invoke better enforcement of the border in the face of such massive and impersonal economic forces is rather like “trying to stop dust flying into your vacuum cleaner without turning off the suction,” to use Lexington’s apt metaphor.

Douthat goes on, “There is a widespread pretense that this has been tried and found to be impossible, when really it’s been found difficult and left untried.” True enough. But again, in the real world, there are some challenges which are so daunting that leaving them untried is the wiser and more humane course. Douthat has already kinda-sorta admitted that the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq was one such instance. Stopping the flow of immigrants into the U.S. from Mexico is another.

Which won’t stop our political system from trying, of course. The proposed immigration bill features a myriad collection of enforcement options, including a new biometric Social Security card that anyone wishing to work in America would have to show. Again, dealing with the world as it is, there’s no politically realistic way a reform of America’s immigration laws – much less an amnesty policy for illegals already here – is going to get through without being offered alongside some serious enforcement measures.

But let’s remember; massive and impersonal economic forces are what we’re dealing with here. Immigrant workers and employers alike will find all kinds of ways around these measures, because the economic benefits of doing so are simply too great to ignore. Fears of cultural change due to immigrant influx, of potential negative effects on the economy, and of a “Spanish-speaking reconquista” are never going to be adequately addressed; they’re simply going to have to die. (And while I realize that it helps or solves nothing to point out that such fears are often immoral and racist, it so happens they are immoral and racist; and incorrect, which ought to factor into our decisions as to how much energy should go into assuaging them.) For the foreseeable future, the bulk of the immigration to the U.S. is going to be low-skill workers from Mexico. There is no way around this fact. And the only sensible long-term policy response is to legally allow in a number of immigrants that’s actually comparable to the amount who want in.

I share Douthat’s desire for a more welcoming and nimble American immigration policy. And I realize that Americans’ growing fixation on border enforcement, and their general approval of Arizona’s new law, is rooted primarily in simple disgust with Washington’s inability to deal with the issue. But law-and-order is not a metaphysical ideal; it’s a utilitarian good. But sometimes a law’s demands can be so out-of-whack with what’s going on in the real world that enforcing it on pure principle becomes demented, counter-productive and cruel. That’s when eliminating the law and replacing it with something more lenient and realistic becomes the only sustainable option. We long ago crossed that point with regards to American immigration.

I agree that, in a perfect world, controlling the southern border and thus keeping the flow of immigrants as diverse as possible would make it easier for our own native culture to assimilate them, would more greatly benefit our economy, and would reduce fears of a takeover by one particular ethnic group. We don’t live in a perfect world.


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