Political Idea-Bomb #1: Re-jigger the Immigration Debate

What can any sensible American citizen do about the present political climate? (Wait… not “climate.” Let’s use a less divisively fraught word. “Environment?”  Aw hell.)

Rebuilding an optimistic, pragmatic, problem-solving, scientific, brave and world-valuable United States will be hard. The skill I’m paid for is looking at things from quirky angles – perspectives that hardly fit our tiresome cliches. So here’s the first of several “political idea-bombs.”

== The Immigration “Debate” ==

I’ve mentioned this before. Everything you think you know about immigration is probably wrong. For example, U.S. immigration rates have fallen during the world economic decline. And – as many point out – the jobs that are “lost” to undocumented immigrants are almost never filled by American citizens, even when the work goes begging.

So where does all the anger come from? Consider that the “white” category became a minority group, for the first time ever, in U.S. census figures.  Sure, it’s the largest minority, by far. Even so it is inflated by the fact that many Americans of Hispanic background check “white.”  Hence, the image of a multi-colored United States has millions writhing in discomfort, even if it delights  liberal intelligencia.

One visceral root of culture war, then, is understandably psychological.

What is the biggest driver of this rapid change in the makeup of the U.S. citizenry? Listen to the rage, and you’d think that it was an invasion, a veritable tsunami of wetback illegals. But facts speak otherwise. The driver of demographic change in America, over the last generation or so, has been legal immigration.

When ethnic quotas on immigration were removed in 1965, the number of first- generation immigrants living in the United States quadrupled, rising from 9.6 million in 1970 to nearly 38 million in 2007.  In 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which resulted in an increase in legal immigration to the United States by 40%.

The United States admitted more legal immigrants in the most recent decade — ten million legal immigrants settled in the U.S. Still, this represents an annual increase of only about 0.3% as the U.S. population grew from 249 million to 281 million. A lot of people. But remember  this isn’t new. By comparison, the highest previous decade was the 1900s, when 8.8 million people arrived, increasing the total U.S. population by one percent every year. Specifically, “nearly 15% of Americans were foreign-born in 1910, while in 1999, only about 10% were foreign-born.

So why has the lion’s share of attention gone to the smaller flow of undocumented aliens coming to the U.S., many of whom are only here temporarily? Well, part of it is a purely visceral matter of fairness and perception of equity. Take this, from The Public Agenda web site:

In surveys, the public consistently makes a sharp distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. In general, the public looks more favorably on immigrants perceived as “playing by the rules.” Illegal immigrants are viewed with much less sympathy. Half of those surveyed by Public Agenda say giving the government the power to detain legal immigrants indefinitely in the war on terrorism “goes too far,” but six in 10 say illegal immigrants who are detained “don’t deserve such protections because they are here illegally.” What’s more, six in 10 also say illegal immigrants should be deported immediately after being caught, without recourse to the courts. The distinction is strong enough that caution should be taken in reporting survey questions that do not distinguish between legal and illegal immigration or those that combine these elements.”

Part of the fixation on illegal immigration, then, comes from the simple fact that it is disreputable and potentially embarrassing – even racist-sounding – to go after the larger flows of legal immigrants. Railing against illegals is more than sufficient.  In a movement whose goals are purely emotional, never practical, culture warriors spare nary a thought for the legal variety.

== A Pause for Perspective ==

Besides, the United States has so clearly benefited from immigration across the last 200 years that anyone who thinks otherwise must either be very ignorant or… well… a Native American. (Can’t blame them, after all.)  Indeed, together with Canada and Australia, three countries account for nearly all of the legal migration around the world, a fact that (among other things) should give us a certain moral cushion, when outsiders complain about some of the mistakes made by Pax Americana. Study after study has shown that our vigor as a nation grew out of this tradition.

Indeed, there is a sci-fi kind of eugenical twist to all of this. Since we are all descended from people who came… albeit some of those ancestors arrived involuntarily… might that restless spirit underlie some of America’s accomplishments? And its continuing potential for the future?

== Ironies Abound! ==

I’m not here to give a lengthy analysis of immigration law and its consequences.  I am no expert and don’t claim to be. What gets my dander up, though, is the way that partisanship causes people to glom onto positions that often bear no relationship at all to facts.

For example, the notion that Republicans are harsh defenders of the border, while Democrats are wimpy pushovers.  In that case, how does one explain the fact that one of President Obama’s very first acts in office was to boost the number of “boots” at the national boundaries and to demand a major rise in funding for the Border Patrol? This is no anomaly. Remember Operation Gatekeeper? It got a lot of play, back in 1993, when Bill Clinton virtually doubled the Border Patrol and began constructing new barriers along our then-porous borders?

In contrast, President George W. Bush, cut the BP in his first year. (Though, in fairness, Congress restored that funding in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, leading to a rise in staffing across the last ten years.)

These facts provoke cognitive dissonance, because they don’t fit our preconceptions of left-versus-right.  But there really are logical reasons, if you pause and manifest that greatest human gift — curiosity.

For some years, I thought the explanation was pure and simple. Why should Democrats like illegal immigration? No reason at all! Sure, touchy-feely niceness to newcomers can play well to the left wing of the party. Moreover, kindness and investment in kids who already live here makes sense, both morally and in purely practical terms.

But after saying all of that to the Democratic base, the politicians have to think about their top constituents – labor unions and urbanites. And those core groups have no reason to like floods of cheap labor. They prefer legal immigration – people with green cards who can join unions and who have good prospects to become new voters.

Supporting evidence: since 1986, Congress has passed seven amnesties for illegal immigrants, converting one kind of immigrant into the other.From the kind that are easily exploited by predatory employers to those who might vote and pay labor dues.

This explanation still seems pretty valid, even after qualifying it with this inconvenient fact: that Republican President George H.W. Bush signed that 1990 immigration law, accelerating legal immigration. Moreover, in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed immigration reform that gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants in the country. Clearly, my pat division of motives merited some qualifiers, and I am willing to learn from facts.

Still, Democratic Congresses played a large role in boosting legal immigration, and they have always gone along with hikes in the Border Patrol. Those facts won’t go away.

What about  Republicans? They go on and on, endlessly complaining about illegal immigration as a horrid betrayal, because that kind of red-rhetoric speaks to their base. But please dig it: they controlled the United States of America, top to bottom and every branch of government all through the first decade of the 21st Century, and nothing much was done.

Why? Because the folks who actually pay the GOP’s bills have their own agenda. And a cynic can quickly see how many of them benefit from floods of immigrants who cannot complain or join unions or demand the minimum wage.

Can I prove these ironies? Only circumstantially; but shouldn’t they provoke you to ponder?  The parties are rife with situations like this — in which the public stance of dems or goppers can differ markedly from the actual policies that the party enacts, when it is in power.

(But this should come as no surprise.  The Republican values-base has never received anything that it really wanted, other than lip service, from the GOP. Again, the Republican Party had complete and absolute mastery of the Presidency, Congress and the judiciary, and gave the base nothing during all that time, about abortion or any other hot topic.  Only the aristocracy got what it wanted. Every time.)

== More Surprises? ==

Actually, there are issues that run beneath issues here, and they merit your consideration. Take the criteria that the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department have been required to follow, when doling out legal immigrant visas.

For decades, the top consideration went to re-uniting family members. And at first sight, that does seem a compassionate and just basis to allow people into the country, instead of keeping folks separated from those they love.

Except… isn’t that just rewarding the lucky with more luck? And when you admit a legal immigrant’s brother, then does the brother’s son come along? Of course the son’s mother (his wife) is next.  And then… her brother too?  And that brother’s kid and wife… and so on…  Isn’t it clear that there is no place to clearly draw a line?

There should be a way to say: “This here clan has had a lot of luck.  Let’s pause for a while and let some of that good fortune go to the millions of others out there, who have their faces pressed against the glass.”

Indeed, shouldn’t we try for a positive sum game here? If we’re limited in the number of people we can absorb per year, and can only take a small fraction of those who are both deserving an eager, then why not have a fair number of those slots go to those whose arrival will benefit us all, in clearcut and immediate ways? Are they any less deserving, just because they happen to be instantly useful?

Indeed, won’t the increased prosperity they help generate here allow us to be more generous to others, in the future?

Canada and Australia and the U.S. all issue a certain number of Employment-Based visas. And a strong case can be made for increasing this number, along with slots for inventors and company builders and major investors. It has even been proposed to solve our current housing crash by giving a green card to anyone who immediately buys a home with $500,000 or more in cash.

(All right, that’s rewarding the lucky, and it won’t play well on the left. But those of you who follow my “contrary” swings know that I am perfectly happy aiming jabs in that direction! Sure, the right has gone completely bonkers with its War on Science and every other knowledge profession. But that doesn’t mean their opponents are always correct, not by a long shot.)

== Listen Up, Rick Perry! ==

In fact, let me couch this as advice to a man I don’t especially admire, and dislike in many ways… but a fellow who on occasion has actually intrigued me with the unconventional words that slip out of his mouth, from time to time.

(Example: the Texas Governor is the only other person I know who has publicly declared an obvious fat — that the first phase of our ongoing American Civil War began in 1851, with southern oppression of northern states! Okay, I admit it; I’d buy him a beer, because to me interesting compensates for many sins, and I enjoy challenging disagreement more than I like parroted sameness.)

Okay, so right now Rick Perry has a problem regarding immigration. So crazed has the Republican base become that he must backpedal furiously from actions and positions that were completely mainstream in the GOP, during the era of Ronald Reagan.  It should be blatantly obvious to anyone with a mix of compassion and practicality that immigrant kids need health care and education… and we need them to be both healthy and educated. Duh? Well, the obvious becomes deniable, in times that Robert Heinlein called “The Crazy Years.”

(Perry reminds me of the “good German” Oskar Schindler… who was a low-life scoundrel by the standards of a normal-calm nation, but who, when all his friends and neighbors went mad, refused to sink below a certain level of insane turpitude. Who then exhibited surprising heroism. We’ll see if my comparison proves apt.)

Is there a way out for Perry?  Well, I can suggest one. Turn the focus toward legal immigration. A judo move. Get people talking about the larger flow, instead of the smaller. Get them talking about fresh ideas, like visas for investors and home-buyers and inventors. Take a lead there, making people talk. Heck, even blame the democrats for something they actually did for a change! (Increasing legal immigration.)

And lay it out as a bipartisan given that the border will be better policed, with new technology. Indeed, make technology a topic for optimistic talking points. (Remember Reagan?  Optimism can be good politics!)

Who knows, maybe some Republicans will even respond if you defy the Fox-propelled mad-lemming rush and actually say something good about science!  Yes, that may be too brave to ask of any GOP candidate.  Still it would set you aside from the pack…

== Shake it up! ==

What’s my real point here?

Immigration, like most other policy issues, is far more complex than the simpleminded politics of this benighted-lobotomized era. An era when the sheer notion of the positive sum game is anathema… and so are people of the kind who use words like “anathema.”

We could negotiate positive sum, win-win solutions, to this and a myriad other vexing dilemmas.  But it would have to start with accepting that complexity ain’t evil. And neither is negotiation. And that is why I’ll keep tossing these “idea-bombs.”

Because some of you out there really want to live in a civilization that’s worthy of the name. And together, maybe we can persuade enough of our neighbors to want it, too.

9 Comments

Filed under economy, society

9 responses to “Political Idea-Bomb #1: Re-jigger the Immigration Debate

  1. Andrew

    Correction: Democrats controlled congress from 2006-2010 and the white house from 2008 to now.

    Your sympathetic view of legal and illegal immigrants is almost comical. You should fire up a browser and check education, crime rates and other measurable stats for these groups; the vast majority dramatically underperform natives (Indians and some Asians being the minor exceptions), are a massive drag to local governments, and are basically cultural assassins due to their lack of incentive to integrate.

    Take a road trip along the southern border states, ask the locals, go to the library to see old newspaper clippings vs. now. That simple act will cause your ivory tower to explode with embarrassment. You’re so busy telling voters how manipulated they are that you’ve missed the fact you’ve been MASSIVELY manipulated yourself by god knows who to believe that our recent waves of immigration consist of geniuses, unicorns, and freedom fries for all.

  2. Fred Thompson had the best summary of the right solution to border/immigration issues that I ever heard: We should have a tall fence, with wide gates.

  3. Andrew, the new congressional and presidential terms star the following year. Also, your quick-skim of this essay is betrayed in every word. You are screaming at a strawman image of me in your mind, aimed nowhere near me.

    It’s sad that dogma and spittle replace curiosity. This essay contained no leftist cant but lots of pragmatic contrasts of surprising ironies. I do not favor the left. But I deeply fear the mad anti-curiosity obsession that has taken over the right.

    • An “anti-curiousity” obsession is a good thing to fear, but it hasn’t taken over the right, except for around some of the fringes. The best description of my politics is that I’m a “Recovering Libertarian.” I spend a lot of time with relatively senior “right wing” politicians, and the number of them who can rationally be characterized as “anti-curiosity” is tiny.

      Not zero, but tiny.

      TCS

  4. Aw hell, Terry. You sound like a nice & sincere fellow and I am sorry. But the paleocon era of genteel, curious and intellectual conservatism died with Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley. (They now draw a megawatt from the spinning in Barry’s grave, over the hijacking of his movement.)

    Today it is all distraction from a pure fact, that nearly all the oppressors across 6000 years, who quashed freedom and enterprise capitalism and markets and competition… were rich oligarchs.

    Go on, name an exception. But pick decades and locales at random. Pick 20 or 30. The fact is we are sliding into exactly that failure mode again… and the oligarchs are naturally financing distraction campaigns to keep many good, populist Americans like you from noticing.

    So Murdoch and the Kochs and Prince Waleed offer you plenty to rage against. Civil Servants! Scientists! Teachers, journalists, diplomats, doctors, professors… have you noticed yet they rail at every elite of intellect… but the only oligarch they’ll ever badmouth is George Soros?

    Please… show me the center of intellect and curiosity that isn’t on the Fox Top Wanted Dead list.

    I stick it to the left too! But I have never seen craziness like this. Heinlein rightfully called it the Crazy Years.

    • Aw hell, Terry. You sound like a nice & sincere fellow and I am sorry. But the paleocon era of genteel, curious and intellectual conservatism died with Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley. (They now draw a megawatt from the spinning in Barry’s grave, over the hijacking of his movement.)
      ==============================/
      It’s not dead…it’s just resting! I met Buckley once, never had the pleasure with Goldwater. And I am indeed a nice & sincere fellow, and not quite as politically naive as this might suggest. No sorrow needed…I am happy and well, and making a difference.

      TCS
      ======================/
      Today it is all distraction from a pure fact, that nearly all the oppressors across 6000 years, who quashed freedom and enterprise capitalism and markets and competition… were rich oligarchs.
      Go on, name an exception.
      ===========================/
      I don’t seem to recall quarelling with this contention. But, if I did, please point it out, and I’ll correct it as needed. What you say here is basically right. I don’t see any conflict there with anything that I said.

      TCS
      ============================/
      But pick decades and locales at random. Pick 20 or 30. The fact is we are sliding into exactly that failure mode again… and the oligarchs are naturally financing distraction campaigns to keep many good, populist Americans like you from noticing.
      ===============================/
      There’s a risk of a number of different failure modes at the moment, but there’s nothing fundamentally changed about the fact that there are rich oligarchies running the world. It’s true, but it’s not news.

      TCS
      ==============================/
      So Murdoch and the Kochs and Prince Waleed offer you plenty to rage against. Civil Servants! Scientists! Teachers, journalists, diplomats, doctors, professors… have you noticed yet they rail at every elite of intellect… but the only oligarch they’ll ever badmouth is George Soros?
      Please… show me the center of intellect and curiosity that isn’t on the Fox Top Wanted Dead list.
      ===================================/
      (sigh) Now you ARE ranting, dude…

      “Center of intellect and curiosity’….why the groupthink? Perhaps the intellect and curiosity on the right is more individuals, than “centered”.
      ;-)

      TCS
      ==================================

  5. Great post. One of the things that drives me nuts about the immigration issue is that it is something we can exert a great deal of control over, which means we have a lot of latitude for developing creative solutions to the “problems.” I’m very conservative, and the economic impact of illegal immigration is very significant. But, “deport them all” is not necessarily the answer. After all, deporting people costs money, too. And, there is no way we could deport all of the millions of illegals in the country. Why not consider a creative, capitalist solution? Some form of “pay to stay” plan? Also, I think having a higher English proficiency requirement would go a long way to mitigating the more negative, visceral reactions to immigrants.

    And, your absolutely right about the parties. One of the biggest complaints by conservatives against the GOP is their failure to stem illegal immigration. In contrast, I recently saw a statistic that Obama has deported almost 400,000 illegals in 2011 alone. So, the knock on Obama and the Democrats, which I used to buy into, is not well-founded.

    Ultimately, discussions about immigration policy need to move away from the sound bite debates.

  6. Terry, I was right, you are a calm dude with a sense of humor. Sorry for the rant. But it’s guys like you who are patriotically behooved to get mad at the badguys who have hijacked conservatism, turning it into an undead caricature – a zombie – of itself.

    Still… well… I apologize for getting heated at ya. Drop by http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/
    we have a very smart blogmunity down under comments and we need more smart paleocons in the mix.

    You too James.

    • Apology both accepted and not needed! I’m sure I’ll treat you to one of my own rants at some point… ;-)

      My disagreement is not to suggest that the Bad Guys you describe don’t exist…they definitely do…but rather to point out that they have “hijacked” conservatism to a much smaller degree than the legacy media would have you believe. Most of *US* think they’re loons, too!

      I will be honored to be a resident paleocon on your site! It may take longer than it should to fully engage, because I’m just starting the process of migrating from “email only” (I REALLY like the “one stop shopping” aspect of email) to the far murkier world of social media.

      But, in for a penny, in for a pound! I now have a blog, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. The blog is good for focussing my thoughts, Twitter is actually a lot of fun, but I have yet to uncover any value from Facebook other than the fact that a lot of people I know are on it.

      I look forward to engaging with you and your crew!
      :-)

      TCS

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