Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Tear-Jerker Case for Amnesty

I've been reading Time more often lately. The magazine has some intelligent commentary, and the news articles are generally even-handed. Having said that, I'm not particularly impressed with this week's cover story, "The Case for Amnesty." If there ever was a tear-jerker article, designed to influence policy through pro-illegal alien sentiment, Nathan Thornburgh's excursion into amnesty sentimentality is it.

It's not just the sentimentality that ruins the article, though. Thornburgh's overall analysis is weepy at the expense of reason. The plight of illegals should certainly cause concern, but Thornburgh portrays them as victims of an oppressive authoritarian state, with a decadent population that looks down upon them. It's a tedious and insulting argument, bereft of deeper evidence or rational argumentation that might have served to make the amnesty case.

Here's an opening section, where Thornburgh seeks to debunk John McCain's description of the comprehensive Senate bill as "not amnesty":

Yes, it is. Whether you fine illegal aliens or stick them in English classes or make them say a hundred Hail Marys, at the end of the day, illegals would be allowed to stay and become citizens under this bill. That's amnesty. And that's a good thing for America. The estimated 12 million illegals are by their sheer numbers undeportable. More important, they are too enmeshed in a healthy U.S. economy to be extracted.

Yet the word amnesty was still used as a cudgel at the G.O.P. debate — McCain's rivals clobbered him with the term, and he turned it on them as well, saying that doing nothing is "silent and de facto amnesty." Why are the bill's supporters so skittish about the word? If the past five years of immigration debate have taught us anything, it's that railing against the illegal invasion is easy, popular and effective. Now politicians are being roasted for conceding a reality: illegal or not, most of those 12 million are here to stay.
Well, I agree that the 12 million illegals are not leaving anytime soon, but whether that's a good thing is debatable. People don't like the lawbreaking, nor the cut-in-front-of-the-line entitlement aspect to the illegal alien situation. The proposed legislation is not a pure amnesty, in any case (despite Thornburgh's attempt to spin it that way). McCain spoke of fines, fees, and other penalities that will be levied on aliens to gain legalization. While it would make these teeming masses immediately legal, the Senate bill has a number of stiff requirements, including a long backlog waiting period, plus a home-country "touch-back" requirement, before holders of "Z-visas" can apply for citizenship.

But Thornburgh doesn't discuss details like this. He shifts the focus of debate over illegals to voter economic insecurity from globalization:

Economic anxiety animates much of the resistance to amnesty, particularly from the left. Real wages have been stagnant for nearly three decades throughout the U.S., and for a place like working-class Beardstown [Ill.], having to deal with a huge new influx of Spanish-speaking workers seems like adding insult to economic injury. But if times are tough in rural America, are illegal immigrants to blame? It turns out that the truly good jobs left Beardstown long before the Mexicans came....

The economics of immigration remain a mysterious science. Everyone has a pet study proving immigration suppresses wages or it builds economies. A less malleable truth is that many towns, like many companies, are faced with a stark choice in the global economy: grow or die. So Beardstown is growing, a healthy economy surrounded by dying rural towns. The U.S. is in the same situation.
Well, that may be so, but Thornburgh could at least actually review some of the research debate, without such as cursory dismissal of the various findings. Some economic commentators argue that illegal immigrants themselves depress wages. So it's not just that offshoring has been taking place, but that on top of international competition, we've got unrestricted labor markets that tend to drive down wage-levels in the home country. But check out the next section of the article, where Thornburgh makes the weak argument that the law enforcement system itself is the problem, not the fact of aliens illegally crossing our borders:

U.S. jurisprudence has in fact always been a series of hedged bets, weighing the potential harm of a violation against the costs of enforcement. That's why people get arrested for assault but not for jaywalking. It's time to think seriously about exactly where the act of illegal immigration lies in the spectrum of criminality. Consider the complicity of U.S. employers ranging from multinational corporations to suburbanites looking for gardeners. Factor in the mixed signals that lax law enforcement sent to would-be immigrants throughout the '80s and '90s, and the crime should rank as a misdemeanor, not a felony. Even if we step up border enforcement in the future — as we should — it is true that for a long time, crossing the Rio Grande was akin more to jaywalking than breaking and entering.

Sure, there is a very real national-security threat in having a porous border. But a large — if unquantifiable — percentage of the people crossing that line illegally are not newcomers but rather people who have already established lives in the U.S. and would qualify for amnesty. If they were legalized and free to circulate, we could concentrate on the serious criminals and terrorists crossing the border, not a worker going back to his family.
Thornburgh argues that illegals use multiple aliases to stay under the radar, and that if we granted amnesty, we'd actually be able to restore law and order. Get that tautology? But here's the kicker:

Many of the undesirable traits of illegal populations stem in large part from the simple fact that they are illegal. They use expensive emergency rooms because they lack insurance or are afraid a primary-care doctor might create a paper trail. They often don't file tax returns because of the same fear, and they turn to welfare or other social services because their illegal status consigns them to the lowest rung of the economy. We infantilize undocumented workers by relegating them to second-class status, and then we chastise them for being dependent on the nanny state.

"[White people] think we have it easy, that we don't pay taxes," says Fernanda, 19, whose parents were deported in the April raid. "They don't know how hard it is to get ahead here."

Fernanda has been in the U.S. since the eighth grade and graduated last year from Beardstown Middle/High School. Those five years of public education represent a significant investment by the U.S. government. And what's the return on that investment?

Fernanda had dreams of going to college to study nursing, and Beardstown badly needs bilingual nurses. But she's illegal, and after the deportation of her parents, she has to support the entire family. So she's looking for work at local hog farms, a manual-labor job that does not make the most of her talents. "There's a great human potential in this town that doesn't see the light of day because of the legal status," says community organizer Julio Flores.

Some would argue that Fernanda should not have been schooled on our dime in the first place. But the reality is that Fernanda is here in the U.S. to stay. She's not going back to Mexico. Amnesty would offer millions like her a fighting chance at self-sufficiency and social mobility.

Hold on while I get out my box of Kleenex.

I'm sorry, but Thornburgh's argumentative strategy doesn't work with me. Illegal aliens come here on their own accord. While there are many flaws in the current system --
like lax workplace enforcement of immigration laws -- the case for amnesty should be based on pragmatism, not sentimentality.

Americans work hard. I have worked lots of entry level positions -- including grunt jobs in construction and the hospitality industry -- and I know legal citizens will work, given the right wage incentives. So don't go trying to break my heart. If we're going to grant an expedited legalization process of some sort -- call it amnesty or whatever -- it's because it's simply impractical (if not impossible) to round-up 12 million illegals for deportation. It'd be too costly, and, frankly, it would contradict American opinion on doing the right thing. Thornburgh recognizes this (in the quote above), but his sentimental case is not compelling. Let's get the illegals legal because we have to, as a matter of law (without all the tear-jerking), shore-up the borders to slow the inflow a bit, and then get to work assimilating those who are here.

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