Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fear and Rhetoric Killed Immigration Reform

Tamar Jacoby argues in the New York Daily News that a "do nothing" Congress killed comprehensive immigration reform. But it wasn't just that. Interested parties on all sides had something they didn't like in the legislation, and the naysayers carried the day with their rhetoric of opposition, scaring fence-sitting members of Congress and scuttling an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws:

I don't believe these naysayers speak for the American people. Poll after poll shows the public wants the immigration problem solved, pragmatically. Surveys also show that most voters - between 60% and 85% in every group - favor a solution that combines tougher enforcement with a path to eventual citizenship.

Still, in the end, the angry partisans carried the day. The rage of the extreme right trumped the hard work of the bipartisan "grand bargainers." And its bumper-sticker war cry of "Amnesty!" trumped the thoughtful compromise the reformers put together.

Who will suffer? All Americans. American business, American workers, our national security, the rule of law and eventually - if we don't correct this mistake - our tradition as a nation of immigrants.

Whatever the Lou Dobbses and Michael Savages of the world may say, the problem going forward will not be lack of enforcement. In fact, federal enforcement already is getting tougher, both on the border and in the workplace. Not only that, but state and local governments also are cracking down now, moving in on employers who hire illegal immigrants and landlords who rent to them.

The catch: This enforcement alone will not solve the problem. To the degree it works, it will choke off a needed supply of foreign labor, slowing - perhaps significantly slowing - American economic growth.

But mostly, it won't work. Even the most robust enforcement will not end illegal immigration until and unless we bring our quotas more into line with the reality of our labor needs. As long as there are jobs to be filled here - jobs American workers aren't doing - foreign workers will find a way to get into the country.

Comprehensive reform would solve this problem by creating a legal program to bring in needed workers. And these more realistic quotas would by definition be easier to enforce. But without reform, the status quo will only get worse: more broken borders, more smuggler violence, more mockery of the rule of law in our neighborhoods and work sites.

The all but certain outcome will be the worst of both worlds: slower economic growth and continued illegality. And over time, that illegality will only breed more frustration and anger - frustration that could, eventually, turn into polarization with an ugly ethnic edge.

Can we as a nation solve this problem? Of course we can. We were close last week - very close. There was a plausible compromise on the table. A bipartisan group of leaders did everything they could to get it passed. A majority of senators, Democrats and Republicans were prepared to back it. And the President would have signed it into law.

Instead, rage and rhetoric triumphed. But it doesn't have to, and maybe next time it won't.
Jacoby's herself is very pragmatic on the issue, although I don't always agree with her. Compromise on immigration means that opponents will have to put aside their deepest reservations about reform and hope for the best. In my case, as regular readers will recall, being from a border state with tremendous diversity raises worries about how well new immigrants are assimilating. I don't dismiss claims that immigrants come to work for the most part, and immigrant workers may indeed be vital to certain sectors of the economy. On the other hand, migrant workers keep wages low for the less educated, hurting those with a high school education or less.

The cultural aspect to the debate resonates, however, and Jacoby is one analyst who often skips it in her analysis.
In an earier post, citing Jacoby's article on immigration reform in the November/December in Foreign Affairs, I argue that she stresses the economics of immigration over cultural aspects. She basically advocates open borders, and underestimates the ability of the nation to absorb millions of legal and illegal newcomers in the contemporary age of transnationalism.

I've supported the reform legislation as a way to move forward on the issue. I hate the lawbreaking of illegal immigration, which will continue in the absence of the bill. I also hate the relegating of people to the shadows. Most of all, though, while I embrace the nation's immigrant heritage, I also recognize that strong cultural traditions are what hold a nation and people together. Out-of-control immigration -- in an age of rumbling transnationalism in the world economy and global culture -- is proving to be a divisive issue in the United States, as the failure of reform indicates.

As Peggy Noonan argues, in contrast to Jacoby's claim, Americans would like a time out. The country needs a chance to take a deep breather from unrelenting immigration, allowing newcomers to fully assimilate to the United States -- to "let go" of their original national identities by making an unambiguous "decision" that America is their true home. Previous historical generations of immigrants "cast their lot" with this country, turned their back on their original home identies, and made a "psychic investment" in membership in the American patriot tradition.

A problem with newer immigrants now is that for some it's no longer necessary to make The Decision. They don't always have to cast their lot. There are so many ways not to let go of the old country now, from choosing to believe that America is only about money, to technology that encourages you to stay in constant touch with the land you left, to TV stations that broadcast in the old language. If you're an immigrant now, you don't have to let go. Which means you don't have to fully join, to enmesh. Your psychic investment in America doesn't have to be full. It can be provisional, temporary. Or underdeveloped, or not developed at all.
Perhaps this is a larger element in the failure of immigration reform than Jacoby and others fail to acknowledge. No matter. The political calendar is moving forward, without reform. The collapse of the immigration bill does little to instill confidence in Washington's policy effectiveness. Debate on immigration might not return for a couple of years, but when it does, it will comeback with a vengeance.

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