Immigration. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a very hot topic right now. And the battle lines aren’t exactly split along party lines or along liberal-conservative lines.
A lot has to do with the definition of the term “immigration.” One view has national borders being essentially immoral. From this perspective, there is no substantial difference between legal and illegal immigration. It’s not naturally illegal like murder or stealing, they argue. It’s only illegal because somebody arbitrarily says it’s illegal, kind of like speed limits. It is immoral, they argue, to prevent people from seeking a better life for themselves and their family members. Why punish people who are worse off than us simply due to where they happened to be born?
Another view holds the sovereignty of the United States to be highly valuable. They note that we are a nation of laws. Thus, adherence to settled laws is essential to the survival of our type of governance. It seems to me that this view is highly reliant on the concept of American exceptionalism, which sees the U.S. as an exceptional force for good in the world. Without a sovereign U.S., how will anyone be able to effectively stand against the evils of fascism, militarism, despotism, and communism? Many of these people have no problem with legal immigration, but are diametrically opposed to illegal immigration.
Yet another group has no problems with national borders, but feels that immigration of any kind will ultimately strengthen our nation socially, politically, and economically. They note that we are a nation of immigrants. They suggest that cutting off immigration is the wrong way to go and that we need robust immigration to survive and thrive as a nation.
And there are still other views represented that include elements of those listed above as well as other thought.
It is disingenuous to apply the labels of pro-immigration and anti-immigration to these groups. As far as I can tell, only a small group of people opposes immigration outright. Another relatively small group wants to limit immigration to a trickle. The vast majority, it seems, actually favor relatively robust immigration. The splits seem to occur along the lines of legal/illegal and strong borders/no borders (or weak borders).
It is easy for those in different camps to apply ugly labels to those in other camps. Strong border proponents are often derided as protectionists, nativists, xenophobes, racists, etc. Open borders folks are called globalists, America haters, One World Government supporters, “Big Business,” etc. These labels do little to facilitate a solution to our current dilemma.
Let’s clarify the real significant issues. We have millions of people (estimates range from 12 to 20 million) in the U.S. that have come here without going through the proper legal channels. This same problem existed on a smaller scale 21 years ago. A Democratic Congress and a Republican president (Reagan) worked together to extend amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants. The compromise was that immigration laws were reworked and enforcement provisions were strengthened. But, as many had warned at the time, the new immigration law was not very workable and denied realities.
The Bush I and Clinton administrations struggled with implementing the laws. Demand existed for low wage workers in the U.S. and supply existed south of the border. While trying to enforce provisions that applied to the above board side of the equation, neither administration was able to mount an effective interdiction of the black market side. When George W. Bush’s administration came along, attempts to enforce provisions on the immigration black market were essentially scrapped. Enforcement of the border became largely a show. Only when vocal conservatives inconveniently focused attention on this issue did the administration try to make the show look more real.
Some will argue that all four presidents listed were simply acting as pawns of Big Business. And business has certainly had sway in the matter. But I think that these men have also felt that a more open border ultimately benefits the U.S.
Today we debate a bill that is wending its way through the U.S. Senate that would again reform the nation’s immigration system. Many proponents of strong borders are very upset with provisions of this bill that tend effectively toward an open border policy. Many that consider themselves realists or that see the issue primarily from an economic viewpoint honestly believe that the strong border elements of this bill effectively shoots our nation in the foot. The issue is far more complex than the labels I have applied here. There are some that believe that this bill is so flawed that it will create a worse situation rather than an improvement.
It is no secret that immigration imposes significant burdens on the communities that experience the greatest impact. We can look back through history to see this occurring time after time. Our nation is filled with districts, towns, and whole regions that originated as ethnic enclaves. Many of these places now struggle to hang onto their roots. They go to great lengths to celebrate those roots. But it has often taken generations for these enclaves to emerge from the problems inherent in immigrant communities.
You may say that this sounds rather xenophobic, but John Leo points out in this article that empirical evidence now demonstrates “that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities.” Did you get that? Devastating. Not unfortunate. Not negative. Devastating. That word was not chosen lightly. And this applies to legal as well as illegal immigration.
Leo notes that Robert Putnam’s five-year study “reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer.” This is true regardless of the size of the community. It’s not a matter of bad race relations. It’s a matter of overall reduction of trust and social optimism.
Putnam’s study also shows, however, that “in the long run, increased immigration and diversity are inevitable and desirable, and successful immigrant societies “dampen the negative effects of diversity” by constructing new identities.” And that can be a very long run — several generations long.
We constantly tell each other that increasing contacts with people unlike us increases tolerance, but this is not supported by empirical studies. Instead, studies “find that the more people are brought into contact with those of another race or ethnicity, the more they stick to their own, and the less they trust others.”
Leo notes that Putnam has been reticent to release his findings because they show that at a community level immigration causes decades of social problems and social deterioration that impacts natives as well as immigrants. He is concerned that this knowledge will cause us to make policies that will minimize the short- and mid-term impacts at the cost of long-term benefits.
I think that what Putnam has discovered is already at the heart of the immigration debate today. Some are focused on the undeniably significant and negative impacts caused by immigration, while others are focused on the long-term benefits. Neither side seems to be willing to accept the validity of the issues that concern the other side, although, both sides are at least partially right.
If Putnam’s findings are correct, immigration will eventually strengthen the communities that make up our nation; thus, creating a stronger and better nation. But my great grandkids will be raising families by the time that happens. And there will be significant pain along the way that will be borne by the generations in between.
The matter we ought to be considering, it seems to me, is how we can mitigate the most significant problems caused by immigration without substantially diminishing the long-term benefits of immigration. That is the puzzle we should be solving today.
Update (6/28/07): The Senate bill was killed today, but that does not mean that the immigration debate is going away any time soon.