Thursday, May 08, 2008

Authentic Conservatives vs. Political Conservatives

Yesterday I introduced the Sutherland Institute’s position regarding illegal immigration. The institute recently released a statement and an essay on this issue.

Sutherland’s essay spans 21 pages. On page 2, the institute complains that many Utahns that brand themselves as conservative “wear their brands of conservatism as an unquestioned free-pass to conduct all sorts of political and legislative business,” much of which, they later contend, is antithetical to conservative principles.

The paper details the conflict among conservative ranks regarding both immigration and the larger picture of conservative principle. Sutherland discusses two main camps of conservative immigration thought: the enforcers and the assimilators. When I look at the big names in both camps, generally speaking the assimilators seem to lean a bit more libertarian while the enforcers seem to lean a bit more toward big government.

Sutherland argues that that last legislative session’s SB 81 that sought to codify the enforcer approach, was “an uncharacteristically piecemeal, intrusive, government-first approach.” They go on to say that such a “black-and-white approach seems to be ineffective, needlessly divisive, government-driven and, unfortunately, often irrational.” Moreover, enforcers are “political conservatives,” while assimilators are “authentic conservatives.” So much for diplomacy.

Sutherland contends that assimilation is the only reasonable approach to illegal immigration. Conservative icon Bill Buckley Jr. is quoted as saying, “Laws attempting to seal the border were in the tradition of King Canute or­dering the tide to stop.” Since immigrants will come regardless of what we do and which laws we pass, we might as well work to assimilate them and turn them into freedom loving Americans rather than creating barriers to assimilation, and keeping them second class citizens, as are Middle Easterners in much of Western Europe.

The real problem, Sutherland asserts, is not immigration but our expansive welfare state. We are too concerned about newcomers consuming more than their share of public resources. “If given the choice between banishing our fellow human beings from our communities and dismantling the welfare state,” they ask, “wouldn’t every sensible conservative choose the latter policy?” The institute frames the debate this way:

“Herein lies the crux of the disagreement between authen­tic conservatives and anti-immigration activists: authentic conservatives view new immigrants (preferably legal but necessarily including illegal) as an opportunity to reclaim and renew vital American institutions, while anti-immigra­tion activists view new immigrants (always illegal but, for some, surprisingly including legal) as an onus, an insur­mountable burden, and an ill-intentioned threat to destroy our American way of life.”
There is tension between the rule of law and the actual human experience surrounding immigration. “Authentic conservatives cherish the rule of law,” Sutherland asserts. “On the other hand, we eschew a police state.” Immigration laws are regulatory rather than moral. We frequently violate regulatory laws when they fail to reflect our actual human experience without considering ourselves criminals or bad citizens. Sutherland draws a parallel with speed limit laws.

Sutherland calls on conservatives to abandon the government-centric approach of co-opting all citizens to become enforcers of poorly designed law. They suggest that this is the truly moral path. Instead, they invite conservatives to devise solutions that fall within the institute’s founding principles:
  • Personal Responsibility as the basis of self-govern­ment

  • Family as the fundamental unit of society

  • Private Property as the cornerstone of economic freedom

  • Religion as the moral compass of human progress

  • Charity as the wellspring of a caring community

  • Free Markets as the engine of economic prosperity

  • Limited Government as the essence of good gov­ernment
While Sutherland says they “are rightly concerned about following federal laws,” they also say they “are rightly outraged that the federal government has allowed these new neighbors to come to us under these unfortunate and trying circum­stances.”

Pages 15-18 of Sutherland’s essay detail its seven-point plan to deal with illegal immigration.
  • Request a federal waiver permitting Utahns to explicitly address illegal immigration in a manner that preserves families, builds communities, and creates productive citizens.

  • Create an in-state work permit.

  • Focus public education on our most needy students.

  • Establish a broad network of authentic charity care clinics.

  • Coordinate private outreach to strengthen faith and family relationships.

  • Coordinate public/private efforts to teach the full scope of citizenship.

  • Lobby our state’s congressional delegation to support more humane legal immigration policies.
Sutherland directly addresses religious people who are concerned about their church’s immigrant outreach programs. They say that chiding “Hispanic and il­legal immigrant families for any shortcomings or failures” is not the answer. Rather, “helping these families privately (without government in­trusions) will move them in the right direction. The answer is not to point a finger, but to extend a helping hand.”

They also ask Utahns to recall the state’s history. “The problem of illegal immigration is an opportunity for Utahns to return to our roots where outcasts among us are welcomed and encouraged to become a constructive part of our society.”

Finally, Sutherland says that we need to do more than simply live peaceably with our non-citizen neighbors. We need to help them become real American citizens and to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that we enjoy.

I frankly don’t see that this agenda has much of a chance of moving forward in the current political climate. Many self-identified conservatives are firmly in the enforcement camp. And they believe they have very good reasons for their positions. They are vehemently opposed to the types of suggestions Sutherland is making. They feel that this would only encourage and validate illegal behavior. As I have already mentioned, Sutherland derides these people as fake conservatives. These people earnestly feel otherwise.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that Sutherland’s bold position will change the minds of just enough legislators that anti-immigrant policies will fail to pass by larger margins than they have failed previously. It is also likely that Sutherland’s statements will earn a lot of hate mail. People have very strong feelings about illegal immigration. But it wouldn’t hurt to think about ways to productively move forward on this issue with compassion and respect for reality.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for talking about this issue.

y-intercept said...

One problem with the Sutherland statement and this post is that it is too caught up in labels. When people are too caught up in self-identifying with labels, they end up missing good ideas.

Labels often end up misrepresenting people's ideas. For example, the claim that Libertarians are necessarily lax on immigration enforcement is wrong. Traditionally, the Libertarian ideal is of a limited government, not of a ineffective government. When the limited government acts, it should act decisively.

There are many people who self-identify as Libertarian who are libertine.