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Two Bad Habits in Talking about Immigration

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Republicans of all stripes tend to display two bad habits whenever they talk about immigration and those ticks damage the GOP and cripple our credibility.

First, we almost inevitably discuss illegal immigration in the context of winning Hispanic votes, as if it were a political problem, rather than a profound policy and ethical dilemma that impacts millions and threatens future character of the country. As soon as advocates of immigration reform say something like “we must do something on this issue to attract the Latino voters we need to win majorities” it makes them sound like sleazy politicians who care more about winning than doing the right thing for the country. On the other hand, when skeptics say “we shouldn’t even worry about  Hispanic voters because they’ll vote for high welfare, open-borders Democrats anyway” then you are callously writing off a major segment of the American electorate and suggesting that they are somehow unworthy of your coalition. Either way, you’re insulting their intelligence by arguing that for those Latinos who have gone to the considerable trouble of becoming naturalized citizens, or who have lived here since birth, the chief issue will always be the status of unauthorized migrants.

No one can argue against the proposition that the problem of illegal immigration plays a disproportionate role in Latino communities, and in Asian communities for that matter. But that’s not the reason to address the issue: the reason to address the issue is the future of the United States demands it. If our leaders took a series of constructive, incremental steps to enhance both the rule of law and the lives of immigrants, no one could doubt that they would be politically rewarded in the long term, no matter how challenging those steps might seem at the moment. And no one should question that if shrill politicos took destructive steps (like insisting on a deportation policy that emphasizes family separation) that they would be politically punished eventually, regardless of the lusty cheers that might arise for a few months.

That brings me to the second bad habit that Republicans demonstrate in most cases when we speak about immigration: a preference for simplistic gimmick solutions that serve as applause lines rather than policy contributions. For decades, some conservative politicians seem transfixed with the “big dream” of building a huge, impenetrable fence that will “seal the border” once and for all. Most recently, Donald Trump has graciously volunteered to apply his unique skill set to these efforts, conjuring the image of a vast, gilded wall occasionally punctuated with glittering casinos and Trump Tower residences.

For those who wonder why we haven’t finished the promised border fence despite the long-ago Congressional commitment to do so, one can thank a plague of law suits based on “property rights” by uncooperative border ranchers (the kind of cause of action conservatives usually like) as well as a crippling undergrowth of environmental regulations.

Aside from these inconvenient obstacles, there’s the data suggesting that already today the great bulk of illegal immigrants don’t crawl across the southern border or leap over fences: they arrive in airports, with visas, and then overstay their allotted time. In fact, during the period 2003-2013, Pew research emphasized that illegal immigration from Asia exceeded illegal immigration from Mexico by a ratio of nearly four to one. A border fence will do little to deter the techies who are pouring into the country from India and elsewhere. And it will do absolutely nothing to sort out the problems of the more than 12 million already here, with nearly two thirds of them US residents for ten years or more.

Another and annoyingly unworkable solution is the outrageous gambit promulgated by the Obama administration: provide automatic, immediate (and Congressionally unauthorized) work permits to some four or five million illegals and they’ll all happily join the American mainstream and become a credit to our country. The problem is that this mechanism provides no meaningful basis for selecting those illegals who truly do want to “Americanize,” and will go to considerable trouble to do so, and those who feel no interest whatever in doing so, or haven’t done anything to merit acceptance in any way. In 1986, barely half of the three million illegal aliens eligible for President Reagan’s amnesty ever bothered with the process; the rest ignored the opportunity, with scant consequences to them.

One-size-fits-all policies make no more sense than one-size-fits all clothing. Only an ignorant bureaucrat could believe that every single illegal immigrant is noble and hard-working and family loving and pro-American and instantly worthy of citizenship; only a blind fanatic could believe that each family living in this country without proper documentation is criminal, violent, uneducated, radical, welfare chiseling, gang supporting and instantly worthy of deportation.

Simplistic solutions by their very nature become extreme—premised, as they tend to be, on extreme cases that hardly apply for most of in-the-middle humanity. The biggest danger of grand idea solutions, like “comprehensive” legislative projects that few members of Congress truly read or understand, is that they undermine the sort of useful small steps that could actually improve conditions in this country, like enhanced border security and a far more rational system of legal immigration that might make it more feasible for would-be Americans to come to this country while following the rule of law.

Either way, conservative bad habits—to talk about this issue as a question of political strategy rather than the correction of a national disgrace, and to favor grand-standing, showy, simplistic rhetoric that offers no conceivable improvement in the current situation—contribute to the deepening problem rather than developing  solutions.

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  1. Rob Vannelli  •  Feb 13, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Michael,
    Excellent analysis, and right on both points.
    One of the issues that is seldom discussed in detail, is the costly financial and medical burden that unchecked waves of illegal invaders (by definition, people who come to this country without authorization, refuse to leave when ordered to do so, or fail to appear for immigration hearings, are invaders) put on the American taxpayer. Thanks to EMTALA, passed in 1986, illegals cannot be denied emergency medical treatment regardless of immigration status or ability to pay. The ACA to my knowledge does not eliminate this provision so I have to assume that hospitals either “write off” this uncollectable debt or find a way to obtain reimbursement from those of us who pay out of pocket for insurance coverage, thus driving up the cost of medical care for all.

    • ct86  •  Mar 18, 2015 at 12:29 pm

      Ill gladly pay a little more money to save lives. Thanks for the good information. This seems like a better use of tax money than most.

  2. BIll Norton  •  Feb 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    I am a loyal listener, and normally you write and say things that make me think, but this article just made me mad. The “on the other hand” paralysis you’ve been struck with is how we got in this mess. You have thought yourself into a corner.

    Sealing the border doesn’t mean hunkering down behind a wall; it means allowing only those coming in legally to enter. Stopping the invasion by air, land, or sea is not only an easy thing to do, it is already required by current law. That elected politicians have refused to do so is at the root of all the other problems. Stop the uncontrolled inflow and we can sort out the other problems.

  3. ds7  •  Feb 13, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    if illegals voted republican in the same numbers they vote for democrats…the liberals would have our army guarding the border tomorrow.

    illegal alien = unregistered democrat

  4. Nick DiGennaro  •  Feb 13, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    Michael,
    I hope you are doing well. You have good points but I think Republicans should start the conversation with “we need more immigration”, that would be high-skilled workers and people with money who are likely to invest and start businesses. Allowing low-skilled workers to enter in large numbers is just importing poverty, crime and future welfare recipients. And we need to seal the borders and better control air and sea entry, for our own national security.

  5. martin  •  Feb 14, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    A country is like a house. What kind of people do you want to live in your house with you? It’s that simple.

  6. martin  •  Feb 14, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    A country is like a house. What king of people do you want to live in your house with you? It’s that simple.

  7. Rick  •  Feb 15, 2015 at 4:28 am

    Those who want only high skill workers forget out lowered birthrates and the push to send our kids to college. Food doesn’t produce itself. Bit I digress. There are more than two mistakes made by conservatives on this issue . The use of cockroach references (i.e., “swarms….scurrying….) and other overheated rhetoric presents a bad image. Add to that the double standard . One minute , it is all about “the rule of law….illegal is illegal”. When comes to laws that conservatives break, laws are “big brother….tyranny…jack booted thugs” . After it broke that over 400 rape cases were deliberately swept under the rug by Joe Arpaio’s office (so they could divert resources to immigration enforcement) , the sheriff was reelected. the perception in the Barrio is that Arizona Republicans hate undocumented restaurant kitchen workers more than they hate sex predators like Jerry Sandusky . The GOP has an extremely poor image in the Arizona Barrios I am familiar with.

  8. glen webster  •  Feb 15, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    Your article!! Solution ?? What is meant by constructive incremental ???? Also,how is the rule of law applied. Republicans have taken up this banner but are thwarted for years by the Dems.
    Glen Webster

  9. Jim Bird  •  Feb 17, 2015 at 2:40 am

    Again Michael, only the best from our family, friends and church to you and yours.

    So, there is no solution, nothing can be done or will be done. Obama acts on every whim it seems to abuse power and our legal system; the constitution be damned “because it’s old and outdated” ….. or “it is a living, breathing document that needs constant updating.”

    So, since illegals overstay visas, we are incapable of enforcing the law with them if we put up a fence, virtual and/or structural? My head is spinning trying to understand why we cannot chew gum and walk at the same time. Who in the hell is telling us (you know, Americans) why we can’t enforce OUR laws?

    Your point seems to be it’s pointless for US to point out our POV. No one will listen to those of us who vote, pay taxes, are legal immigrants, have two 29-hour per week jobs – honest to God, what is the point in voting when one party of cowards gives in on every major issue to the party of oppression with its brutal top/down governance?

    Obama played golf in Palm Springs over the past three days and gives the finger to us every day of his Presidency. Mitch and John (aka Stan and Ollie) will scratch their collective head and kick and stumble after that pesky can as they chase it down the street to nowhere, again. They will beg for our votes next election cycle though – more lies. When will we ever learn?

  10. Scott Keeler  •  Feb 17, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Excellent article and correct. The reason we need to change the immigration system is that it unfair to both working immigrants and the USA itself. When I hear “they should wait in line from many conservatives” I cringe at the ignorance:
    1- There is no ‘line’. Since family reunification is the first priority, citizen family members (even grandpa and grandma) have priority over workers needed in the US. An applicant with a 9 year wait one year may find herself with an 11 year wait the following year. Tell me that doesn’t encourage illegal immigration! We need to limit family reunification in all future laws.
    2- We are cheating our own industries- Like it or not, US born teenagers don’t pick crops, work in packing plants, etc. So if we “seal” the border and workers we will export industry and food production. Is that a good idea?

  11. MikeA  •  Feb 25, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    In response to the article, Jim Bird wrote, “Your point seems to be it’s pointless for US to point out our POV.” I don’t think that was Michael’s point. Michael summarizes his point in the last paragraph…

    “Either way, conservative bad habits—to talk about this issue as a question of political strategy rather than the correction of a national disgrace, and to favor grand-standing, showy, simplistic rhetoric that offers no conceivable improvement in the current situation—contribute to the deepening problem rather than developing solutions.”

    Prior to that, Michael had laid out what he is characterizing as “conservative bad habits” with regard to immigration reform. These habits were:

    1) The tendency to use rhetoric that characterizes immigration reform as simply a means to an end – winning more Latino votes in 2016.
    2) The tendency to speak about “solutions” that get loud applause and rave reviews from the so-called GOP “base”, but that have almost zero chance of being enacted.

    In other words, Michael is saying that immigration (legal and illegal) is a *real* issue, that deserves serious discussion, and a will to *patiently* address a problem that has been gradually developing for decades. Instead, he sees the GOP missing an opportunity to take a leadership role by offering more compassionate rhetoric while simultaneously developing incremental solutions that stand a good chance of being enacted. In other words, many conservatives seem to long for a day when America just says, “enough is enough”, and unilaterally begins:

    1) Loading millions of human beings onto trains, buses, and boats, and ships them back to Mexico and other locations south of the border. It makes no difference why you’re here or who your parents are, or what you do while you’re here…if you cannot produce proper ID – adios to the lot of you!

    2) Building a giant, impenetrable fence, tipped with concertina wire, spotlights, and .50 caliber turrets every 1,000 yards or so. Maybe a fleet of infrared drones to patrol 24/7/365 (many would even favor arming the drones).

    3) Forcing law enforcement to placed strong, renewed focus on checking ID’s and busing out offenders immediately.

    4) More frequently and more painfully punishing employers who get caught with “illegals” on their payroll.

    Michael points out that it’s not a good idea to then blatantly make it clear that the reason you want to “reform” immigration is so Latinos will vote for you in 2016. The social attitudes and political mindset underpinning Items 1-4 are at severe odds with “appealing” to the Latino voter.

    In short, it’s OK to express your POV, but it’s not a good idea politically to express POV’s that actually have the opposite effect of what you’re trying to achieve.

  12. Jim Bird  •  Mar 16, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    Whatever the POV for anyone who pays the bills is, the GOP leadership will never inforce the law or work to change the law but they will talk about the law incessantly for another 30 years or until the first detonation of Iran’s new play toys. What is the purpose of having a country that used to be the world’s protector? Obama has downgraded the dollar for the first time in our history which has bancrupted the EU. Putin wants Eastern and Western Europe and nuclear Islam wants the world. Since our borders are wide open and no one gives a damn about it, screw the Republicans for being cowards. They will never get my vote again. For those of you who are non-Californians should take notice. It’s a joke in LA and SF to watch bus loads of illegals, who are literally off the grid, being bussed to several precincts every Election Day because of no Voter ID. It’s happening all over the country too, but not yet in the numbers we have here. That’s why CA has a 70% Liberal legislature and the highest taxes in the US.

    So what does a bankrupt nation get to listen to from the liars in Congress – “…..we need more money for schools, for children, for the poor and homeless, down and out, blah, blah, blah..” which the jobs and industries that used to pay to rebuild nations foreign and domestic are now almost extinct. But we have six giant corporations, no medical system and a war on the middle class for making too much money now, that we didn’t have six years ago, and 14 million expats (in just the last 3years) who Obama is now taxing on income earned outside the US. That is larger than the state of Washington. So let us all scratch our heads and START A CONVERSATION, gather around the watercooler, come up with new ideas, have a beer summit, get energized about immigration reform – right.

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