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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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