Immigration & the American Dream
First, let me say that I don’t support what the current protestors are doing. The initial thought, of trying to flaunt their lawbreaking and demand forgiveness for it, doesn’t seem very smart. After all, when you want forgiveness, you typically need to show remorse. Even worse, it seems to be a major political backfire, giving all the anti-immigration folks out there the political cover they need to push Congress and the American people into actions they might regret later (i.e. the PATRIOT Act, anyone?).
The protestors might be wrong, but that doesn’t make our current immigration policy right.
Immigration is a bit of a thorny issue to a lot of people. To many American workers, immigrants represent a low-cost threat to their job. When any version of “someone else” wants to come in and take your job for 70% of your wage, you get angry. And when it’s the government who “let them in”, you direct your anger at the government. To people who value the security of our nation, our porous border is like a big target on our backs. To the Mexican government, sending their most productive citizens north, and having them sending back money every week, allows them to avoid fixing the corruption in their own system. And to business owners, the cheap labor allows them to offload much of the social cost of the people they hire (sometimes even paying cash under the table to avoid taxes), forcing the rest of us to pick up the slack with our tax burden.
So immigration isn’t really an easy issue. But simple answers, like “close the borders and deport them all” just don’t cut it. I think we can possibly secure the borders, but politically and ethically can’t just send 12 million people home (if we could even find them). Simple answers like “we have no problem with immigration, just illegal immigration” doesn’t work. I could easily say “driving 56 mph in a 55 zone is wrong because it’s illegal”, and that doesn’t answer the question of whether the policy is right, because the numbers of people who desperately want to come here are much, much higher than our immigration quotas. And simple answers like “give them all amnesty” doesn’t work, because it destroys the incentive for people trying to immigrate here to follow our laws. It rewards bad behavior.
We need to ask ourselves what is the right immigration policy for our nation, because only that will tell us how to handle the millions of illegals we currently have here. And when it comes to designing the policy, we need to ask ourselves what kind of a country we are, and what these immigrants truly represent.
You see, the vast majority of these immigrants are honestly coming here looking to better their lives. Back in the old days, we had a little think called The American Dream. I think of America more as an ideal than as a nation, an ideal sometimes lacking today. The American Dream is the idea that if you come here and work, you will succeed or fail not based on what some bureaucrat says, but on your merit. In poker jargon, it’s the equivalent of having a “chip and a chair”, meaning that as long as you’re still sitting at the table, you’ve got a chance. America is the place that anyone can pick themselves up from their bootstraps, work hard, and end up a winner. It’s not the place that rewards complaining to government when you don’t win, or getting a lawyer and suing the winner if you happen to be the loser. It is, by the Ideal, a land of opportunity. I should point out, unfortunately, that too often the nation of America doesn’t even approach the Ideal of America these days.
When you look at these immigrants, attempting to come here, lift themselves up by their bootstraps, and secure for themselves a better life is exactly what they’re doing. They’re risking life and limb, scraping together money just to get here, all for the opportunity to do backbreaking labor and scrape together more money to better themselves and their family. Sure, some come here to take advantage of our social services. But how many simply want to find a better life?
As classical liberals, we believe in the theory of natural rights. The American Dream is the logical outgrowth of natural rights theory. Here’s the thing, though: while America was designed as a nation based upon natural rights, that doesn’t mean that only native-born Americans have them!
Allow me to explain. When we say that we don’t want immigrants coming here to work, because they might depress wages a little bit, we are telling them that their natural rights shouldn’t be respected here. I understand the arguments. Sure, people coming from the corrupt, economically-repugnant nation of Mexico are willing to do things here for a lot cheaper than what the average American will accept. And many of them are willing to do it with a smile, because they know what their options are at home. But do we want to hang a big “No Vacancy” sign on the land of opportunity?! No. That stands in the way of everything purport to stand for. That stands in the way of freedom and of individual rights. I hesitate to throw out words like this, but that is blatantly anti-American.
As I said, I understand the arguments. Some say that our economy can’t handle that influx of immigrants. That’s ridiculous. Our economy, in just the past few years, has had to handle a recession, a major terrorist attack, a war, high energy prices, and the constant threat of domestic jobs going overseas. What’s happened? It’s grown and grown. The American system of free-market capitalism is the greatest engine for creating wealth the world has ever seen, and a few million immigrants is nothing more than a speedbump.
Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not American jobs will suffer. One would think that zero-sum economics wouldn’t rear its ugly head here, but perhaps that’s expecting too much from American politicians and the American public. When America has a 4.7% unemployment rate, the argument that our jobs will suffer becomes a tough sell. Again, the American economy is an engine, and human ingenuity is its fuel.
Some of that human ingenuity is freed up when immigrants come to the US. And some immigrants bring it with them. Look at 19-year-old Francisco Patino, a contestant on the TV show American Inventor. It’s unclear whether Francisco immigrated legally, but I would think the show would have check up on this. Either way, it’s immaterial. Francisco came here at 12 years old, unable to speak English. He learned English, worked to put himself into college, and in his eyes, you see the American Dream. There is no future for him in Colombia. But he can bring a richer existence to America, bettering himself and our society at the same time. Francisco is taking away from us to be here, he is bringing himself to us.
It’s not just zero sum economics, though. Part of it is plain, old-fashioned xenophobia. I hesitate the use the word racism, but that’s certainly a component, I’m sure. But we’ve seen this before. Back after the Civil War, blacks were the scapegoat, trying to “take” jobs from whites. The whole Davis-Bacon Act was mainly instituted as a protectionist measure to keep low-wage blacks out of the workforce on federal projects. It’s not purely racism, of course, as back during the same time period, employers were seen with N.I.N.A. signs hanging in their windows: No Irish Need Apply.
In all situations, the rationale is the same. We got ours, and now we’ll stop you from getting yours. I can’t live with that. By most accounts, I’m pretty privileged. I’m not the son of rich parents by American standards, but by world standards, I grew up in luxury. I was lucky enough to be born in America, and even luckier to be born to educated parents and live in a highly-regarded school district. But does that give me any more right to the American Dream than Francisco Patino? Does it give a Warbiany any more right to the American Dream than a Hernandez? Of course not.
Last, we do still have the security issue. But liberal immigration policies and secure borders are not mutually exclusive. We can secure the borders and still find to keep tabs on who is coming into this country and how. Perhaps that’s a guest worker program, perhaps that’s a new take on our INS and its goals. That may include a combination of things, with a guest worker program combined with restricted social services for a worker’s family. Either way, the nuts and bolts aren’t insurmountable. If we focused half the energy we spend screwing around with the tax code for special interests on developing coherent immigration and security policies, we could get it done and still have secure borders.
Immigration is a thorny issue. But when we stand around and say “we don’t want you here”, I have to break ranks. When they say “these immigrants are damaging our economy”, I have to break ranks. I don’t have all the answers as to how to fix the problem, but I know that I refuse to close our country to people who want to live the American Dream. We have to enforce our laws, but when our laws are contrary to the very fabric of America, those laws need to change.