The Conversation

Don't Give Me All Your Tired, Your Poor...

All human beings are created equal. But not all prospective U.S. immigrants are equal in skill, education, or willingness to contribute to the nation. 

That may not matter to Democrats, many of whom seem to think immigration to the U.S. (and evidently no other country) is a universal human right, or that the cost of the welfare state is not something to worry about. But it ought to worry pro-immigration reform Republicans.

Many of those Republicans who support the Senate's plan--and the recent push seems almost entirely from Republicans--like to talk about illegal immigrants as if they were Republicans-in-waiting--hard-working, strong on family values, eager to live the American dream. That is true of many, and perhaps most--aside from the inconvenient fact that they broke the law to enter or to overstay their visas in the first place. 

But it is not true of all immigrants, legal or illegal, and we should be honest about that without fear of being called racist or xenophobic. 

For one thing, as Heather MacDonald reported in City Journal in 2006, there is an "epidemic of single parenting" among Hispanic illegal immigrants. The problem is not morality, but cost: "Not only has illegitimacy become perfectly acceptable...but so has the resort to welfare and social services to cope with it."

Conservative writer Victor Davis Hanson, who lives in rural California, comes face-to-face with the more difficult realities of the immigration debate--where people who are illiterate in both English and Spanish have essentially imported a Third World society into a state whose politicians and laws are in a late stage of First World decadence. 

In a somewhat famous essay about "Mexifornia," Hanson described the changes in the farming community of Selma, CA:

It is a schizophrenic existence, living at illegal immigration’s intersection. Each week I pick up trash, dirty diapers, even sofas and old beds dumped in our orchard by illegal aliens--only to call a Mexican-American sheriff who empathizes when I show him the evidence of Spanish names and addresses on bills and letters scattered among the trash. So far I have caught more than 15 illegal dumpers, all Mexican, in the act. In the last 20 years, four cars piloted by intoxicated illegal aliens have veered off the road into our vineyard, causing thousands of dollars in unrecompensed damage. The drivers simply limped away and disappeared. The police sighed, “No license, no insurance, no registration” (“the three noes”), and towed out their cars.

Yet I also walk through vineyards at 7 AM in the fog and see whole families from Mexico, hard at work in the cold--while the native-born unemployed of all races will not--and cannot--prune a single vine. By natural selection, we are getting some of the most intelligent and industrious people in the world, people who have the courage to cross the border, the tenacity to stay--and, if not assimilated, the potential to cost the state far, far more than they can contribute.

On Monday, the Heritage Foundation attempted to calculate the costs and benefits of the Senate bill, which would--after some perfunctory efforts at border security--legalize the eleven million illegal immigrants in the country today. On balance, the study found, the Senate bill would add $6.3 trillion to our national debt, after accounting for $3.1 trillion in tax revenues that the newly-legalized would start contributing.

Criticism of the Heritage study was rapid, and evidently coordinated. It was also overzealous. My friend Jen Rubin claimed, in a roundup of conservative responses to the study, that Heritage "sees trillions in cost and no benefits from immigration reform." If that were true, the price tag would have been $9.4 trillion. A more valid criticism was that Heritage did not adequately account for the economic growth immigrants generate.

The question of costs and benefits is in many ways a proxy for a debate about how legalizing eleven million illegal immigrants--and welcoming the millions more that may take advantage of the Senate bill's loophole-ridden security provisions--will shift the balance of our laws, politics, and culture. Similar anxieties attended previous waves of immigration--but they were legal immigrants, and often eager to assimilate.

There are immigration reforms that would likely enjoy broad bipartisan support--and not just on security, but on issues such as streamlining the process for skilled immigrants. Much of the disagreement is about Mexican immigrants in particular--not because of racism or xenophobia but because the Senate bill takes as given a policy that amounts to importing parts of a developing country whose problems may be intractable.

Polls show that Americans broadly support a "path to citizenship" for those illegal immigrants already here--provided it is the last time we have to create one. After years of non-enforcement, no one trusts the Senate--or the government generally--to follow through on that promise. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)--who supports immigration reform in theory--has suggested a 5-year trial for security measures, to precede legalization. 

The "Gang of Eight" bill ignores that eminently sensible suggestion. It is now being rushed through the Senate--the good reforms along with the bad--to satisfy political opportunism rather than economic or humanitarian necessity. 

The bill's defenders like to cite the famous Emma Lazarus quote at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor...". 

But it does not say "all," and it is written in English.


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