Few people want to be seen as racist or xenophobic. Few people want to risk being on the wrong side of history. This means that a broad swath of decent Americans who are uncomfortable about rewarding and encouraging illegal immigration keep their views to themselves. In recent years, immigration advocates have moved to calling the millions of people who cross the southern border or arrive on our shores illegally, simply “immigrants” as if there were no other path to American citizenship. They draw an equivalency between the tired poor who arrived at Ellis Island after applying and waiting for the privilege, and those who paid criminals to falsify visas, modify stolen passports, or sneak them into cargo shipments.
Do nation states have the right to regulate immigration and citizenship? It could be argued that human beings and even other species should be free to live where they will. But unless and until that agreement is reached and we find ways to adapt to the implications, there are solid, non-racist reasons to be concerned about granting citizenship to those who arrive in the United States under false pretexts. I would argue that there are also reasons for every American citizen to want thoughtful policies that limit the flow of even legal immigration and that are enforced rather than ignored.
Growth doesn’t equal family prosperity. Economists and pundits talk as if growth and prosperity were synonymous. By this accounting if immigrants produce or buy anything, immigration is a net positive. That is because major economic indicators like GDP measure aggregate wealth rather than what we care about—the wellbeing of individual families. Parents want to provide for their children: young people just want a decent start in life. If we remember what the economy is for, to promote well-being, then we are confronted with the fact that more money divided between more people doesn’t necessarily make individuals better off. In fact, GDP can grow when quality of life is declining.
America’s savings account is being subdivided. Americans have a kind of inherited wealth that people in most countries don’t share—our vast natural assets. Natural resources are like a savings account, one that we can keep drawing interest off of for generations if we are careful. So are the infrastructure investments that have been made by our forefathers. But like any inheritance or bank account, the more people have to share it the less each has. Our inheritance is finite, and whether we are talking about forests or minerals or farmland or natural recreational attractions and wonders like the Grand Canyon, at some point dividing them among more people means each American child inherits a little less of the vast natural bank account that has fed generations of prosperity.
Crowding deteriorates quality of life. Not long ago one of my friends, a physician, bought a little row house with just enough room for her two kids. It was about the same size and quality as the houses that company towns built for their workers 100 years ago—only farther from town, because she couldn’t afford to live in close. She’s not alone. White collar professionals pay exorbitant prices for houses that once belonged to mechanics. Mechanics are forced to make long drives on stop-and-go freeways. What has changed? Well, a lot of things, but the bottom line is that crowding drives up land and house prices and means that we all have to pay more or drive farther and sit in more traffic and keep building more roads just to get home. And the price is real, even if we don’t usually measure it. Economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer found that a commuter who drives an hour each way has to earn 40 percent more to have the same level of life satisfaction as a non-commuter.
Economics are changing. In the late 1970’s, China’s southern neighbors were promoting high birthrates, encouraging women to produce foot soldiers so that they could fend off the northern threat. But today winning a war depends on smart technology, not “cannon fodder,” and they have reversed course. They realized that the combination of large population and scarce resources was a disadvantage. Like warfare, economics are changing. Most jobs that were once done by human or nonhuman slaves are now done by machines. So are many of the jobs that were once done by economic foot soldiers. If we are to compete internationally and to thrive here, we don’t need more grunt labor, we need smarter, more efficient, more productive labor.
Rewarding bad behavior increases bad behavior. The amnesty that Ronald Regan granted to illegal immigrants sent a message around the world: Get to the United States—somehow, anyhow—and if you can just hold on long enough you will get to stay. The current round of conversations about “comprehensive” immigration reform proves the point. Right now illegal immigration is down because of economic conditions, but once conditions improve the message will once again echo loud and clear. All of the same arguments that have been made for why we should grant citizenship status to those who are already here now will be as relevant in the future as they are today. Rewarding illegal immigration now sets up conditions for repeated cycles of amnesty.
Cycles of poorly regulated immigration followed by amnesties disadvantage people who try to play by the rules. They reward an underbelly of traffickers and employers who rely on shady dealings and make honest competition virtually impossible in some sectors. They obscure important conversations about thoughtful, legal immigration, which can play a critical role in innovation, and in protecting human rights, both at home and abroad.
Each political party in its own way benefits from having more people at the bottom of the American economic pyramid. Democrats benefit because poor, powerless people tend to vote Left because of their need for a social safety net. Republicans benefit because well-heeled corporations who fund them benefit from a glut of laborers, which drives down wages and benefits. Immigrants in particular are often grateful for what they can get, and illegal immigrants are in no position to negotiate, which puts the bosses in the power position. This means that neither party—not the one that is scrabbling for votes at the bottom nor the one that has been bought by big business—can be trusted to represent the interests of ordinary middle-class and working class Americans in the current immigration debate. Nor can they be counted on to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that what serves the Democratic and Republican leadership and their corporate funders in the short-term may not serve our children and grandchildren.