Anti-immigration conservatives are questioning whether extending amnesty to illegals would have any political pay off for the GOP among Hispanics. And if they keep conducting the discussion as if Hispanics are deaf, there certainly won’t be.
A case in point is last week’s National Review Online editorial that Matt Welch blogged here. It wrapped every half-truth and ugly stereotype of Hispanics into grammatical sentences and then insisted in its headline that amnesty would be (politically) “pointless.”
“Illegal immigration is one of the few domains in which the authorities entrusted with enforcing the law feel obliged to negotiate the most concessionary terms and conditions with those who are breaking it, as though law enforcement were an embarrassing inconvenience,” it averred.
How out-of-touch must the NRO writers be if they think that the power in the illegal-government relationship is on the illegals side? But setting aside the patently absurd notion that the Joe Arpaios of the world would negotiate with helpless Hispanics about anything, is amnesty some kind of exotic practice rarely ever used, as the NRO suggests? Not really. Amnesty has a long and honorable history in the service of all kinds of causes, not just immigration.
Amnesty was used in a big way after the Civil War when the victorious Unionists gave Confederate forces a pass from prosecution. In the 1980s, amnesty for tax scofflaws was a popular tool of state governments to encourage tax compliance. Kansas used it to get owners of banned pit bulls into compliance with the law. And governments elsewhere have used amnesty to prod their citizens to turn in their guns, including the British government with the Irish Republican Army.
To be sure, people have an obligation to obey the rule of law. But the rule of law also has an obligation to be rational. And the need for amnesty is often a sign that the law is broken because the cost of enforcing it becomes more costly -- both socially and monetarily -- than suspending it.
That’s why amnesty doesn’t strike most people as inherently wrong. It is no skin off their back if the legal standing of some people is restored when no one else is harmed. No one would support amnesty for murderers or rapists because that would mean withholding redress from their victims — and potentially creating more. But no Unionist was disadvantaged when Confederate soldiers were exempted from treason in the interest of national healing. Likewise, there is no downside to anyone of extending amnesty to illegals and giving them a chance to build stable and secure lives — which is why more than 60 percent of the public supports it. (And, no, it won’t be unfair to foreigners playing by the rules and waiting in line. Low-skilled immigrants, as opposed to every other kind, have no queue to wait in, as I noted here. That’s the real injustice)
But hyperventilating against amnesty was the kindest part of the NRO editorial. Here is what it said about Hispanics:
While many [Hispanics] are in business for themselves, they express hostile attitudes toward free enterprise in polls. They are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock. Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies.
In short, as Matt put it, as far as the NRO is concerned, Hispanics are “welfare sucking and politically hopeless.” The latter might turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but what about the former?
If NRO editors have ever visited California orchards or even stayed at a Marriott, they’d know that there is nothing more hardworking than a Mexican immigrant. Hispanics don’t come to America to trade a life drinking tequila by the cactus tree for one slouched on a couch watching TV while sipping coke and eating chipotle chips bought with food stamps. To the extent that they have a retirement plan, it is early death that an 18-hour, back-breaking work day would surely bring.
Indeed, according to a study by Dan Griswold for the Cato Institute, labor participation rates of foreign-born adults (67.9 percent) are higher than the native-born (64.1 percent). What’s more, this gap is even more pronounced with respect to men. About 80 percent of foreign-born men participate in the labor force — a full 10 percentage points higher than native-born ones. And the kicker: labor-force participation rates were highest of all among unauthorized men at 94 percent.
Conservatives claim that welfare use among Hispanics is higher than the rest of the population (which causes Hispanics, in turn, to vote for politicos who support a bigger welfare state). But that is an apples to oranges comparison. Indeed, as Griswold also notes, as Hispanics move into the lower class living at the poverty line, the native-born move into the middle class. That’s because cheap Mexican labor generates productivity gains that boosts real native wages and generates better-paying jobs for them. (For a fuller discussion of this point, go here.) “Even though the number of legal and illegal immigrants in the United States has risen strongly since the early 1990s, the size of the economic underclass has not,” points out Griswold. “In fact, by several measures the number of Americans living on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder has been in a long-term decline, even as the number of immigrants continues to climb.”
So the relevant comparison is not between welfare use by poor Hispanics and relatively well off native born. The relevant comparison is between welfare use (and voting behavior) by poor Hispanics and what welfare use (and voting behavior) would have been if the native born had continued to occupy the lower class. In other words, is it possible that Hispanic immigration might have actually lowered the cost of the welfare state?
That is the question that’ll need to be answered before one can claim that amnesty for Hispanics will mean an end of America and apple pie. But the answer is notoriously difficult to pin down because it is extremely hard to get sufficiently nuanced, micro-level data that breaks down welfare use by ethnic groups, income groups, and immigration status. (I know because Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh and I have been trying to do just that and running into all kinds of difficulties. A free lifetime Reason subscription for any PhD student willing to take this on as a dissertation project.)
But what’s the point in grappling with tough questions when nasty stereotypes work just fine. Yes, NRO?