The Immigration Crisis: It's the Fault of Bad Law

But not bad immigration law


As I write, the U.S. Senate is coming close to an agreement on an immigration law reform bill. The political scrum over immigration this season is far from over, though. That bill will then have to be reconciled with the House of Representatives' more draconian wall-building version.

In the end, it may well be that the most likely outcome, and the best for all the politicians involved (including President Bush, who has maintained an ambiguous position toward the conflicting proposals bouncing around the Senate this week) would be to let the whole matter peter out, unresolved, for another season.

At which point they can all try again, each side potentially strengthened—the pro-immigrant side by an impressive level of demonstrated public support, the anti-immigrant side, well, by horror over the level of demonstrated public support from brown-skinned people waving flags of other nations and seeming to want to refight Polk's War about who owns California anyway.

Ultimately, how many people waved which sort of flag, or how many years you can have been here illegally before you have to leave and come back, or what particular hoop you are asked to jump through by whatever law does eventually pass, will have little effect on the legal forces that make immigration a recurring and increasingly tedious American telenovela.

The solution to the legal crisis immigration represents won't come through immigration law itself, which again and again has proven itself useless at fully stemming the irresistible tides of human desire for a better life. No matter how much money is spent or how the law is jiggered, it is not immigration policy that has created unnecessary tears and strains in America's social order. Rather, the welfare state is at the root of any legitimate claim that immigration (legal or illegal) is an assault on the American nation. (There are plenty of illegitimate complaints, based merely on distaste for the often-imaginary hell of running into Spanish-speaking people in day-to-day life or seeing some flag not of your nation, but such complaints are not worthy of consideration.)

While writing this article, in a Hollywood neighborhood more Russian than Latino, I had two experiences with small gangs of Spanish-speaking probably-Mexicans. (I'm not as skilled as Latin Americans tend to be at distinguishing natives of one country from another.) They were two trios of men—one unloading lawnmowers and other gardening equipment from the back of a pickup truck (I apologize to McGruff the Crime Dog for not checking if their tag was expired) and the other walking out of the 7-11 a block away, with Big Gulps and hot dogs in their hands. Hands, indeed, that even a week ago might have been clutching a Mexican flag on an American street.

But they were now handing over American dollars, probably earned providing a service to an American, to an American 7-11, manned by people who spoke a language among themselves neither English nor Spanish. (I was able to get my own Big Gulp and chips from them regardless.) While I won't pretend my own personal anecdotes define the overall meaning of any mass social phenomenon—though anti-immigration forces seem to think every tale of an illegal immigrant killer is pure policy gold—I almost never see Hispanic beggars or street people in my relatively street-people-heavy section of Hollywood.

Without a welfare state, my experience today exemplifies the meaning and impact of immigrants. Any immigrant, legal or not, will tend to be a producer of some good an American wants to pay him or her for, and simultaneously a consumer of some good an American wants to sell. (The power and reach of Spanish-language media in L.A. shows supply clearly creating its own demand. Businesses can and do arise out of supplying the wants and needs of legal or illegal immigrants; what they directly pay in taxes or take in social services is no meaningful measure of what they are adding to or subtracting from the common weal; human beings are indeed the ultimate resource, green card or no.)

The free market, as it usually does, has created a system of mutually satisfactory interdependence, all of us serving each other and helping each other get what we want. The welfare state, in all its manifestations from medical care to schooling to pure giveaways, creates a negative sum game in which resources are forcibly redistributed making some a problem, or a perceived potential problem, to others, and allowing demagogues to obsess over precious "public" resources scarfed up by the invading Other.

As long as that system is around to breed resentment and anger—as well as counter-resentment and counter-anger such as that seen in the streets of L.A. of late—immigration will continue as a political crisis, no matter how many repeat cycles of jiggering with immigration law, or protesting it, we go through.

California's Proposition 187, attempting to limit the provision of government services to illegal immigrants, was indeed, whatever the motives of its supporters, in spirit on the right track to a world where any immigrant ought to be, and can be, welcome; one where they are pure contributors at the same time to their own well-being and to everyone else's as well. It's the only permanent and just solution to the immigration conundrum. But it involves a significant reduction in federal power, money, and authority, rather than an expansion of it. Strangely, it's a no-go in today's Washington.