Earlier this month was the birthday of Ayn Rand, the controversial philosopher and novelist, who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1926. Regardless of what one thinks of her ideas, there is no denying that she was a great American. When the American intelligentsia was playing footsie with Soviet communism, Rand unabashedly defended liberty and individual rights, America's core values, famously declaring: "[The] United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world."
But this proud naturalized American, who arguably did more than any contemporary figure to restore the faith of Americans in America, might have been hounded out of the country if one of our current crop of Republican hopefuls had been president when she arrived. Why? Because Rand lied and bent every rule to gain entry into the United States.
As a vehement anti-Bolshevist, she knew that she would die waiting in line if she applied for permission to permanently relocate to America, although that's exactly what she intended to do. Temporary tourist visas were easier to land, but only for those who could prove they didn't plan to settle here. So what did Rand do? She committed perjury. She convinced an American visa officer that she had a fiancé waiting for her in Russia whom she intended to marry after a six-month visit with her relatives in Chicago.
But Rand instead married an American citizen in 1929, gaining a path to citizenship. According to Mimi Gladstein's biography, Rand timed her wedding before her visa, which she had gotten extended, finally expired.
However, others doubt that Uncle Sam would have handed a three-year extension to a Russian passport holder, raising suspicions that Rand might have been—gasp!—an illegal immigrant when she got married.
Either way, in a morally healthy universe, this would be regarded as pretty minor stuff, the equivalent of someone speeding on a highway to reach an emergency room. But today we live in a world where a small band of immigration restrictionists have acquired an air of legitimacy by loudly repeating their views. They have created a false moral equivalence between serious criminals and petty visa violators. They wield words such as "illegal" and "law breaker" like assault weapons. They deploy an arsenal of tropes (such as "What part of illegal don't you understand?") to quash rational immigration reform. And they have turned "amnesty," which Ronald Reagan proudly embraced, into a four-letter word that conservative presidential contenders shun. (Congratulations, Rush Limbaugh.)
Indeed, the only candidate recommending something like amnesty is not Ron Paul—who, until recently, was touting every restrictionist canard and then some—but the rapidly fading Newt Gingrich. Unlike Mitt Romney, Gingrich is opposed to making life so miserable for illegals that they would "self-deport." And he doesn't think it would be practical to forcibly deport 11 million illegals out of the country, as Rick Santorum hints he does.
Gingrich wants to create local citizens' boards across the country that would review the applications of illegals in their communities and determine if they had sufficient ties to deserve permanent residency—not citizenship, mind you. This is hardly a workable idea (although it is hilarious to imagine how such a board would have reacted to Rand, a godless, childless, chain-smoking woman preaching the gospel of selfishness in a heavy Russian accent). But a party in which Gingrich's cockamamie plans are the most nuanced and compassionate has to ponder in which of Dante's circles its soul is stuck.
It's astonishing that not a single GOP candidate is willing to take on the restrictionists, even though a majority of conservative voters don't buy their arguments. According to a Fox News poll taken late last year, 57 percent of Republicans supported allowing "illegal immigrants" to stay and eventually qualify for citizenship. A previous Univision/Latino Decisions poll reported similar results.
Nor is this surprising. The restrictionist rhetoric is so out of whack with ordinary common sense that most people instinctively recoil from it. They sense that visa violations are victimless crimes that won't usher in anarchy if not zealously prosecuted. Murder is always and everywhere wrong; no one needs the government to make it so. That's not the case with an act like crossing the border, which is legal under one set of policies and illegal under another. Cubans escaping political oppression, for example, become legal the minute they set foot on American soil. But Mexicans fleeing economic oppression should be regarded as criminals forever?
Yes, every nation has the right to control its borders. But both liberal and illiberal immigration policies are consistent with that right. Precisely because there is something inherently arbitrary about where the line is set, lawmakers can't maintain a posture of absolutist intransigence regardless of the ground-level response. Just as unduly high levels of taxation encourage tax evasion, unduly tight immigration restrictions encourage illegal border crossings—not to mention illegal hiring. The Competitive Enterprise Institute's Alex Nowrasteh points out that conservatives would never make tax cutting conditional on first ending tax cheating. Yet they see no contradiction in demanding the erection of a Berlin Wall on the Rio Grande as a condition for immigration reform.
Something is grossly wrong when lawmakers, who are powerless to prevent individuals like 9/11 mastermind Mohammad Atta from entering the country, act like macho men against the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." It shouldn't take a John Galt to knock some sense into their heads.
Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior analyst and a columnist at The Daily, where this column originally appeared.