Originally published in Official Artur Davis.com
The political right has more than its share of sins on immigration: the embrace of overly punitive restrictions in Alabama and Arizona that turn undocumented immigrants into a new social underclass; the lapse into culture-based arguments that can sound skeptical of multiculturalism in general; a weakness for schemes that punish children, like repealing birthright citizenship and opposition to nutrition subsistence programs for American born kids whose parents are undocumented; and a simplistic penchant to dismiss any strategy short of mass deportation as amnesty by another name. It’s an unappealing record that accounts partly for the surging movement of a socially conservative, faith- oriented Hispanic community into Democratic arms.
But it’s worth noting that the left has responded with its own immigration message that also seems engineered to compound the political divide over immigration. When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Arizona’s law this week, the Obama Administration’s central theme will be that states have no legal authority to add their own approaches to the patchwork of federal immigration laws—a sweeping assertion of federal power that is oblivious to Washington’s inability to legislate on the subject and that flagrantly contradicts liberal enthusiasm for states being aggressive and proactive on consumer enforcement and environmental regulation, on the theory that they are only supplementing and enforcing federal regulations.
Similarly, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has been caustic and personal in its attack on Senator Marco Rubio’s effort to revive the DREAM Act. Instead of saluting Rubio for the increasingly rare incident of defying his political base, the Democrats in the CHC have lambasted the Floridian for offering college graduating undocumenteds a streamlined pathway to guest visa status, but not to citizenship. To leave citizenship off the table, the CHC contends, is the work not of a potential deal-maker, but of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
In the same vein, Democrats fighting rearguard actions against Alabama’s law, and attempts to mimic it in Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi, have settled on a rhetorical claim that translates well on MSNBC and CNN but is tone-deaf to the local constituents whose sentiments will decide the fate of these bills. The in-state critics describe their opponents as thinly veiled, race-mongering zenophobes who have substituted Latinos for blacks as a political wedge.
So, for Democrats, the prospect of immigration reform seems to be something to be talked about, and not much more, or an eventuality that will have to wait for a Democratic congressional landslide, which might permit a bare-bones majority, partisan bill that would sharply and racially divide the country. It is worth considering what the outlines of a serious-minded immigration overhaul might really look like.
First, any serious immigration proposal must acknowledge that the illegal immigrant low-wage labor market is a human and economic disaster. It is no act of altruism toward the undocumented, but instead a cynical exploitation of unskilled, English-illiterate victims who can’t sue or advance a claim of abuse or discrimination in an American court, and who are ideal pawns for some of the most back-breaking industries in the American economy. Without buying into the dubious claims that tough immigration laws automatically make unemployment decline, its only common-sense that the losers in that artificial market include unskilled and distressed Americans whose competitive position is reduced to nothing. As a result, rather than glide over the labor provisions in laws like the Alabama statute, supporters of reform ought to be welcoming sanctions that punish the hiring of illegals, and they should see the merits in stalled federal proposals to mainline E-Verify.
Second, reform ought to acknowledge that giving citizenship preferences to illegals does undercut the lawful immigration process. Simplifying the current maze that governs applications for work permits, citizenship, and visas is rarely a priority of the political left–to the contrary, it is dismissed as a kind of sell-out, or worse, a backdoor to aid white or more affluent immigrants–but it should be. Certainly, a middle-ground approach like Rubio’s is a workable alternative to the all-or nothing version of the DREAM Act that couldn’t clear even a 59 seat Democratic Senate majority.
Third, and here the right has to bend, restrictive immigration laws should not be blunt instruments to weed out and stigmatize illegals. For the very good constitutional reason that a felony can’t be enacted in an ex post facto manner, that is, in a way that applies a law today to conduct that happened yesterday, the right’s enthusiasm for making illegal entry a felony has nothing to do with 13.5 million immigrants who only committed a misdemeanor when they crossed the border.
Therefore, the federal policy of limiting deportation to offenders of new laws, denying illegals government benefits but not threatening their daily functioning, is an entirely appropriate reflection of that misdemeanor status. It is an over-reach to try to gut the current rule of law by putting undocumenteds in an additional penalty box, one that is actually much harsher than the conditions even ex-felons face. By the way, that is the unavoidable, if not always understood effect of the sections of the Alabama law that originally precluded renting, transporting, or extending utility services to illegal immigrants. (In fact, it is in this limited context, when states create a sub-class of individuals who are uniquely marginalized, that the Obama Administration has its best case that at least some state laws actively thwart the existing federal standard instead of bolstering it through local enforcement).
It’s a given that liberals lack the political might for massive assimilation by citizenship of the illegal immigrant population, and just as clear that it would be the wrong outcome. It’s equally true that while conservatives have a strong edge on the issue in some states, and a partly winning legal argument at the high court, that getting their way has costs in a country that is becoming more multi-racial. In a climate where centrism is often bandied around as a cover for a liberal agenda, this is one issue where a pragmatic center genuinely does need to take hold.