A couple weeks ago, President Obama announced that he would disregard the Constitutional process and grant executive amnesty to over five million illegal immigrants living in the states, surprising exactly no one. Equally predictable was the conservative uproar, and the ensuing accusations of racism from the Left.
Much of the conservative reaction rightly centered on President Obama’s executive end-around on Congress, but the back and forth of “you’re buying votes with American jobs!” and “you’re a racist!” are again saturating politics the way Kirk Cameron saturates Christian filmmaking.
Unfortunately, the bottom line of the immigration problem is often lost behind soundbytes and hyperbole. While I can certainly sympathize with the frustration over the President’s refusal to secure the border and his blatant breach of the separation of powers, I have to say that we as conservatives may be focusing on the wrong piece of the puzzle when we talk about the dreadful woes of the unwashed hordes of immigrants bringing drugs, disease, and Democrat votes to our country. Worse yet, it plays into the Left’s racist caricature of conservatism. When we harp on the problem of illegal immigration in terms that single out those streaming across our southern border, most Americans are able to think of the nice Mexican family down the street and immediately judge that we just hate Hispanics. And once they’ve applied the “racist” tag to us, there’s no getting that stink off. In fact, the more we protest, the more the accusation sticks in their minds.
There’s a single realization that needs to sink in with conservatives for us to begin to change the national dialogue on the topic:
The problem with amnesty, is not amnesty.
You heard me right. The fact that millions of immigrants are pouring across our southern border does not have to equal disaster for either the Republican Party or the nation as a whole. Typically, conservatives are good at winning the “everyone deserves a slice” vs “grow the pie” debate, but for some reason we’ve forsaken that argument in discussing immigration. There’s nothing wrong with calling out President Obama’s lawlessness and pointing to the problems at the border, but those arguments amount to prevent defense: it allows the other side to keep burning us with short passes like “why do you want to separate families?” and leaves us trying to deny liberal premises rather than offering a vision of real immigration reform – which is absolutely necessary in our country.
Too often we flippantly dismiss the immigration problem as though there are not real-life, heart-and-soul people affected by our backward and convoluted immigration system. Since I became involved in politics (as peripherally as it may be) the top request I’ve fielded from people in my circle of friends and family, sounds like this: “My (insert relation here) is facing deportation despite being a good person and following the law, do you know someone in government who can help?” I should also mention that in each case, this request has come from conservative Christians, not liberal Democrats.
Looking back at American history, immigration really isn’t even a close to what it used to be, and legal status used to be much easier to attain. During the height of American immigration between 1900 and 1910, almost 10 million foreign nationals poured into the US, and that’s when our total population as a nation was only about a quarter of what it is now. But somehow the influx of immigrants never ruined the economy or resulted in job shortages. Conversely, that population, amounting to nearly 10% of our total population by the year 1910, helped turn America into the economic and industrial superpower that it is today.
What happened? Why is large-scale immigration (whether legal or illegal – paperwork has little to do with economic value) such a threat to American life and business now?
In short, the New Deal happened. In the 1930s, FDR sparked life into the economic Frankenstein twins of social entitlements and the minimum wage. These two pillars of socialism were sold to an American people reeling from the Great Depression as a compassionate form of government assistance to the needy. But one of the nasty side effects of the entitlement state was that it fundamentally changed the relationship of the immigrant to the rest of the citizenry. Due to the fact that most immigrants relocate due to some form of distress in their home country, few have many assets to start off with, and many struggle to build a new life. Prior to public assistance programs, this prompted them to form tight-knit communities with their fellow-immigrants, or to work with churches and private charities here in the states. Most of all, it forced them to take work anywhere they could get it.
But since the advent of the welfare state, immigrants are increasingly viewed as a threat, due to the fact that many have learned to work the entitlement system to their advantage.
In the absence of entitlements and a government-mandated minimum wage, the private sector moves to absorb this new labor force, which then helps reduce the cost of production, thereby lowering prices for everyone. If we would remove the incentive to stay at home and collect a check while not producing any economic movement, immigrants – whether legal or illegal – would find a much warmer welcome waiting for them. But our current wage and entitlement policies hurt both the immigrants themselves and the American businesses waiting to hire them, and, as Milton Friedman so astutely pointed out, the minimum wage also subsidizes discrimination for those who are legitimately disposed toward it.
Take Joe Immigrant, who comes across the pond with nothing but the shirt on his back. Joe has few relationships, few skills, little education, and barely speaks English (despite his remarkably normal, English-sounding name). Joe sets about looking for work and runs into Mary Business-Owner, who happens to need someone to clean her store, but has little money to spare. In a free market, Mary has two options: continue cleaning the store herself, which cuts into her time and takes her away from more important duties, or offer to hire Joe at an agreed-upon wage. Any wage. Even $4/hr. From her perspective, that’s what a store-cleaner is worth – if she had to pay more, she may as well do it herself. From Joe’s perspective, $4/hr is far better than $0/hr, and he’s excited to take the chance to sustain himself while he learns skills, establishes relationships, and begins acclimating to his new home.
However, in the government-manipulated market we have today, Mary has no choice. She can’t afford to pay the required $7.25/hr, and therefore must tell him to keep moving as she continues cleaning the store herself. Worse yet, if Joe had to compete against Johnny Local applying for the same job, the minimum wage ensures that Joe has no chance of landing it. If he was able to offer his services at a lower rate than his competitor, Joe would force Mary to choose between her predisposition toward local, English-speaking workers, and her business’s bottom line. But if the law forces Mary to pay either worker the same rate, she will hire the worker whose attributes are more immediately valuable to her, 10 times out of 10. Poor Joe never stands a chance.
Which leaves him with only one option to sustain himself: welfare.
Now both Mary and Johnny find that they dislike and have become suspicious of Joe Immigrant. After all, they heard that he was living on handouts. They spend most of their time talking to each other in the store about how wrong it is that Joe gets to sit at home all day long and draw a paycheck, while they break their backs at work so that they can pay Joe’s bills.
Joe, tired of being treated like a slob and a thief, forms an immigrant-rights group and starts calling Mary and Johnny racists.
The immigration debate provides a unique opportunity for conservatives to challenge the liberal sacred cow of economic inequality, while at the same time pivoting away from the pointless and stupid discussion of whether or not conservatives are all racists. This is a discussion that deserves more time and attention than “turn off the magnet” quotables – it’s the root cause of the burgeoning racial and economic tension that the American Left continues to feed. As long as John Boehner and Co. have to deflect accusations of racism and bigotry, they’re never going to take up the mantle of the Gingrich-led ’94 Republicans and go on the attack against the welfare state that is unraveling the nation one impoverished household at a time.
It’s up to GOP leadership in the House and Senate to push the policies that conservatives want to see moved forward, but it’s up to us to frame the debate in such a way that Team Red can actually do more than hunker down behind denials and apologies.
The immigration issue is a more important issue than either the Left or the Right supposes, and far too important to become just another part of the old, tired, and rhetorically-abused debate over race relations. Not only is immigration integral to our history as a nation, it’s also integral to the growth of our nation – now more than ever.
America is still a cultural melting pot that offers opportunity to every hopeful who sets foot on our shores. Over Thanksgiving, I was blessed to spend time with some of my older relatives and hear the story of my great-grandfather, who fled Lithuania to escape the advance of Soviet troops in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. His decision to come to America is the reason I can sit behind this computer and exercise my first amendment rights all over the blogosphere. My fathers didn’t come here for free health care, free education, free food or free housing. They came for freedom. Let’s make sure future generations of immigrants to our country can say the same.
We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.