Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the national immigration debate. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
Immigration is likely to become the new theater of the culture wars because Arizona’s new immigration law has further nationalized the immigration issue. Illegal immigrants in the state would be more likely to move to nearby states like Texas and California, and especially to those cities where sanctuary ordinances have been passed. Since immigrants settle disproportionately in California, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois, we would expect these states to be most affected by Arizona’s new law.
Arizona is correct, then, that there can be no state solution to the illegal immigration problem. But that is not so say that the state is doing anything to alleviate the problem by taking things into its own hands. In fact, Arizona’s new law is only going to worsen the national problem.
What is missing in the contemporary debate is the asymmetry of support for legal sanctions against those who are here illegally, but not against those who hire illegally, namely businesses who hire illegal (and also lawyers and lobbyists who help them defend the conditions which make this possible). This puts the illegal immigrant in the worst of all worlds, harassed and harangued by the law, and in no position to bargain with prospective employers who are still relatively free to hire them at any price because of half-hearted enforcement of the Legal Arizona Workers Act. This puts downward pressure on wages, and even more native animus against illegal immigrants.
If Arizona is serious about controlling illegal immigration, it should proactively punish employers who hire illegals rather than focus its energies on a hit-and-miss strategy of authorizing law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of suspicious persons. This policy would then escape the “racial profiling” controversy because employers would have to check the immigration status of all potential employees (and not just those who look a certain way). It is somewhat disingenuous for Arizona to disproportionately target illegal immigrants but not legal citizens acting illegally, for at the very least this asymmetry about our tolerance of different kinds of illegality tells us that Arizona’s law isn’t purely about respect for the law qua law. Rather than focus on the supply of illegals, shouldn’t the state equally address the demand thereof?
The national immigration debate, which has currently centered on racial profiling, misses out on this central defect of federal immigration policy, which is that we focus too much on border security and not enough on the glaring fact that over a third of illegal immigrants became illegal because they over-stayed their visas, and the only reason why they could afford to do so was because they were able to find employment.
President Obama was wise, nevertheless, to have taken immigration reform off his agenda for this year, for if he hadn’t, Congress would have been forced to enact a quick-fix law that would have exacerbated the pathologies of our current immigration regime. In the long run, the Democratic party, the party more welcoming to immigrants has a competitive advantage; but in the medium run of one or two decades, the party advocating restriction is likely to win. The reason why is simple: until demographics change the constitution of today’s electoral majority, the native majority is strongly against lax federal laws toward immigration (as was the native majority in the last wave of mass immigration during the 1890s). When the problem comes to our own backyard (as it now will because of Arizona’s new law which will crowd out illegals to neighboring states), most people (70 percent in Arizona) tend to be supportive of draconian tactics against illegal immigrants. That means we are likely to continue to think of the problem as emanating at the border and from the marauding other, and not also by the collaborating insider.