Immigration, Obama and the Fate of America
On a broiling Tuesday in El Paso, America’s quintessential border town, President Obama spoke for half an hour about that thorniest and stubbornest of social issues: illegal immigration. A vocal crowd of Obamaphiles braved the West Texas heat and sunshine to see the president, who defended his administration’s border record, knocked the opposition and outlined a semi-tough but fundamentally generous-spirited immigration policy.
I wouldn’t expect Obama to endorse the idea of rounding up America’s 11-20 million illegal immigrants for immediate deportation, and of course he didn’t. (It’s worth noting, though, that the Obama administration sent nearly 400,000 illegals back to their homelands during the 2010 fiscal year.) Still, Obama was adamant about recognizing illegal immigration as illegal, something his friends on the left refuse to contemplate. It is, after all, a sign of progressive street cred to avoid the dreaded “I” word, and Obama didn’t avoid it. “The presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally,” he said, to his credit.
If Obama had his way, he’d send our illegal immigrants to the back of the waiting line. Those who expect to continue living here would have to register, learn English and pay taxes (assuming they earn enough to pay taxes). Then, and only then, would we consider them for citizenship. We’d also crack down on businesses that hire illegals, eliminating the vast underground economy that offers bare subsistence to undocumented workers and depresses wages for everyone else.
Fair enough, right? Almost seems like the ideal moderate solution, doesn’t it?
I’m not so sure. Under Obama’s policy, we’d essentially be stuck with all the millions of illegal immigrants who aren’t nefarious criminals. We’d accept them, willingly or begrudgingly, into our family and hope they feel inclined to assimilate.
Here’s my concern. Will a growing immigrant population in the tens of millions, all originating from the same culture and fluent in the same language (which we’ve foolishly enshrined alongside English as our unofficial second tongue) willingly become full-fledged Norteamericanos? Will they celebrate the Fourth of July, make pilgrimages to Independence Hall and honor the memory of George Washington? Or, given their abundant rates of immigration and reproduction, will they simply be pushing the northern boundary of Latin America up toward Maine and the Great Lakes? Will our country be speaking Spanish before the current century is out? Will tacos finally replace burgers as our artery-clogging fast food of choice?
I have to confess that the great Latino incursion brings out my inner reactionary, as it does for many less moderate souls. Why? Because I hate to see cheating rewarded. Because the new immigrants so often avoid income taxes but readily demand our social services. Because that demand is stretching our treasuries to the breaking point. Because, at bottom, I don’t want America to change beyond recognition. I don’t want us to become another Latin American republic. We already have plenty of those in the Western Hemisphere.
It’s not that I’m against change per se, just sweeping and irreversible change. I’m a moderate, after all. Any prospect of a radical ethnolinguistic transformation of the U.S. unsettles me and makes me melancholy; it wouldn’t matter if the new horde spoke Spanish or Ukrainian. I feel almost like a Wampanoag chieftain watching wave after wave of English settlers arrive on the shores of my land.
But what about America’s rich history of immigration, you ask. It was immigrants who made America the bustling epicenter of progress that we behold today. True enough… but those immigrants came to us from dozens of nations, spoke dozens of languages and aspired to participate fully in the great American experiment. They made America sing with optimism and vitality.
Obama sounded that note in his El Paso speech, of course, and he cleverly tied the immigration issue to the fortunes of America’s suffering middle class:
So one way to strengthen the middle class in America is to reform the immigration system so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else. I want incomes for middle-class families to rise again. I want prosperity in this country to be widely shared. I want everybody to be able to reach that American dream. And that’s why immigration reform is an economic imperative.
And reform will also help to make America more competitive in the global economy. Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities.
But then our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States. Instead of training entrepreneurs to stay here, we train them to create jobs for our competition. That makes no sense. In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can attract, all the talent we can get to stay here to start businesses — not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contribution will benefit all Americans.
Look at Intel, look at Google, look at Yahoo, look at eBay. All those great American companies, all the jobs they’ve created, everything that has helped us take leadership in the high-tech industry, every one of those was founded by, guess who, an immigrant.
What the president neglected to mention was that those earth-shakers were legal immigrants. He also assumed an equivalence among Asian, European and Latino immigrants, which is the appropriate liberal attitude to assume. But any cold-blooded neutral observer would note, not so liberally, that Asia and Europe typically send us their best and brightest while Latin America has been sending us its most desperate.
It’s a hard and even cruel distinction to make… after all, we don’t want to submit immigrants to the equivalent of college boards before we grant them entry. But we have to recognize that America is already in a state of decline. Our middle class is dwindling, thanks in part to the financial meltdown of 2008 and the chronic outsourcing of jobs by American corporations. At the same time, our underclass is growing by leaps and bounds. Eventually we’ll reach the tipping point: the middle class will no longer be able to support the underclass, and all of us will be sliding down the long chute to oblivion.
As our federal deficit soars to truly hair-raising levels, we probably need to start recognizing the difference between immigrants who would contribute to our society and immigrants who would burden it. It’s a tough and almost un-American stance to take, but we need to take it for our own survival. It’s not a simple question of ethnicity, either; many Latino immigrants can and do make valuable contributions once they enter the U.S.
Maybe the answer is simply to make America less appealing as a destination for impoverished illegal immigrants. Even President Obama, for all his idealistic rhapsodizing over the aspirations of immigrants, proposed just such a solution to America’s border problem:
The most significant step we can now take to secure the borders is to fix the system as a whole so that fewer people have the incentive to enter illegally in search of work in the first place.
Well said, Mr. President. Now let’s do it.