Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
No policy debate is more filled with dishonesty and duplicity than immigration. The whine of political axes being ground is continually drowned out by Emma Lazarus sentimentalism, “we’re a nation of immigrants” clichés, promiscuous virtue-signaling, and the current weepy melodramas of children “ripped from their mother’s arms.” The whole sordid business exists, of course, to perfume some simple truths: Leviathan Dems want more voters and more dependents of the entitlement-industrial complex; Wall Street Republicans want plentiful cheap labor. The only thing missing are the facts about the reality of immigration both illegal and legal.
Start with imprecise numbers. We are told that there are currently 11 million illegal aliens in the U.S. Others say it’s closer to 20 to 25 million. The point is, nobody knows. We do know that close to a third of federal inmates are illegals. But we don’t know much about the rest, except for those illegal alien “dreamers” on television lamenting how they have to “live in the shadows.” We don’t know the extent of the costs to taxpayers of illegal immigration, even as we are told by amnesty supporters that they are net contributors to the economy through payroll and sales taxes. But they don’t tell us if that sum subtracts the $26 billion sent back to Mexico. We do know that taxpayers spend $2 billion a year to provide medical services to illegal aliens just in emergency room visits. According to Christopher Conover, state and local circumventions of federal prohibitions against health care for illegals are indirectly costing taxpayers $17 billion a year in care for illegal aliens. And that’s just health care. Some estimates put the total cost of illegal aliens at $89 billion, while others go as high $135 billion.
People who do not live among concentrations of illegal aliens can easily dispute these estimates, even though they’re based on government data bases. Nor do they recognize the damage to the quality of life in communities filled with large numbers of people from different cultures, values, and mores. They don’t get that the “broken windows” theory of policing applies to immigration as well. Violent crimes reflect a larger disregard for the law seen in violations of housing, animal, garbage, and sanitation regulations, or violations of traffic laws on DUIs, driving without a license, and hit-and-runs. Only a fraction of these violations leads to arrests or fines. Law enforcement often do not even bother to cite offenders or search for them, since they know the system will spit them back out, given the lack of resources to prosecute and incarcerate offendeers. Then there’s the impact on public services like schools and hospitals and emergency rooms, where staff consume time tending to people who can’t speak English and who use the emergency room as their primary care physician. This degradation of a community that follows such daily disorder cannot always be quantified, but it has serious consequences. You have to live with it to really grasp the extent of this problem.
But few of the people who agitate for open borders or blanket amnesties have had that experience. That makes it easier for them to rely on dishonest generalizations laced with sentiment and emotion in order to support their policy prescriptions. The same evasion of fact applies to the practical details of legalizing tens of millions of people about whom we know very little. In most proposals, the bar is pretty low for letting serial law-breakers stay. In some plans, two or three misdemeanors will not lead to deportation, or stand in the way of getting the gift of American citizenship. These apologists think that breaking the law by sneaking over the border, driving drunk or without insurance, and using a false IDs to get government benefits are no big deal, nor are a warning sign about the character and values of the people who break these laws.
The worse distortions, however, come not just from a lack of reliable information or data, but from the fairy tales and pleasing myths proponents of lax immigration peddle. “We are all immigrants” is a half-truth at best, and a banal historical fact that doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, a bipartisan bad habit meant to distract voters from the failures of our indiscriminate immigration laws and policies. Correcting these dysfunctions caused by our porous border is a separate issue from how we decide whom we should allow in through a legal process.
Then there are the ridiculously false categories we trade in that ignore the great diversity of cultures, languages, religions, mores, and social habits––some compatible with ours, some not–– lying behind a meaningless word like, say, “Hispanic.” Some of the Bush clan’s experience with mostly Caucasian Cubans teaches them very little about immigrants from southern Mexico or Guatemala or Honduras. Even people from the same nation are not all the same. Mexico, for example, is divided by social class and race. A Mexican national can be a Caucasian, a mestizo, or an Indian, differences that in Mexico and the Mexican diaspora carry different social connotations and status. An immigrant from the Mexican state of Sonora or Monterrey will not necessarily speak the same language as an Indian from Oaxaca.
Finally, differences of culture are seldom acknowledged by proponents of unfettered immigration. And when people do try to discuss them, they are dismissed as “racists” or “xenophobes,” wicked people who hate “diversity” and want to cling to their threatened “white privilege.” We should not allow this duplicitous and simplistic argument to stand. Cultural differences are real, and include everything from the treatment of women to attitudes towards the law. Moreover, these traditions and conventions are often incompatible with the host countries’. But rather than acknowledge those differences and take them into account when deciding whom we think can assimilate to our culture and benefit it, we pretend that they’re all the same, their different languages and complexions providing a pleasing “diversity” donned by people who think and believe and act just like us. All they need to be an American is a citizenship and access to government services.
And that’s the biggest lie of all. Before the Sixties, immigration worked in this country because the price of admission was to assimilate to American culture, and to discard, at least in public life, those traditions or values that contradicted American political and social habits and beliefs. One could opt out of that process, out of loyalty to or nostalgia for the old country, but that meant accepting that one would be handicapped to a certain degree in taking full advantage of the opportunities of America.
The better choice was to learn English, American history, American historical and civic heroes, and most importantly, the American creed embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And in word and deed you had to make them your first loyalty. The space for honoring your home country was civil society: churches, ethnic associations, festivals, recipes, dances, and other traditions and mores some of which may be incompatible with America’s. But in the political square, those traditions and the beliefs had to be set aside, and certainly couldn’t be allowed to colonize and weaken the unum that is necessary for making a political community out of so many pluribus.
That model, of course, was rejected by the rise of identity grievance politics predicated on the belief that America was an oppressor. Increasing indiscriminate immigration, as the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act did by implementing policies such as chain migration, was one way to atone for America’s geopolitical sins by transforming its traditional character. In the process, it also increased the rolls of Democrats and enlarged the pool of cheap labor. Multiculturalism and “diversity” were the ideologies masking these political goals to transform America by changing what it means to be an American. Assimilation now became a wicked degradation of these vibrant, more authentic cultures by inflicting upon them a dehumanizing capitalism and pernicious American exceptionalism. And assimilation deprived the left of the future cadres of the revolution.
It hasn’t quite work out that way, of course. The power of American freedom, opportunity, and prosperity has still inspired immigrants to assimilate, most by the third generation. But the role of assimilation in inculcating the American ideal has been weakened in the university and popular culture, which has created a hypocritical cohort of those who have benefited materially from the American dream, yet endorse an artificial ethnic identity founded on grievance against America’s sins, and demands for various forms of reparations. Thus the monstrous hypocrisy and ingratitude of people who wave the flag of a country many of them or their parents risked their lives to leave, and to which most never, ever want to return.
Though weakened, assimilation works today in spite of the fashionable rejection of the traditional narratives of what comprises American identity. That’s why the progressives are so eager to keep the floodgates open, and are angry over Trump’s reforms. They sense that over time the persistence of assimilation will produce voters whose politics resemble that of most American voters: roughly divided between Democrat and Republican, progressive and conservative.
Ignorance of the facts and costs, along with the duplicitous narratives of immigration, are just a few of the impediments to reforming our immigration policies. But most of the time all we hear are lies told to protect a political interest. This political alliance between vote-mongers and cheap-labor-mongers makes sealing the border, and rejecting the serially failing “comprehensive” immigration reform, the necessary first steps to returning to the old model of legal immigration and vigorous assimilation that helped make America great.