After the passage of the Senate bill on immigration reform, which may or may not die in the House, I went back and reread some of my immigration columns from 2006 and 2007, when the last big bill came up. What is striking to me is that the basic facts and arguments haven’t really changed. What was pertinent then is pertinent now, especially in terms of the larger forces at play.
In April 2006, a look at the facts of immigration.
In November 2006, a survey of the immigration picture and some pushback against the Bush administration’s bill.
In May 2007, more on the Bush immigration bill, and an answer to the charge that those who oppose it support deportation.:
Here is the truth: America has never deported millions of people, and America will never deport millions of people. It’s not what we do. It’s not who we are. It’s not who we want to be. The American people would never accept evening news pictures of sobbing immigrants being torn from their homes and put on a bus. We wouldn’t accept it because we have hearts, and as much as we try to see history in the abstract, we know history comes down to the particular, to the sobbing child in the bus. We don’t round up and remove. Nor should we, tomorrow, on one of our whims, grant full legal status and a Cadillac car. We take it a day at a time. We wait and see what’s happening. We do the small discrete things a nation can do to make the overall situation better. For instance: “You commit a violent crime? You are so out of here.” And, “Here, let me help you learn English.”
Let’s take time and find out if the immigrants who are here see their wages click up and new benefits kick in as the endless pool stops expanding. It would be good to see them gain. Let’s find out if it’s true that Americans won’t stoop to any of the jobs illegals do. I don’t think it is. Years ago I worked in a florist shop removing the thorns from roses. It was painful work and I was happy to do it, and I am very American. I was a badly paid waitress in the Holiday Inn on Route 3 in New Jersey.
The young will do a great deal, and not only the young. The dislike for Americans evinced by the Americans-won’t-do-hard-work crowd is, simply, astonishing, and shameful. It says more about the soft and ignorant lives they lived in Kennebunkport and Greenwich than it does about the American people.
In June 2007, an assault on the Bush administration’s bill, coupled with an argument for breaking immigration legislation down into a series of smaller bills, in part because no one will trust Washington with anything comprehensive. This was on target:
I suspect the White House and its allies have turned to name calling because they’re defensive, and they’re defensive because they know they have produced a big and indecipherable mess of a bill—one that is literally bigger than the Bible, though as someone noted last week, at least we actually had a few years to read the Bible. The White House and its supporters seem to be marshalling not facts but only sentiments, and self-aggrandizing ones at that. They make a call to emotions—this is, always and on every issue, the administration’s default position—but not, I think, to seriously influence the debate.
They are trying to lay down markers for history. Having lost the support of most of the country, they are looking to another horizon. The story they would like written in the future is this: Faced with the gathering forces of ethnocentric darkness, a hardy and heroic crew stood firm and held high a candle in the wind. It will make a good chapter. Would that it were true!
If they’d really wanted to help, as opposed to braying about their own wonderfulness, they would have created not one big bill but a series of smaller bills, each of which would do one big clear thing, the first being to close the border. Once that was done — actually and believably done — the country could relax in the knowledge that the situation was finally not day by day getting worse. They could feel some confidence. And in that confidence real progress could begin.
I’ll throw in a column from three years ago. In May 2010, I looked at the logic of certain states’ attempts to control the border, in the absence of a credible federal commitment. This is still acutely true:
Every state and region has its own facts and experience. In New York, legal and illegal immigrants keep the city running: They work hard jobs with brutal hours, rip off no one on Wall Street, and do not crash the economy. They are generally considered among the good guys. I’m not sure New Yorkers can fairly judge the situation in Arizona, nor Arizonans the situation in New York.
But the larger point is that Arizona is moving forward because the government in Washington has completely abdicated its responsibility. For 10 years—at least—through two administrations, Washington deliberately did nothing to ease the crisis on the borders because politicians calculated that an air of mounting crisis would spur mounting support for what Washington thought was appropriate reform—i.e., reform that would help the Democratic and Republican parties.
Both parties resemble Gordon Brown, who is about to lose the prime ministership of Britain. On the campaign trail this week, he was famously questioned by a party voter about his stand on immigration. He gave her the verbal runaround, all boilerplate and shrugs, and later complained to an aide, on an open mic, that he’d been forced into conversation with that “bigoted woman.”
He really thought she was a bigot. Because she asked about immigration. Which is, to him, a sign of at least latent racism.
The establishments of the American political parties, and the media, are full of people who think concern about illegal immigration is a mark of racism. If you were Freud you might say, “How odd that’s where their minds so quickly go, how strange they’re so eager to point an accusing finger. Could they be projecting onto others their own, heavily defended-against inner emotions?” But let’s not do Freud, he’s too interesting. Maybe they’re just smug and sanctimonious.
The American president has the power to control America’s borders if he wants to, but George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not and do not want to, and for the same reason, and we all know what it is. The fastest-growing demographic in America is the Hispanic vote, and if either party cracks down on illegal immigration, it risks losing that vote for generations.
But while the Democrats worry about the prospects of the Democrats and the Republicans about the well-being of the Republicans, who worries about America?
No one. Which the American people have noticed, and which adds to the dangerous alienation—actually it’s at the heart of the alienation—of the age.
In the past four years, I have argued in this space that nothing can or should be done, no new federal law passed, until the border itself is secure. That is the predicate, the common sense first step. Once existing laws are enforced and the border made peaceful, everyone in the country will be able to breathe easier and consider, without an air of clamor and crisis, what should be done next. What might that be? How about relax, see where we are, and absorb. Pass a small, clear law—say, one granting citizenship to all who serve two years in the armed forces—and then go have a Coke. Not everything has to be settled right away. Only controlling the border has to be settled right away.
Instead, our national establishments deliberately allow the crisis to grow and fester, ignoring public unrest and amusing themselves by damning anyone’s attempt to deal with the problem they fear to address.
Why does the federal government do this? Because so many within it are stupid and unimaginative and don’t trust the American people. Which of course the American people have noticed.
If the federal government and our political parties were imaginative, they would understand that it is actually in their interests to restore peace and order to the border. It would be a way of demonstrating that our government is still capable of functioning, that it is still to some degree connected to the people’s will, that it has the broader interests of the country in mind.
The American people fear they are losing their place and authority in the daily, unwinding drama of American history. They feel increasingly alienated from their government. And alienation, again, is often followed by deep animosity, and animosity by the breaking up of things. If our leaders were farsighted not only for themselves but for the country, they would fix the border.