The Bipartisan Crackdown on Immigrants

In the 1980s, many prominent conservatives spoke openly in favor of liberalizing immigration. It was Ronald Reagan, after all, who was responsible for the United States’s last mass amnesty. The left was often skeptical about immigrants. Unionists opposed the free labor competition. Environmentalists and population controllers were among the most vocal advocates of restrictionism.

The politics of the 1990s appeared to be different. California passed Proposition 187, which cut illegal aliens off many state services—an initiative supported by voters who wanted to see the immigrants shut out as much as by those who objected to the illicit government spending. The rights of aliens to due process took a major beating in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, supported by most congressional Republicans and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The restrictionist campaign of Pat Buchanan got lots of attention, and, into the next decade, among the several betrayals by Bush and the mainline GOP cited by rightwingers was their supposed commitment to open borders and amnesty.

Now President Obama boasts of having cracked down on the border. He wants a “comprehensive immigration” reform proposal, and is citing the dramatic increase in deportations and drug interdiction on his watch as evidence that now is time to pursue such a proposal. Undoubtedly, Republicans are fearful of moving too far toward liberalization, as they often have to prove to their base supporters how tough they are on the subject.

I must say I’ve never been very convinced by this idea that both parties are “soft” on immigration. To the contrary, as with most other excuses for increasing police power—drugs, terrorism, crime—both parties tend to play up fears and support a burgeoning surveillance state.

Sure, most politicians bow to political correctness enough to say that “we are a nation of immigrants” and to talk about how great immigration is for the United States. But most, also, seem to draw a major distinction between those who cross the border legally and those who do so without Washington’s permission.

The two parties have slightly different rhetorical emphasis, but they both favor government action to restrict immigration. The conservatives want more fences and militarized cops or even soldiers on the border. The liberals tend to focus on the supposedly predatory businessmen  who dare to hire undocumented workers. They want more spying on corporate America. Both factions have favored the National ID card as a measure to keep the huddled masses from taking the jobs of the native-born.

But what about the moral issues involved? If someone wishes to cross the border to come into the United States, either to visit, to move, to work, or to lounge around on his cousin’s couch, where is the moral authority of the government to get in the way? It appears to me that this is a clear cut issue. Now, some will say that a nation is nothing without its laws. I would ask if they would defend every single law of the United States (to say nothing of the other nations), or whether if in fact some of those laws are immoral and ought to be repealed, their violators pardoned. Some will say that a nation is nothing without borders in particular. Yet the United States did not have any major restrictions on immigration until the late 19th century—around the same time that America began fully abandoning what made it unique among nations to become just another imperialistic centrally managed leviathan as were all the nations of the Old World from which no small part of America’s population had fled, hoping to find a better climate for liberty here in the U.S. Immigration controls were part of the Progressive agenda, along with business regulations, alcohol prohibition, welfare programs, criminal justice reforms and perpetual war abroad.

It is particularly rich for the United States to wish to enforce its borders against peaceful immigrants when it does not seem to respect the borders of other countries at all as it concerns national security policy. Obama claims the right to go into any country, find someone he has determined is an enemy combatant, and summarily execute him. The president does not appear to respect the borders of Pakistan. Why should some poor laborer respect the United States’s borders with Mexico? Of course, this is an unfair parallel, as the laborer has no realistic prospect of enforcing an alien jurisdiction in this country, and is most likely not going to kill innocent civilians with drone attacks, unlike the U.S. president. American nationalists hysterically worry about Muslims coming to the U.S. and imposing Sharia law. I’m much more afraid of Obama’s law—a law that he does in fact impose throughout much of the world.

Indeed, if borders have any legitimate purpose at all, it is to restrain governments, not people. But the U.S. government has never felt restrained by its borders. Quite the reverse. For centuries, U.S. politicians have pushed to expand the formal and informal boundaries of the United States so as to cover an ever larger section of the Earth’s surface. And then, somehow, the politicians complain that some poor worker might seek to enter this nation of immigrants and stolen land for the criminal goal of taking a rough job and helping his family survive.

Now, if it is true that no nation-state can function long without forcibly maintaining control over even thousands of miles of borders, then this is all the more reason to resent and oppose nation states. For there is simply no reason under the principles of basic morality and natural law that being born on one side of a line drawn on a map should mean you have more rights and liberties than being born on the other side. And yet, illegal aliens are detained in cruel conditions and sometimes forgotten about. They live in constant fear of the immigration authorities and thus cannot live as openly in the economy and community as they should be able to. They are separated from loved ones in their home countries by the caprices of the history of conquest. The very fact that some are proposing to turn them into second-class citizens is evidence that their situation is even worse than that of second-class citizens.

Illegal immigrants shouldn’t get welfare, but neither should anyone else. They shouldn’t have to pay taxes either (nor should anyone else). And perhaps they shouldn’t be granted citizenship, but in a free society, being a citizen shouldn’t matter much. If politicians want to keep them from voting, that is fine as far as it goes. But no actual rights should be deprived of someone due to their home address.

Obama’s position on immigration is not liberal and even worse is the position of those who find him to pander to immigrants. The proper position, the one that embodies American values in the best sense of the phrase: Let them stay. Let them in. Allow the market and communities to figure out the cultural and ethnic makeup of the country. As with all other social issues, the federal government cannot help but make the situation less humane and less civilized.

See also the Independent Institute’s open letter on immigration and Bob Higgs’s “The Difference Between and Illegal Immigrant and Me.”

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