Frank Fukuyama, no howling partisan, has tagged President Obama’s decision to circumvent Congress on immigration as a “bad call,” and while the President’s limited offer of a three-year temporary work authorization for people in the country illegally was not the worst or the most radical step he could have taken, Frank is right. This was the wrong step at the wrong time. At the very minimum, the President should have given the new Congress ninety days to act before going it alone. Failing to do so isn’t just a slap in the face of his Republican opponents; it is a slap in the face of the voters who no longer trust the President and his party on the big issues of national life.
If the new Congress proved unable or unwilling to act, the President’s step would have had at least an element of political legitimacy to it. As it is, this half-hearted, hobbled amnesty will likely join President Obama’s flawed health care law as a toxic legacy that will haunt the Democratic Party for years to come. Just as the President’s poor reputation was a millstone around the neck of many Democratic candidates in 2014, future Democratic candidates are going to run away from Obama’s memory, and their opponents will work to tag them with the heavy burden of a presidency that most Americans will want to forget. As a political brand, the name “Barack Obama” now risks drifting into Jimmy Carter territory and becoming a label that blights the prospects of the Democratic party and its candidates for years.
Moreover, as with the health care law, the President’s immigration policy doesn’t solve the underlying problems it addresses and makes the task of real reform more difficult. As often happens with our careful and deliberative President, he’s balanced so many concerns so nicely and split so many hairs so finely that the final product doesn’t get much done.
That said, I cannot help but sympathize with the President’s intentions. Through a combination of bad policy (such as the Reagan amnesty), poor enforcement of our border controls, and the existence of a large underground economy, millions of foreigners have been living, working, marrying, and having children among us for decades outside of the law. As a human problem, this demands a response. The development of a class of illegal alien workers who lack the full and equal protection of the law is an affront to the ideal of human equality and undermines the well-being of the legal workers who have to compete with underpaid illegals in the marketplace. The children of such people who are born in the United States have committed no crime and both common decency and our own laws demand that such people receive education, health care, and the basic services that government provides. President Obama did not create the tangled morass of the failed American system of managing and regulating immigration, and both as President of the United States and as a human being under the judgment of a just God he has unavoidable obligations to seek a humane solution to the problems we face. The solution he chose may be a poor one, and it exposes both the nation and future immigrants to more trouble, but the situation is real and no perfect solution to a problem this messy exists.
The President, like many Democrats, has reached his position on immigration out of political calculation as well as humanitarian concern. For many liberal Democrats (as well as for some of their Republican opponents) two key beliefs about immigration shape their political strategies. The first is that Latinos are the new blacks: a permanent racial minority or subgroup in the American political system that will always feel separate from the country’s white population and, like African-Americans, will vote Democratic. On this assumption, the Democratic approach to Hispanic Americans should be clear: the more the merrier. That is a particularly popular view on the more leftish side of the Democratic coalition, where there’s a deep and instinctive fear and loathing of Jacksonian America (those “bitterly clinging” to their guns, their Bibles, and their individualistic economic and social beliefs). The great shining hope of the American left is that a demographic transition through immigration and birthrates will finally make all those tiresome white people largely irrelevant in a new, post-American America that will forget all that exceptionalism nonsense and ditch “Anglo-Saxon” cultural and economic ideas ranging from evangelical religion to libertarian social theory.
Hispanic immigration in this view is merely the largest and most promising of a broader program of planned social engineering through immigration law: “globalizing” the American population by raising the number of immigrants and ensuring that, unlike 19th-century U.S. immigration, late 20th and 21st century immigrants come from non-European societies.
The second key belief about immigration driving the vision of much of the American left today is that immigration is unstoppable. The borders cannot be controlled, and even if they could be, they won’t be. The more immigrants there are in the United States, the more they influence the vote. And the more immigrants influence the vote, the more support for immigration there will be in our politics. There is thus little fear of a backlash; if, Democratic lefties reason, Republicans are so angry about the President’s steps to ease conditions for illegal immigrants that they push for tougher immigration laws, the GOP will merely accelerate its demographic death spiral into irrelevance.
For Democratic lefties, these are comfortable ideas that reinforce an idea of inevitable historic progress toward the kind of America they would like to see—a country that in its values and institutions would look more and more like the rest of the world and less and less like some kind of exceptional maverick. Both ideas could well prove to be true, but if American historical experience is any guide, both will turn out to be false. The current wave of immigrants will follow an ethnic rather than a racial path toward growing assimilation into American society and culture, and if and as immigration passes a certain threshold level, opposition to further immigration will rise—even and in some cases especially among recent migrants—and at some point the political system will mandate dramatic cuts in the rate of new migrants.
The great wave of European immigrants that came between 1880 and 1924 was once seen both by liberals and conservatives as something very like the wave of Hispanic immigrants we’ve had in the last generation. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants from countries like Germany, England, Scotland, and (even) Ireland, the turn of the century immigrants came predominantly from countries like Russia, Italy, Greece, the Balkans and Syria. (Many Arab-Americans came to the United States during this era.) With Jews, Poles, Sicilians, Hungarians, Russians, and Czechs pouring into American ports, there was a sense among many descendants of earlier waves that the new arrivals were both racially and culturally alien. “Swarthy” immigrants from countries like Greece, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire were not considered “white” by many native-born Americans. Eastern Jews from the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were feared as alien, unassimilables. Well into the 1930s and 1940s, the American hard left believed that the new immigrants would lead American society away from the antiquated individualism of earlier generations into the brave new world of socialist collectivism they saw rising in the future.
Those hopes fizzled out. The European immigrants may have voted for the New Deal, but many went for Eisenhower in the 1950s and Nixon in 1968, and their children and grandchildren became the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s. The United States did not become a socialist or even a social democratic utopia, and the descendants of the immigrants blended into the American people at large.
It seems more likely than not that Hispanic immigrants and their kids will follow a similar path. In many ways Latinos face less prejudice than Jews or Italians did in the 1880s, and have more opportunities to integrate into American society at large than those earlier generations of immigrants did. The evidence if anything suggests that Hispanic immigrants are more open to the cultural influences of American political and social ideas than were earlier waves. While very few Italian, Jewish or Greek immigrants, for example, converted to evangelical Protestantism, 24% of hispanic adults in America are now former Catholics. Hispanics are a large and varied group, but by and large they are learning English, starting businesses, joining Protestant churches and voting Republican at levels that suggest that they are anything but a permanently alienated racial underclass in formation.
Past history also suggests that liberal Democrats may be misreading the politics of immigration. In American history, opposition to immigration (including opposition among relatively recent arrivals) tends to rise in response to large waves of immigrants. The Know Nothing movement (nativist, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic) rose in response to the surge in Irish immigration at the time of the Potato Famine. The KKK revival of the 1920s as an anti-immigrant rather than just an anti-black movement came in response to the post 1880 immigrant tsunami.
More to the point, the successful anti-immigration movements (first aimed at Chinese and Japanese immigrants and then, in 1923–24, at dramatically reducing immigration of all kinds) came as the foreign born surged as a percentage of all adults. Instead of sparking the formation of a powerful lobby that kept the gates of immigration permanently open wide, the migration surges of the late 19th and early 20th century led to a forty-year immigration hiatus. Not until the late 1960s did the country begin to reopen the door to significant flows of new immigrants.
Far from being a losing political issue for its advocates, immigration restriction was one of the most popular political initiatives of its day. The anti-immigration Republican Party swept from one landslide to another until the Great Depression, and polls showed intense and widespread popular opposition to more immigration all through the 1930s and 1940s. Many of those who opposed new immigrants were the sons and daughters of immigrants themselves; with U.S. wages and job opportunities under pressure during the Depression, workers did not want competition from desperate migrants willing to undercut U.S. wage levels.
Again, history would suggest that instead of playing catch-up with Democrats on immigration, Republicans would do better to reach out to new immigrants on economic grounds. Fighting the green/NIMBY nexus, for example, that makes single family home construction prohibitively expensive in states like California, locking new immigrants out of both jobs and homes, might be a smarter strategy than shouting “Me too!” on immigration reform.
Today’s public concern about the rate of immigration, including but not limited to illegal immigration, is coming after a long period of rapid immigration, and it comes when working class Americans are increasingly worried about wages and jobs. It may pass away, like the Know Nothings, or it may build into the kind of national political consensus that kept immigration to a trickle for much of the 20th century. But whatever happens, the Democratic confidence that an ever rising tide of Hispanic immigration will create a permanently left-leaning America is likely misplaced. As a piece of political engineering, President Obama’s immigration initiative is unlikely to succeed.
The President, however, is absolutely right that our current immigration system is broken with too many domestic workers facing low wages and reduced job opportunities, too many employers unable to attract the skilled labor they seek, and too many immigrants condemned to a shadow life on the fringes of legality. Better border enforcement, smarter policy, and a more focused concern for the well-being of working Americans are the keys to a more sustainable immigration regime than what we now have. If Republicans are smart they won’t let themselves be goaded into a frenzy of opposition and reaction by the President’s actions; they will advance a smarter agenda on their own.
Either way, most recent immigrants, like most of their predecessors, have come to this country because they believe that, flawed as they may be, our institutions and our way of life offer more hope and more opportunity than the countries they have left. The best way to support our new neighbors and help them become valuable, contributing members of American society is to prove them right.