Massive pro-immigrant demonstrations over the weekend and continuing Monday — police estimated 500,000 in Los Angeles, perhaps 300,000 in Chicago and smaller gatherings in Dallas, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio — suggest there are two sides in the debate over immigration that can bring out numbers. That is unlikely to make it easier for the Republican Party, already profoundly split over the issue, or Congress as a whole, to come up with a policy that will come close to satisfying all sides.
As the Senate enters two weeks of discussion on the issue — the Senate Judiciary Committee may or may not have come up with an alternative to the House bill that inspired the protests — it might be worthwhile for all sides in what is inevitably an emotional discussion to acknowledge some facts:
First, as the demonstrations suggest, there are large numbers of true believers on both sides of this issue. There are many Americans angry at the number of illegal immigrants in the country, who want stricter enforcement of existing laws and/or stricter new laws. However, besides Latino immigrants, some here legally and many here illegally, certain sectors of the business community, while not overtly defending illegal immigration, would be dismayed to see the stream of willing workers diminished significantly.
It is not, as some argue, that there are certain kinds of work that native-born Americans simply will not do. If the wages on offer were, say, $25 or $50 an hour, plenty of Americans would do what some consider back-breaking or menial labor. If that were the wage for agricultural or janitorial jobs for example, however, the cost of living for all Americans would rise. Higher wages would attract Americans to many jobs now done by (mostly) Mexican-born immigrants. But with unemployment at 4.8 percent, how many of those jobs would still go unfilled?
Whether the U.S. economy “needs” the 11 million illegal immigrants estimated to be working in the country now is a subjective question without an objective answer. The evidence, however, is that at this point the economy is able to absorb those workers without significant economic disruption (though the phenomenon creates plenty of political and social friction). Wages for native-born workers may not be rising as fast as they might in an illegal immigrant-free country, but they are not falling.
Advocates of stricter enforcement would do well to acknowledge it is unrealistic and would be extraordinarily disruptive to try to deport 11 million people, most of whom are working rather than filling welfare rolls. Especially given commitments in the Middle East, border enforcement is not a job for the military.
Turning illegal immigrants into criminal felons, as the recent House bill would do — under current law illegal immigration is a civil offense punishable by deportation but not a crime — would run up against the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws and severely tax law enforcement agencies. And constructing a wall along the southern border would be an immensely expensive and probably ineffective measure so long as people in Mexico knew they could have a chance at a better life in “El Norte.”
On the other hand, those who are taking to the streets would do well to acknowledge that waving Mexican flags is like waving a red flag in front of an angry bull. On Monday, there also were reports of isolated rock-throwing among student marchers in Santa Ana, Calif. And in Los Angeles on Monday, groups of students took their protest on to the 110 freeway. Do some organizers thrive on confrontation rather than peaceful resolution?
So far we have seen little or nothing in the way of concrete proposals from the most active pro-immigrant spokespeople.
Do they advocate increasing immigration quotas to bring them more into line with economic reality? Are they urging Mexico to reduce corruption and cronyism and install more free market-oriented policies to improve prospects for workers and entrepreneurs who decide to stay in Mexico? Would some organizers prefer to have a handy class of victims to “represent” than have all those immigrants working legally and productively? Do the spokesmen have a solution to the burdens illegal immigrants put on health and welfare programs? Do they even acknowledge such problems?
We’ll have more to say on specifics as the debate progresses. For now, it would be useful for all sides to tone down the rhetoric, acknowledge certain facts and remember that a simple solution will be almost impossible in our political system.