America's Immigration Myths

About a month ago, Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian appeared as one of the guest panelists on the PBS show "Need to Know", hosted by Ray Suarez.The episode focused on America's immigration policies.

Although I don't agree with much of what I heard from the other panelists, the episode is well worth viewing. I've watched it several times. Like many radio or television shows focusing on the subject, some of the comments made are a combination of the arcane and the absurd, and in a relatively brief timeframe the panelists manage to touch on many of the myths that surround immigration to America.

This got me to thinking about myths. Sir James Frazer, in his classic book The Golden Bough, speaks to some of the useful functions of myths. They can help bind a society together, for instance, and give its members a shared vision of their beginnings. On the other hand, some myths can be overly broad or outlive their usefulness.

The myths associated with American immigration seem to me to fall into both the beneficial and counterproductive categories. Here are a few in common currency that I've been pondering since watching the show.

Illegal Aliens Do Jobs that Americans Won't. I have several problems with this myth. First, it seems to be in conflict with another fundamental American myth — that we are among the hardest-working, most industrious people on earth. Which is it? Are native-born American citizens hard-working or are we lazy slugs? Second, it overlooks a fundamental fact raised by Krikorian during the "Need to Know" segment: To the extent that the statement is true, it is only because employers use illegal aliens to justify abnormally low wages and the kind of abysmally poor working conditions common in third world nations, but repugnant to modern societies. Third, to the extent that open borders advocates share Krikorian's view of opportunistic employers and disadvantaged workers, they use it to justify their argument for an amnesty so as to balance the ledger of employer vs. worker.

My Take: The problem with this argument is that it is circular. Once an illegal alien is amnestied and receives the right to live and work legally and permanently in the United States, why would he remain in the shadows working in unacceptable conditions, paid poorly and under the table by unscrupulous employers? He won't. The legalization program of 1986 shows us clearly what will happen. Not unreasonably, recently legalized aliens will leave those jobs at the first opportunity for better opportunities, leaving behind a vacuum to be filled by the next wave of illegal aliens. This will continue as long as there is no impetus to change working conditions, pay fairly, universally monitor and control hiring practices, or seriously impose penalties on those industries that rely so heavily on illegal labor.

The Border Is More Secure than It's Ever Been. This is a perennial favorite that's been trotted out by the last several presidential administrations and always brings a smile to my face. If it was so secure during the last guy's term, how come it still apparently needs to be tightened up? And how is it that 10 to 12 million aliens have managed to get into the country illegally? The phrase is near meaningless since there are no metrics by which we can reasonably measure its truth. When apprehensions skyrocket, we are told it's because border patrol agents are more effective than ever; when they go down, we're told that it's because aliens are afraid to attempt illegal entry given the saturation of agents and technology.

My Take: In a particularly unusual spinoff of this myth, one of the panelists on the "Need to Know" immigration policy segment asserted that there are now so many border patrol agents blanketing the border that they are standing around with little or nothing to do. It's a great sound bite, but highly questionable. Even under the Obama administration, whose disinclination toward immigration enforcement is clear, the border patrol made 340,252 arrests in fiscal year 2011. But it shows that even this myth can be captured by open borders advocates to justify their argument that there is now such effective enforcement that we can afford to contemplate a broad-based amnesty. This egregiously overlooks the fact that nearly half of the illegal population didn't consist of border crossers; they entered legally through ports of entry and then simply overstayed. What this all points to is the fact that nearly every administration takes the "safe" route: They want to be tough, but politically acceptable, about illegal immigration, so they focus almost exclusively on our land borders and avoid the inescapable reality that the illegal-alien population entrenched in the United States is an interior enforcement problem — something neither Border Patrol agents nor inspectors at our ports of entry are capable of solving. This administration has been particularly ineffectual in confronting the political dilemmas raised by interior immigration enforcement; it has sued states wishing to assist, and ignored states and localities actively obstructing enforcement through sanctuary policies.

Our System Is Broken and Needs to Be Fixed Through "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" (CIR). The system may indeed be broken in significant places. But CIR as a concept means little without serious scholars and statesmen taking on the leadership role this society requires to examine the system in detail — including the visa quota system; the existing categories of non-quota admissions; the dysfunction of the immigration courts; and the unwillingness to confront the legitimate need for continuous and consistent immigration enforcement anywhere except on the land border and at ports of entry — and recommend appropriate, detailed reforms.

My Take: In present use, CIR is simply a buzz word for amnesty, which doesn't necessarily "fix" anything — it just flushes the system. We get to reset the immigration alien meter back to zero, as was done in 1986, and start all over again. But absent real reform that goes past amnesty and looks, piece-by-piece, at all aspects of a very complex system, nothing fundamentally changes, for the reasons I've described above. And in 20 or 30 years we'll be back where we are now — overwhelmed by the volume of illegal aliens, and dissatisfied with the administration of our immigration, visa, and citizenship laws in a kind of immigration version of the movie Groundhog Day.

What it all comes down to is this: How long will we be content to revisit the same tired old ground, and how many amnesties will it take before we realize that the lure of the next big amnesty is itself a powerful magnet that keeps drawing aliens to enter our country illegally? The choice is ours — myth or reality.