The social justice left believes opposition to illegal immigration is a manifestation of racism deeply rooted in the American character and social fabric. They see illegal immigrants as a marginalized group that deserves full inclusion in our body politic, along with minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. They believe we have a moral obligation to accept anyone who makes it across the border, legally or not.
So what do we make of the recent poll of Mexican public opinion conducted by El Universal, one of Mexico's most respected newspapers? It showed that a majority of Mexicans don't want their government to grant asylum to the Central Americans who are now in their country, most with the goal of reaching the United States.
Back in 2009, Mexican journalist Sergio Sarmiento made an observation that is pertinent to the current situation. Noting that between 1970 and 2008 the number of Mexican natives who had moved — both legally and illegally — to the United States had increased from 700,000 to some 12 million, Sarmiento wrote:
If Mexico had had an avalanche of foreigners so large in a period so short, the resistance would, without a doubt, have been greater. When we have had much smaller flows of foreigners — Argentines, Chileans, Central Americans — the reaction of Mexicans has been very negative.
I don't deny that a considerable number of Americans who are upset about the mass immigration of recent decades are racists. Those who denigrate and dehumanize migrants are a national embarrassment. They are a particular nuisance for those of us who recognize the humanity of illegal immigrants even as we insist that our government restrict their access to legal residence and citizenship.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers important insight into the moral dimensions of the situation. On the one hand, he says, is the liberal quest for expansive immigration in the name of inclusiveness and equality. On the other hand is the conservative belief that unrestricted immigration tends to destabilize society and weaken the social cohesion that constitutes a nation's "moral capital" — its ability to cooperate and maintain democratic institutions.
"Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion, "Haidt writes. "They fight to break down arbitrary barriers."
That is a laudable goal. The problem we restrictionists have is that it often leads to recklessly utopian fantasies. Many liberals see national borders and enforcement of limits as not only arbitrary but as a form of racist oppression. Many have claimed that the aim of immigration limits is to preserve the privilege of the whites who, just barely, are a majority of the American people. Limits, therefore, are seen as illegitimate. Those who defend them are agents of oppression, xenophobia, bigotry, nativism, etc., etc.
Like many of us restrictionists, Haidt is a life-long liberal who now dissents from liberal excess. In his book, The Righteous Mind, he writes that liberalism "tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently." He sees such activism as destabilizing, reckless in its disregard for the value of social order rooted in tradition and law.
But Haidt adds a caveat for conservatives who would like to stop the discussion right there and declare victory:
Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.
That, by the way, is why I identify as a liberal restrictionist. But I think that our current laws, which allow green cards for a million newcomers each year, go too far, especially since so many newcomers lack the education or skill that facilitate integration into our national life. Moreover, I think our government's feckless enforcement of limits incentivizes the predations of powerful economic and political interests.
In our beleaguered but still democratic society, rigorous debate is our way of resolving these differences. Such debates need ground rules of mutual respect, willingness to consider opposing ideas, and refusal to engage in the moral exhibitionism of claiming sole possession of moral integrity and human decency.
Healthy debate is a search for compromise and equilibrium. It needs both liberal and conservative points of view. As John Stuart Mill put it: "A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life."
Our civil society is far more healthy than Mexico's. But it is under tremendous stress, in part because of our inability to manage immigration in the long-term national interest. The convergence of public opinion in Mexico, the United States, and many European nations is a measure of the democratically unsustainable foolishness of ideologies that deny the legitimacy of limits.