The New Yorker Looks at Immigration Through the Lens of Liberal Concerns for Illegal Immigrants

By Jerry Kammer on August 3, 2015

One of the most interesting aspects of the national immigration debate is the remarkable asymmetry in the work of many journalists and academics.

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin provides an excellent example in a piece entitled "American Limbo" in the magazine's July 27 edition. Toobin writes with compassion and eloquence as he makes a humanitarian case for federal action to provide legal status to illegal immigrants. But he does next to nothing to acknowledge that there are substantive reasons for opposing such reform in the absence of a commitment that this time the federal government will uphold the enforcement that is the other half of the potential grand bargain.

This asymmetry is an issue of the liberal sensibility that predominates among the journalists and social scientists who write about immigration. For a look at the generalized liberal bias of social scientists, see this article; and for an examination of the bias in the immigration coverage of our most prominent newspaper, see this piece I wrote a couple of years ago.

The catalyst for Toobin's article appears to have been the nasty and obnoxious comments about Mexican immigrants by Donald Trump, who had had apparently come under the spell of the provocative Ann Coulter. Coulter, of course, throws out red meat and soars to the best-seller list by appealing to those who react with visceral hostility to the idea of amnesty for lawbreakers. I discussed the multiple problems with her latest book here.

Toobin's "American Limbo" is subtitled, "While politicians block reform, what is happening to immigrant families?" Stating the rationale for his article, he writes that while Trump's outburst caused a ruckus, "the comments have led to relatively little examination of the lives of the immigrants themselves."

That is a weak hook on which to hang a six-page story. Nevertheless, stories about the lives of illegal immigrants deserve to be told, and Toobin does a fine job.

Toobin recounts the odyssey of Olga Flores, who was smuggled across the border in 1998 near the Mexican border town of Sonoyta and jammed into a truck for the ride to Phoenix. Then came another ride to relatives in Ohio, where she lives with her illegal immigrant husband and their three U.S.-born children.

I know the Sonoyta area well. I wrote about the border for the Arizona Republic. So I think it would have been useful if Toobin had provided some cultural context for the Olga Flores story. At the time she entered the U.S. illegally Arizona was being flooded by illegal immigration, and the illegal immigrant population of the U.S. was growing at an annual rate of 500,000.

During much of 1998, thousands of illegal immigrants poured across the Arizona border every night. I lived in Phoenix at the time and was astonished at the influx. I used my Spanish to volunteer a few hours every week to help a second-grade teacher whose class at Westwood Elementary School was suddenly filled by about two dozen recently arrived Mexican children who didn't speak much English.

I wanted to help. I felt great affection for the children. But I thought the influx needed to be curtailed. It caused tremendous strain for schools, neighborhoods, and social services. It went on year after year. According to estimates by the Department of Homeland Security, the state's population of illegal immigrants grew from 88,000 in 1990 to 330,000 in 2000 to a peak of 560,000 in 2008.

Toobin offers no such benchmarks for the rising alarm in Arizona and many other parts of the country. According to the liberal sensibility, that would amount to a churlish blaming of the victim. As a strong liberal, Toobin is moved by the plight of illegal immigrants (a term that he uses, instead of the euphemisms that label them "undocumented" or "unauthorized"). But Toobin, who lives in Manhattan, shows no interest in the effects on Arizona or Ohio or any other state. He presents no metrics of the costs of the influx.

But Toobin knows how to use numbers to make his case for comprehensive reforms. To demonstrate President Obama's commitment to the enforcement that is a prerequisite for a deal with Congress, he reports that since the beginning of the Obama presidency "removals of illegal immigrants have averaged more than four hundred thousand per year." He seems unaware that this is a phony figure, supplied by the White House.

As my colleague Jessica Vaughan has reported, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, in testimony to Congress, "admitted that most of the deportations credited to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for interior enforcement, were actually cases involving aliens caught in the act of entering illegally, which in prior administrations would have been credited to the Border Patrol."

That is a long way of saying that such cases were never classified as deportations until the Obama administration found that dishonest tactic to be politically useful. President Obama, who vowed to provide the American people transparent access to information about the work of its government, has appointed top officials who imposed the most opaque and secretive immigration information regime that I have seen since I began writing about the border during the Reagan administration.

Next: Part Two: The Righteous Mind of the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin