The immigration policy of an moderate, democratic, relatively wealthy country like the United States that is the preferred destination of tens of millions of potential immigrants and the actual destination of over a million new legal immigrants every year is likely to be complex and therefore difficult.
Underlying all the issues and vocal debates about American immigration law are two fundamental facts:
- Many more people would like to immigrate here than the country could reasonably absorb. A recent worldwide Gallup poll put that number at 150 million adults.
- The country has not had a real discussion or debate regarding how many immigrants ought to be offered legal status and what factors — education, skills, family relationships, and so on should be considered.
These basic facts, and the lack of real discussion about them is the origin of the fundamental immigration dilemma for Americans.
The first of these two elements — the gap between the numbers who want to live here and the numbers that are legally able to do so — is a core, foundation issue.
The reason is that, unless this country becomes a very undesirable place to live and work, there will always be more people wishing to come here than there will be available legal immigration slots. That means that country has no other choice than to think seriously about immigration enforcement.
This is very difficult for Americans to do. Americans by nature are open and friendly people, not given to harsh judgments about others even when they disagree with their views. As Alan Wolfe has documented, when it comes to judging the choices that others make, America's default ethic is: live and let live.
Immigration enforcement is further compromised by the nature of the transgression and how it has been framed. The basic truth is that most illegal aliens come here for a better life. Their home countries lack freedom, opportunity, and safety nets. Many are desperate to escape their circumstances.
"Having a better life" is something that ordinary Americans understand very well. It is their wish too and the wish that brought their parents or grandparents here as well. That is the basis of the overused, but nonetheless essentially true observation that we are a nation of immigrants.
All of this creates an understandable presumption of empathy for the millions of illegal aliens now living and working in this country.
Yet, the United States is also a country that takes "playing by the rules" seriously. We don't generally reward or support cheating, taking unfair advantage, breaking rules and laws for your own benefit, or engaging in self-interested behavior at the expense of the communities of which you are, or want to become, a part.
Illegal aliens do all of these things and more. And that is where the presumption of empathy runs directly into the reality of the social, political, cultural, and economic costs of illegal migration.
Illegal aliens are not bad people. They are however, almost wholly focused on their own circumstances. They want to get ahead in life and can't do so in their own counties, so they come here. Yet, they do so unmindful of the cumulative effect of how the 11.5 million-plus decisions to come here affect our country.
That illegal aliens are unaware of the collective consequences of those millions of decisions is understandable, but Americans cannot afford to be.