Superficial by Design: Immigration in the Presidential Debates

By John Wahala on August 7, 2015

Immigration was actually discussed at the Republican presidential debate last night. The senseless and tragic murder of Kathryn Steinle, which drew national attention to the public safety threat of sanctuary cities, and the offhand comments made by Donald Trump on Mexican crime made the subject difficult for the moderators to avoid.

A number of the candidates on center stage were asked what they would do to fix the system. Their canned answers were carefully packaged soundbites that promised quick and easy solutions conveyed in euphemisms to mask the candidates' desire to continue the status quo while not offending the party's base. To the casual observer, the responses sounded reasonable, and after a few minutes the moderators looked relieved to move on to another topic.

The responses, however, were transparently superficial to those who study immigration. They contained no context, no statistics, and very few specifics on our complex immigration system. Some of this is understandable. The debate format leaves no time to provide much detail about anything. A candidate must speak in broad strokes. Besides, he or she cannot be an expert on everything (which is why one must be self-confident to the point of near insanity to want to govern a nation of 320 million people).

But it is one thing to delegate specifics and another not to have the vaguest clue of what they are. And watching the exchanges on immigration, year after year, one gets the impression that most politicians have no understanding of the size and scope of immigration or how it is overseen. This impression was reinforced by a prominent magazine editor, who once told us that he asks senators and congressmen the most basic questions on immigration every time he gets a chance. The vast majority do not know how many immigrants enter the United States annually or the overall size of the foreign-born population. Many of the estimates he has received are comically off the mark. This ignorance is coupled with a near universal belief that immigration is an absolute good that should not be restricted.

This is a serious problem given the enormity of the issue. There are now more than 41 million foreign-born residents in the United States. More than one million legal permanent residents are admitted each year. The federal immigration program issues more green cards every year "than the collective population of the 13 colonies the year Virginia's Patrick Henry was born". Over the next 10 years, we are on pace to welcome more newcomers than the combined populations of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. And by 2060, the nation's population is projected to grow to 417 million — an increase roughly equivalent to adding the combined populations of California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Massachusetts.

Needless to say, this demographic transformation has profound social, economic, and fiscal ramifications. It is not merely a defining narrative of modern politics or even of American history. It is a transformation that is unprecedented in the history of the world.

That is why the superficial way in which this issue is addressed is so confounding. Overall immigration numbers are never even mentioned, much less debated. Candidates simply recite the "illegal bad, legal good" mantra, usually suggesting that we double the current level of immigration, whatever that level may be. This model is unsustainable. As President Ronald Reagan correctly stated, "A nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation." It is an aphorism as true for open-ended legal immigration as it is for illegal crossers or visa overstayers. A self-governing republic is not compatible with an ever-expanding and rapidly changing electorate.

Among the many things that immigration does is give elected officials more power, which is why sheer ignorance does not account entirely for the superficiality of the debates. While candidates may not know all of the numbers, they know that exponentially increasing the size of the electorate makes them more important, and less accountable. This is the allure of politics. Immigration gives the Washington class more authority and prestige. That is one of the reasons why politicians and the media will not debate the impacts of this unprecedented transformation.


Topics: Politics