Tip to masochists: if you want a lot of hate mail, write pro-immigration articles for conservative publications. I'm decidedly not a masochist, but I do believe that when they throw lemons is the best time to open a lemonade stand. I've gotten plenty of raw material thrown my way recently, and you, dear reader, are the beneficiary.
One TCSDaily.com poster calmly put it this way:
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO....IT IS ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION. ILLEGAL....ILLEGAL...ILLEGAL...ILLEGAL"
As the argument runs, we all like immigrants just fine, thank you. But what we don't like is illegality. My grandfather, argues embattled Senator Rick Santorum, came here legally, and so should this generation's immigrants. The problems here are legion. First, when our grandfathers came over here legally, it was relatively easy to do. During the late 19th and early 20th century, 37 million immigrants came to American shores. Irish, Italian, and Slovak workers flooded into the country, legally. To compare earlier waves of immigrants with current, largely Latino, immigrants is to leave out a tremendous shift in immigration law.
Second, the argument is basically circular. The debate is about whether we should change our laws. If we liberalize immigration rules, then a number of immigrants will no longer be in violation of the law. They won't be "illegals." This happens anytime that a law is liberalized. The Constitution clearly gives to the Congress the power to create and modify laws pertaining to naturalization. According to Article 1, Section 8, they can, at any time, either loosen or tighten citizenship requirements on a simple majority vote.
Immigration hard-liners seem to be taking the position that, although Congress can make immigration laws more draconian, they cannot legitimately make them less draconian without somehow threatening the rule of law. They don't seem to take this tack on other issues however. For example, I was once called in to turn around a financially troubled business entity. The company was mired in debt, particularly back taxes. Upon taking the helm, I contacted the IRS and worked out a deal in which they would lift liens on assets so that I could sell them to pay the taxes. The penalties were waived. The agent explained to me that Congress had wanted to create a "kinder and gentler" IRS, and gave it the flexibility to waive penalties in its negotiations with taxpayers who have fallen hopelessly behind.
Republican politicians have, often, sponsored initiatives which instruct bureaucracies to take a lighter touch with factories threatened by environmental regulations, for instance. One technique is to create a shield which would protect "brownfield" development sites from litigation pertaining to previous violations of pollution laws in exchange for redeveloping the parcel. Shields have been created for airline companies, as well as companies threatened by asbestos lawyers.
The hard right never denounces any of this as "amnesty." As if this is always and everywhere a bad word. It isn't. Amnesty is a long-standing and perfectly legitimate tactic. It is used when very large numbers of people violate a law which is either unenforceable or in cases in which enforcing the law would create more harm than good.
In the 1860s large numbers of Southerners started to kill officers of the Federal government. Before the whole thing ended, over 600,000 people lay dead. Abraham Lincoln offered a general amnesty for those who were willing to lay down their arms, and the Civil War was over. Did this threaten the rule of law? No, it preserved it. Any other approach would have created a permanent class of disgruntled southerners who existed in the shadows outside legitimate civil society. The government of Iraq wisely made a similar offer last month to its insurgents. The President's plan, of course, isn't amnesty. It doesn't eliminate the penalty for illegal aliens who come forward; it lightens it from deportment to a fine.
I think that the hate-the-illegal-but-love-the-immigrant mantra is in many cases the 21st century version of the 19th century movement called the "know-nothings". Ashamed and aware of the revulsion which polite society held toward their anti-immigrant views, they simply refused to state them openly. When asked what their party stood for, they claimed to know nothing about it. Everyone knew, of course, that they didn't like immigrants.
Make a quick visit to one of our discussion forums, and you will meet some people who seem to be reviving this tactic: The discussion over my previous article brought out people who said quite vociferously that they are in favor of immigration, that it's only ILLEGAL immigration that they object to. Then they went on to ridicule small grammatical lapses by immigrant posters or to declare proudly that they put up signs forbidding the use of languages other than English at their parties. One email made the for-legal-against-illegal point and then went on to declare that Latinos and Africans were hurting America because they have lower IQs.
This stuff is 21st Century Know-nothingism, (not so) pure and simple.
Jerry Bowyer is an economic advisor for Independent Portfolio Partners.