Our crazy, undemocratic immigration policy

US immigration policy is deeply confused.  Neither party thinks clearly about it, and as a result, laws have gone unenforced for decades, corroding the integrity of our rule of law.

Democrats, traditionally the party of labor, would once have opposed low-skill immigration:  it brings in ultra-low-cost labor, weakens unions, and ultimately hollows out the traditional base.  We’ve watched that hollowing for decades.  Yet Dems have mostly wanted to go easy on illegal low-skill immigration, partly for fear of offending constituencies, and partly because of a well-founded belief that free trade and loose immigration will eventually make most Americans better off.  The Democratic party has been staunchly globalist for 25 years, and they’re not wrong.  But they haven’t acknowledged, nor taken decisive action to mitigate, the consequences for their traditional labor base.  The strain is showing.

Meanwhile, traditional pro-business Republicans should logically support unskilled immigration, because it brings low wages, making everything cheaper to produce.  Yet they generally oppose it — partly, it seems, out of simple xenophobia.  The GOP has pandered to xenophobes for some time, and naturally this won’t be publicly admitted either.

Result:  the two parties are not just unable to hammer out a compromise they can stick to, but unable even to openly acknowledge their own de facto platforms to their own constituents.

For lack of openness and compromise, we are left with laws on the books we don’t actively enforce.  That’s a failure of democracy, and corrosive to the rule of law.

What laws are not enforced?  The simplest example is that it is a crime to be in this country without permission.  We’ve let this slide so long that we almost forget.  We begin to draw a mental distinction between “in the country for 10 years without permission,” and “actual crimes.”  But there is no such distinction in law.  Illegal immigration is illegal.

This is true in every country.  If I drove to Mexico and stayed there for a year with no visa, I would be in that country illegally.  That is a crime.  El Policía Federal could arrest and deport me. Would it become less a crime if I stayed there 10 years, learned fluent Spanish, and obeyed all other Mexican laws?  No.  If anything, would become more a crime, because I had stayed there illegally for longer. This is obvious. Yet in the US, municipalities often direct police not to enforce this law.  The years turn into decades, and we begin to forget what is legal and what is illegal.  Dangerous precedent.

We rationalize this lack of enforcement because it would be cruel to deport someone who has already built a life here — or, even crueler, to deport someone to who came here as a child, and may know nothing of their legal home country or language.  It’s true.  That would be cruel.

But it’s important to understand that this cruelty is not caused by suddenly enforcing the law.  It is caused, instead, by the systemic failure to enforce the law, for decades, allowing lives to be built in the US outside the rule of law.  This is a fundamentally shady way of operating, anathema to the rules-based approach that made the US successful in the first place.

The only non-shady way to operate is to legislate a policy we are prepared to enforce, and actually enforce it.  That requires a process of open legislative debate and compromise.

Which brings up the second point:  we got to here by a failure of democracy.

To reach a policy compromise on immigration, Republicans and Democrats would first have to openly reconcile their own platforms with the interests of their constituencies.  This reconciliation been so long in coming that it feels foreign.

For example, one thing does make sense about the surprise Trump victory:  his opposition to illegal unskilled immigration and manufacturing imports, right or wrong, was popular with unskilled men, whose jobs are most at risk.  Traditional union Democrats, abandoned by a globalist Democratic Party that offered no solutions to their plight, defected to Trump.  Yes, there are racists and xenophobes out there too, but that would not explain the suddenness of the defection.  The logical explanation is that unskilled men finally found a candidate who claimed he would eliminate their toughest competition in the unskilled labor market.

When Trump proposes to enthusiastically enforce existing law, he puts Democrats and Republicans alike in an untenable position.  He is calling them out for failing to compromise and enforce.  What possible counterargument is there?  “No, we will continue to let municipalities ignore existing law, fail to produce laws we can stick to, and fail to confess our own party platforms.”  Checkmate.  It is ironic that the US president most likely to undermine the rule of law has gotten this one thing right, even if by accident.

Dems in particular are suffering from a failure to be open about their pro-trade, pro-immigration globalism, and to offer real alternatives for Americans who are left behind.  Coming clean about this, and offering help to globalization’s losers, would be a first step to real legislative compromise, which could then be more enthusiastically enforced on the ground.  This would then restore the rule of law that brought America so far.

Later today, I’ll post a potential platform to help those left behind by globalization.

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