Lest there be any misunderstanding, I favor immigration reform, under the general outlines that have been proposed both by President Obama and the recent bipartisan committee in the US Senate. After a shellacking at the polls, Republicans now seem ready to join in resolving an array of issues. Still, I'm less interested in discussing this consensus than factors that the public may not know about.
First off - Republicans have always talked tough about controlling U.S. borders and reducing illegal immigration. while democrats are known for bringing up compassion, amnesty and all of that, implying a gentler border stance. In practice, when they take power, each party tends to act in ways diametrically opposite to its polemical position.
In 1993, as one of his first acts upon entering office, Bill Clinton doubled the number of field agents in the Border Patrol. In sharp contrast, one of George W. Bush's first endeavors was to savagely undercut that service, citing "budget reasons." (In fact, he did this tellingly, lowering our guard before the attacks of 9/11.) What did Barack Obama do, after taking the oath in 2009? Exactly the same as Bill Clinton. Across the entire first Obama Administration, border enforcement was pushed hard, almost equalling economic factors in accounting for a steep drop in illegal border crossings.
It all sounds counter-intuitive, of course. Why would the parties say one thing, for appearances, yet do the opposite? The reasons are simple. Democrats like legal immigration, which results in lots of new voters and new union workers, while illegals drain resources, get embroiled (normally against their will) into crime, undercut union labor and prevent domestic programs from achieving full effectiveness.
On the other hand, Republicans -- well, not your neighbors, but some influential people near the top of the party -- like access to pools of cheap, undocumented labor that won't talk back for exactly those same reasons. Only when border state citizens began getting riled did the GOP start offering tough words on immigration. And words, for the most part, is all they ever supplied during the long eras when they operated the entire government. Where it comes to border security, GOP presidents going back to Reagan counted on their partisans to pay attention only to words, never actions.
This is what I predicted, back in 2009: "I fully expect the same political factors to apply under Barack Obama. Watch for a serious attempt to increase cross-border trade and legal human contacts, but to crack down on illegal crossers and smuggling. This change of emphasis also happens to be a good idea for enhancing homeland security. And those who are offended by this illustrate that "liberal" and "leftist" really are different terms that apply to different sets of political passions that are only allied part of the time. We must not assume that the former have to always cater to the latter."
== The Panorama in early 2013 for Reform ==
So what are we seeing in the new proposals for Immigration Reform? Most attention goes to the "path to legalized status and then citizenship" and left-right arguments over details, like how easy the path should be and how big should be the fines that undocumented folks pay for having broken our laws... on the way toward becoming welcomed neighbors and fellow nortamericanos.
I am interested in all of that, but fairly content with the bipartisan consensus we see forming. Indeed, it is wondrous to once again view pragmatic argument and negotiation take place. Perhaps congressfolk will acquire a taste for it.
Regarding border security, I cannot suppress a giggle over watching the GOP being forced to actually vote for the very measures they have long loudly screamed for - even though in practice they spent decades blocking improved border security with every trick they could muster. This victory for the Democratic Party (and unions) won't be viewed that way by the press or public, but it has to be galling to the top lords of conservatism, who strove for so long to keep the U.S. border weak and porous.
What is missing, however, is much public attention to legal immigration. I have always found this strange, since legal immigration has been vastly more responsible for the ethnic changes taking place in the United States across the last generation. While Red America has fulminated against undocumented entries, those with perfectly good documents constituted the main flood, in the greatest influx of new faces to America since the 1890s. Why has this not been raised much in arch-conservative circles? Perhaps because to do so would lay bare some of the deeply racist and intolerant attitudes that underly fear of a changing America. (Again, see my 2011 article for a detailed appraisal of population trends and why the parts of the U.S. who are most angry over immigration ignore the kind that actually affects numbers.)
Now, at last, a few aspects of legal immigration are being discussed. Especially a long desired ability to keep some of the wonderful students who get post-graduate tech degrees here, then were kicked out when they asked to stay and put those skills to work in the U.S.. That lunacy may end, at last. Likewise there might be more visas for the world's smartest people to come to the U.S. to do research or start businesses.
As I said in 2009: "Let there be no mistake, I am proud of America's heritage -- and present-day status -- as the world's leader (by far) in offering opportunities to hope-filled people from all over the globe. Diversity is our greatest strength and immigrants often give far more than they take.
"Nevertheless, as a nation, we have a right to have immigration be orderly and legal, at a pace that doesn't overstrain services. So long as we continue to be generous and prudently open, overall, immigration can even be tuned to benefit America in directly tangible ways. For example, by restoring somewhat of a merit system, especially when it comes to skilled workers that our industries desperately need, or allowing some of the foreign graduate students who we have (expensively) trained to stay and add their brilliance to our stew. After all, half a million people is half a million people. There's no rule of honor or nature that says we can't look for some of them to enter as a win-win deal."
Sound prophetic, for something written in 2009?
== Where Obama gets it wrong ==
One area where I sharply disagree with President Obama is his proposal to increase the number of people who immigrate through family sponsorship. That may make me sound callous and unsympathetic! But please pause and ponder before you judge. Yes, by all means re-unite parents and minor children or minor siblings. Beyond that though... you start a chain cascade in which the newly admitted uncle then brings a wife who brings her sister who brings her husband, whose brother... it becomes completely arbitrary, a chain of entitlement without end.
It isn't even fair in a humanitarian sense! Note that families here can already send home remittances, or provide other means of immigration help. So those relatives already have tons more luck than their neighbors in the village, back in Guiana or Togo or Timor. They are already benefiting more than other folks overseas who don't have cousins in the U.S.
What about those other people in the old countries, not lucky enough to already have US resident cousins? Don't they deserve a chance, too? Shouldn't the millions of others get to roll the dice? Must luck be kept limited to arbitrary family chains? Isn't that just another form of inherited privilege?
Frankly, I see no reason why other traits should not factor in, like industriousness, eagerness, cleverness, or attributes that indicate a real possibility of leveraging sudden luck into enriching both the new and old countries. Heck, I'd deem a worldwide essay contest, or art or performance competition, or para-olympics, to be far more fair. More likely to benefit both America and those competing, whose vigor would prove them truly American in spirit. Indeed, so long as the numbers stay the same, who is anyone to call my proposed method of choosing less compassionate?
(Ponder it almost through a sci fi lens: an avidly watched television show, in which 10% of our immigration slots go to those who present world audiences with something - anything(!) - extraordinary or excellent. From juggling to a tear-jerking lamentation of poor luck, to an ethnic song or dance, to a poem that tears our hearts out, to acts of goodness that transformed their home villages. And that world audience votes! And the prize is something coveted... that ALL the finalists win, after all. A home in the Land of Opportunity.
(What an underlying message! One that could not be conveyed by a trillion dollars of propaganda. After all, how bad can the Evil Empire be... if everyone wants to go there?)
America deserves plaudits for being the nation of fresh starts. It is a moral claim that can never be taken away from us. Together with Canada, we take in more than half of the world's immigrants and it has been our glory.
But we have to use some basis to choose among those wanting in, doing so in an orderly and rational way -- one that is both generous and in keeping with our own best interests. Always look for the positive sum. The win-win...
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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