Monday, July 09, 2007

To step into the sunlight and become Americans 

I want to summarize briefly my reactions to the lively exchange on immigration between Janet, commenter J. Ewing, and me. In attempting to respond to two different critiques, I think Janet is wrong to accuse me of shifting ground. When one fights a two-front war, one is allowed to move material between the fronts. So let me separate them.

I did not like the immigration bill the Senate sent forward. I said so on a show I did with Captain Ed's program a few weeks ago. That does not mean I support the status quo, nor does it mean I prefer a border-enforcement only bill. I support none of those. What I have argued is that the way to a winning coalition in Congress and the White House that strengthens border defense, provides for stronger employer sanctions and provides some means of dealing with those here is most likely through a grand bargain. I do not think you can move two or three pieces of legislation at the national level to get that done.

The state of Arizona, or any other state, can only move on one of the three items in my list, employer sanctions. It cannot effectively act as a border enforcement device as it has no standing army; one cannot become a citizen of Arizona without first becoming a citizen of the United States. This has good and bad consequences. The good consequence is that the states can pass employer sanctions without waiting for the federal government to act (although I have to think there are implications for the interstate commerce clause; I'll let the constitutional scholars figure that one out for me.) The bad consequence is that it removes a chip to be used in the grand bargain at the federal level. You might still have a winning coalition without that chip, but it is evident to me that fewer chips make bargaining harder.

The rest of my argument with JE is that there are costs involved with any solution, not all of which are explicit. Enforcement is expensive; finding ways to elicit cooperation from those you wish to ID would reduce those costs and might be more efficient. My concern in this argument is that there is no concern over efficiency with the enforcement-first types. As an economist I can never stray far from the concept of tradeoffs. There are instead emotional appeals to patriotism or moral appeals to lawfulness and citizenship. We tend to wave those problems away.

But there are even in the moral realm tradeoffs, and these were the subject of my first post. There are ways to do things that "get the job done", like handing everyone an ID card or putting a "status check" marker on a drivers license. And the culture does seem to accept this now. My problem is that this trades off the culture we used to hold, the culture we had not too long ago. Could Lee Iacocca have raised the money he did raise for the Ellis Island project in 2006 like he did in 1986? Would George W. Bush have given the speech at the dedication that Ronald Reagan gave?

If you answer no, what are you saying about the United States as a land of immigrants? To what extent has the edge we've had for the last 75 years come from the economic engine they have provided?

At base, the Reagan argument for immigration still appeals; I thought Janet's response to me was at first very defensive precisely because she understands that appeal. But if others hold that appeal too, then policies that deal only with enforcement will be seen as contrary to that cultural affinity for our immigrant heritage, and will be rejected. Thus again, even though right now many people want sticks, they will be prone to suspicion of motives if a few carrots are not offered. And if that sounds too much like amnesty for your taste, go back and read Reagan again.
We have consistently supported a legalization program which is both generous to the alien and fair to the countless thousands of people throughout the world who seek legally to come to America. The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.

...Distance has not discouraged illegal immigration to the United States from all around the globe. The problem of illegal immigration should not, therefore, be seen as a problem between the United States and its neighbors. Our objective is only to establish a reasonable, fair, orderly, and secure system of immigration into this country and not to discriminate in any way against particular nations or people.
If you want to have an argument where I get Reagan on my side and you get ... well, whomever you get, I like my odds.