What Does Any of this Have to Do With Iraq?

I don’t find those who worry about illegal immigration necessarily rawly emotional, much less volatile, racist, nativist, or all the other slights thrown their way from abstract thinkers. After all, there are some 11 million people here illegally, largely from Mexico and/or Latin America. Aside from the social, economic, and ethical issues, there is the unspoken notion of the violation of the law. No humane or civilized society can exist long when the laws—and there are no statutes more fundamental than those governing citizenship and entry into a nation—are systematically flouted by employer, government itself, and immigrants alike. If one talks to Korean, Punjabi, or Southeast Asian immigrants who came here legally, and who try to have relatives do the same, there is a great deal of resentment that the law is not being applied equitably, and has lost both its legal and moral force.

Again, I do not see the need to conceptualize illegal immigration in terms of the Iraqi war, or the purported unfairness of the American system—not so apparent to much of the world, since the United States accepts more legal immigrants than almost all other nations combined. Most students of the issue accept that the present non-system must change. Compromise is possible that envisions a sort of earned citizenship for most of those here illegally, who should not be deported en masse, with the understanding that the border will close to those who in the future attempt to cross illegally.

Questions such as methods of assimilation and guest workers can be adjudicated once the most pressing problem—what to do with those here and how to restore legality to the crossing of the border—are dealt with. I think anyone who has grown up in largely Mexican communities composed of illegal aliens realizes that when immigrants are assimilated, not found in non-integrated enclaves, and living alongside other Americans of differing races, religions, and ethic backgrounds, their eventual pattern of Americanization in fact does resemble those of 19th-century Italians. However, when we witness de facto apartheid communities of largely Spanish-speaking, poorly educated immigrants who are without legality, then their record of success, and their childrens’, is a very different matter altogether. We are seeing both patterns of success and failure, but when the pool of 11 million is so large, we can be 70% successful and still have considerable problems with millions of illegal aliens.

That the worry over illegal immigration resonates broadly with Democrats and Republicans of the Southwest, both supporters and opponents of Mr. Bush, black, white, and Mexican-American, of all religions, should suggest that it cannot be simply written off to some emotional or unhinged cadre of Americans. In short, nothing I have read in the Cato Unbound essays and exchanges has dissuaded me that one’s position is often predicated along class lines, with elites— who are not in competition for employment with illegal aliens, whose children are not in affected schools, whose homes and property are not near influxes of illegal aliens, and who find that illegal labor is essential in many of the services they draw upon—not merely unconcerned with the severity of the issue but, in condescending fashion, deprecating those who are.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In the lead essay to this month’s Cato Unbound, celebrated essayist Richard Rodriguez offers a provocative meditation on the place of Mexicans in the U.S. economy and consciousness. “I retain my belief in the necessity of a common American culture,” Rodriguez writes, “But I am lately appalled by voices raised in this country against Mexican migrant workers.” Arguing that the question of Mexican immigration “might better be asked of a theologian, than an economist,” Rogriguez considers the religious and cultural character of Mexicans, and the role of Mexico as a repository of American sin, and American fear.

Response Essays

  • Victor Davis Hanson recounts the proposals from his book Mexifornia, and sets out a biting, detailed reply to Richard Rodriguez’s lead essay. “Here he has sadly advanced no real argument,” Hanson writes, “but instead offers only a melange of ethnic vignettes, and, for some reason, ad hominem attacks of the very sort he used to deplore.” Hanson charges that Rodriguez, writing from his tony San Francisco haunts, offers only a cartoon version of his and others’ work, and fails to directly face the troubling economic and social consequences of unlawfully resident Mexicans in America evident to Hanson in the San Joaquin Valley.

  • In his reply to Rodriguez, Douglass Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, writes that “Mexican immigrants are routinely portrayed as a tidal wave of human beings fleeing an impoverished, disorganized nation who are desperate to settle in the United States, where they will overwhelm our culture, displace our language, mooch our social services, and undermine our national security… This profile, however, bears no discernible relationship to the reality that I know as a social scientist.” Massey, drawing on his decades of research on Mexican migration, argues each element of this picture is false, and has exacerbated the problems of Mexico-U.S. immigration.

  • How well are Mexican immigrants and their offspring assimilating? In his contribution to this month’s discussion, University of Texas economist Stephen J. Trejo lays out the latest findings. According to Trejo, “Mexican Americans are not too far off the path of intergenerational assimilation traveled by previous waves of European immigrants. During their first few generations in the United States, Mexican-American families experience substantial economic and social mobility, and their actual progress is probably even greater than what we see in available data.” However, a slow rate of educational attainment remains a “critical problem” that may delay the full integration of Mexican Americans.