On Monday, Los Angeles hosted an enormous protest over proposed immigration reforms. Smaller - but still large - rallies were held in several other cities. Organizers were eager to cast the events as deeply patriotic affairs. Marchers were urged to carry American flags and chant things like "We are Americans."
But, as the inestimable blogger Mickey Kaus noted, the organizers couldn't fine-tune their message (though they could count on the mainstream media to help as much as possible). Thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans - of no doubt varied immigration status - carried Mexican flags. "If you said 'Mexican flag' every time you saw a Mexican flag," Kaus writes, "you never stopped talking." Some carried signs saying that the United States stole Mexican land.
This is just a small illustration of how the debate people want to have about immigration is usually not the debate we should have.
America doesn't really have an immigration problem. Or, to be more accurate, it has several distinct immigration problems. The first and most prominent is immigration from Mexico. Many pro-immigration advocates say that Mexicans are no different than other immigrants, and that what critics of Mexican immigration - legal and illegal - say about Latinos is what they said about Germans, Poles, Italians, the Irish and the Jews in the past.
Obviously, there's some truth to this. Many of the complaints do sound similar. But that doesn't mean the arguments have the same weight. The arguments against interracial marriage sound very similar to the arguments against gay marriage, but that doesn't mean a black woman marrying a white man is the same thing as a man marrying another man.
Similarly, people may have complained about the ability of legal immigrants from Italy to assimilate, or fretted that these Italian immigrants were taking jobs from Americans, but that doesn't mean illegal Mexican immigrants in the early 21st century are indistinguishable from legal Italian ones a century ago. The fact is that America has never shared an enormous border with Italy. Large chunks of U.S. soil never belonged to Italy or Ireland. You can be as romantic as you like about the glory and honor of America's noble tradition of accepting the "wretched refuse" of the world; it won't change this very basic fact.
Our border with Mexico allows for levels of illegal immigration that have no historical precedent. In 1970, there were fewer than 800,000 Mexicans in America, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. In 1980, there were 2.2 million. In 1990, the number reached 4.3 million, and by 2000 it had climbed to 7.9 million. In 2005, there were 10.8 million - a spike of 37 percent in half a decade. Today, roughly a third of all undocumented immigrants in America are Mexican, and they make up a disproportionate share of low-wage immigrants.
The Mexican government aids and abets illegal immigration in myriad ways, including giving prospective entrants to the U.S. a how-to guide for how to slip across the border, telling them not to wear heavy clothes, to drink plenty of water, and to keep your professional smuggler-guide in sight at all times. There's much less in the booklet about how to fill out the right forms and pass the naturalization exam.
The Mexican government is being perfectly rational. Mexico depends on the billions of dollars its fellow countrymen send back home, and it benefits - or hopes to - from the political clout Mexican-Americans have in our political system.
This isn't an anti-Mexican observation. It is, in fact, merely an observation, and an irrefutable one. But it flies in the face of a lot of idealistic abstraction. Most Americans are proud, to one extent or another, of America's status as a "nation of immigrants." That's why the protest organizers were desperate to have a lot of American flags and "We are Americans" chants. The more illegal immigration from Mexico can be seen as consistent with the "story of America," the better it is for people who want to either maintain the status quo or expand illegal immigration.
Of course, we have other immigration problems, too. For example, our visa system allowed terrorists into this country and permitted a former spokesman for the Taliban to get into Yale. But that's a discussion for another day. Nonetheless, it does illuminate how silly it is to talk about "immigration" as if it is a single, coherent issue or problem.
Personally, I'm quite fond of immigration - legal immigration, that is. But this, too, is a distinction the protest organizers would like to blur as much as possible.