President Bush hoped to tone down and sober up the immigration fight Monday night. But it amounted to a soft "shush" at WrestleMania.
The most interesting part of this political and ideological cage match is that few of the usual labels have much utility. President Bush and Senator Kennedy agree on a lot. Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, can sound like conservative Republicans in their demands to close the border. Weekly Standard editor and Fox News sage Bill Kristol declares himself a "liberal" on immigration and "soft" on illegal immigration. Both the Weekly Standard and the editors of the Wall Street Journal consider National Review to be part of the mob of "yahoos" trying, in Kristol's words, to drive the GOP "off a cliff."
So this seems like a propitious time to ask: What if illegal immigrants were crack?
It's not such a crazy comparison, by the way. There's a reason why the drug war and illegal immigration have similar scripts, even though the actors reading the lines change.
The overwhelming majority of drugs entering this country cross the U.S.-Mexican border. Indeed, in the 1990s, to the extent that the debate over building a wall along the border got any traction, it stemmed from the war on drugs, not a war on illegal immigration. The steel fence constructed between San Diego and Tijuana - which works quite well, by the way - was built to stop drug traffickers, not gardeners.
Meanwhile, labels like "left" and "right," "liberal" and "conservative" don't get you very far when debating the drug war either. For example, National Review is foursquare against the drug war (though I dissent from my colleagues on this front). Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard has been a staunch supporter of the drug war, even taking hawkish positions on medical marijuana.
In 1996, NR's editors wrote: "... it is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states."
Similar arguments - from La Raza to Jack Kemp, Ted Kennedy to Ben Stein - fill the air today, with charges that immigration officials are a new "Gestapo."
"How many border guards would it take to make the U.S.-Mexican border impenetrable?" asked the Washington Post this week. "The answer ... is: It depends. It depends on how much money people are willing to spend and how many trappings of a police state they're willing to accept."
There are other similarities. For many, "comprehensive reform" really means decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing illegal immigration just as "reform" of our drug laws translates to the same thing for drug use. Charges of racism echo each other in both debates as well. Somehow, it's the fault of those favoring border security that most illegal immigrants are Mexicans and the fault of drug warriors that minorities are disproportionately in the drug trade.
But for me the most interesting similarity is the issue of futility and will. Drug war doves claim that you can't win the drug war because you can't defeat the laws of supply and demand. As long as there is demand for drugs, there will be a supply, and no acceptable amount of militarization of the drug war will change that. This argument gets flipped on its head when it comes to immigration. Suddenly, militarization is essential to the top priority of cutting off supply.
But the fact is, in all likelihood your average illegal immigrant desperate to start a new life for himself and provide for his family will be no less determined to sell his labor as a drug dealer would be to sell his goods.
Some drug legalization advocates hang their position on a lot of moral preening about the absolute right of the individual to do what he wants. But many of the same people will then argue that it is - and should be - an outrageous crime to hire an illegal immigrant. Well, conservative economic dogma considers the right to form contracts with whomever you wish to be sacrosanct. It is "the socialist society" according to the philosopher Robert Nozick, "which would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults."
My point here is not to say one position is more right than the other. Drugs and immigration are, ultimately, very different things, and it's the differences that explain why the analogy isn't perfect. Citizenship, sovereignty, rule of law: These things are rendered meaningless if the distinction between legal and illegal immigration is meaningless.
But the key similarity is important. Most opponents of the drug war came to their position because they consider the effort worthy in principle, but ultimately futile in the face of a more determined "enemy," and a bit silly since the gains of winning aren't that important to them. The burgeoning war against illegal immigration has already been preemptively surrendered by many for roughly the same reasons. What that says about America probably depends on what you think about illegal immigrants or drugs.