The strange case of immigration politics

Posted: Jan 14, 2004 12:00 AM

President Bush's recent, lamentable proposals on illegal immigrants highlights, yet again, that both the Republican and Democratic Parties heed neither public opinion nor their primary governing responsibility to defend and protect the United States, as it relates to illegal immigration.

Decades of public polling by the most respectable news and polling organizations have invariably disclosed that although the numbers have moved up and down within a small range, solid majorities of the American public want our borders secured, illegal immigrants tracked down and even legal immigration reduced in volume. Over the last decade, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 52 percent of Americans favor a five-year ban on all legal and illegal immigration; a Time/CNN poll disclosed 80 percent want the federal government to track down illegal aliens; a CBS /New York Times poll in 1995 revealed less immigration wanted by 66 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Independents. Last year's New York Times/CBS poll shows those number down slightly to 55 percent wanting decrease, 35 percent wanting no change, and only 7 percent wanting more immigrants. In 1994, California's Proposition 187 (which cut off social services to illegals) passed by 59 percent. Last fall, during the recall election in California, polling showed it was still supported by over 55 percent of the public -- with neither of the major candidates even advocating it.

Over those past two decades neither Congress nor the White House -- whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats -- have even proposed, let alone implemented a program seriously designed to gain those ends. As a result, President Bush is left with the feeble and futile proposals that he announced last week.

It would seem to be ridiculously obvious that any effort to contain and manage the existing illegal population will be futile so long as we cannot substantially control the flow of new illegals into the country. There must be at least two or three billion people around the globe who would rather live and work in America than where cruel fate has deposited them.

I might agree with the president's proposals if they followed, rather than preceded a failed Herculean, decades-long national effort to secure our borders. If, after such an effort it was apparent that we simply could not control our borders, then, as a practical man I would try to make the best of a bad situation. But such an effort has not yet been made. And why it has not been made reveals a singular failing of the American political system.

Given how closely presidential elections are contested in the United States, it is rare for neither of the political parties to champion such a major issue, supported by such a solid majority over such a sustained period. It is also something of an oddity for the major national media not to pressure the politicians when they ignore public opinion so contemptuously for so long.

This condition is not explained by a conspiracy amongst a plutocratic, elite, governing class, but by the usual hodgepodge of individual and party political calculations, cultural biases, lack of courage and the deadening power of stasis over the need for change. All these routine elements of human endeavor have just lined up rather oddly on the immigration issue.

The Democratic Party has opposed a serious effort at border control both because they are the historic party of immigrants, and because they are currently powerfully in the sway of radical ethnic interest groups and a set of goofy, anti-traditional (almost anti-American) intellectual conceits popular in academe and the media these days. This is all fairly predictable. The Democratic Party is playing to type on illegal immigration.

What might not have been predicted is the Republican Party's passivity -- now complicity -- in abandoning a defense of our borders against illegal entry. As the law and order, strong on defense, traditional values party, one would have expected the Republican Party to be the champion of secure borders. But political, cultural and interest group factors have deflected the GOP from its natural position.

Because, due to changing demographics, the GOP must increase its share of the Hispanic vote from a quarter to at least 40 percent over the next generation, the GOP's leadership is afraid to risk antagonizing such votes by a secure borders policy. Whether this judgment turns out to be good politics very much remains to be seen.

And, cross pressuring the GOP's law and order values is the strong need of business and agri-business to keep the cheap labor flowing. More subtly, upper-middle America's growing habituation to cheap domestic help surely has unstiffened the spines of many Republican contributors who previously would have pressured the party to get tough on the border.

Thus, for different but complementary reasons, neither party is currently disposed to fight hard for a maximum effort to secure our borders from illegal entry. And, with neither party pushing the media, the media's natural cultural indifference to the issue has largely silenced the obvious public majority on this great and threatening issue. Such a condition is unhealthy for both the country in general and specifically our democratic political process.