Bushwacking immigration

Posted: Jan 11, 2004 12:00 AM
Something had to give, and when that is so, democracy is at its most useful. The mess in our immigration laws, never mind recent efforts to untangle it, festers. And if it is so that President Bush was moved to try to do something about it in anticipation of the national election at the end of the year, why should that surprise, let alone dismay us?

We shouldn't, however, allow our general relapse on illegal immigration to blind us to our own acquiescence to the impasse brought on. For those who believe in absolutely free movement of labor (The Wall Street Journal under Robert Bartley conspicuous among them), such a position would never survive a deliberated national plebiscite. Beginning in 1965, we simply surrendered on the subject of Western Hemisphere immigration. The 1965 law effectively eliminated restrictions on immigration from this hemisphere through its family reunification provisions. It can be argued that much the same thing would have happened without that law. In the United States, the average wage is $32,000, 10 times the average Mexican wage. Laws attempting to seal the border were in the tradition of King Canute ordering the tide to stop.

But to acknowledge that the kind of insulation we needed in order to repress Latino immigration was not easy to devise does not excuse ignoring the laws we had. We discovered little by little, under the pressure of local politics and judicial intervention, that restricting immigration is not done by pen strokes.

If the nation had asserted itself on immigration policy, we might have made some headway. Eight million illegals testify to the irresolution of our immigration laws. Former senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming came up a few years ago with a tough immigration bill, and was never heard from again. We discovered, during our acrobatics on immigration law, that you can't do something that California, Arizona, Texas and Florida won't permit; so we surrendered.

The vital aspect of that surrender touches down on a great issue we are facing, which has to do with free trade. In one recent debate among the Democratic presidential hopefuls, most of those who had voted for NAFTA and the Chinese trade agreement were apologetic for having done so. Phil Gramm, running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, confessed in an informal conversation with a friend, "Look, I am an economics professor and spent 11 years explaining the law of comparative advantage, and one of the things I discovered is that you can't explain free trade in a three-minute debate with Pat Buchanan."

Except for Joseph Lieberman, nobody, in the recent Iowa debate, was prepared to say: "There are advantages to Americans in economic mobility." In the '90s, we had economic gain coupled with high employment. This was owing substantially to the free movement of capital and manufacturing. But in political forums on such subjects, one sees only the plant that shut down and was restarted in Siam. That was a devastating backdrop, and free-trade laws tend to disappear as visionary imposters.

We have had all of those divisions before, since the beginning of the Union. And those who plead for free trade have to take into account that a ruthless implementation of its dictates is otherworldly, as if a nation resolved to enforce the marriage vow. Extra-economic measures are going to be taken to protect American jobs. The challenge is to invoke these with eyes wide open on the broader perspective: The free movement of capital in fact benefits the American consumer, who in turn employs the American worker.

The Bush immigration plan is so complicated, so heavily dependent on enforcement agencies we don't have and don't really want, that it's impossible to say what lies immediately ahead for the proposed bill. Probably it won't be passed by this Congress. Certainly campaign issues will center on it. There is a great deal we could be grateful for if it could be done free of politics. But then nothing really is.