The Great GOP Debate: Immigration

This last week I moderated a debate on the subject of immigration in Newport Beach, California. What made this debate unique is that it featured two folks quite to the right in their politics, Jon Fleischman of and fame, and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Orange County Republican), VS. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute, and Teresa Hernandez of the Lincoln Club (where I also serve in club leadership). Four people who probably feel the same about 80-90% of various issues in the socio-political spectrum, yet two on one side of the immigration topic and two on the polar opposite side.

I behaved impartially for the purpose of this debate but I most certainly am not neutral on the subject. I am an ardent supporter of the club’s position on the topic and I frankly take an even more accommodating position than the statement reflects. Nevertheless, this topic invokes some of the most bizarre venom and toxicity of any issue I have seen in my political life, and it has extraordinary economic, demographical, and humane implications. Nothing would have pleased me more than for my friend, Jon Fleischman, or my Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, to illuminate the error of my ways.

The format of the debate worked well as questions were posed to the participants and each side given time to reply, and then rebut the other side’s reply. The questions ranged from what was right with present immigration policy (Nowrasteh had it right: “not much”), what is wrong with present policy, where the welfare state fits into the shaping of future policy, thoughts on E-verify, where multi-culturalism fits into the discussion, and even the economics of immigration and labor. A few things stood out to me from our afternoon affair …

First and foremost, Alex Nowrasteh is extremely well-versed in this topic and left his opponents unprepared for his vast knowledge of the data and history involved in this subject. Rohrabacher made the mistake of trying to invoke President Eisenhower’s deportation of some illegal immigrants in the 1950’s and was apparently unaware of the millions of illegal immigrants he first gave legal status to. Nowrasteh’s work on this subject is impressive (as was the slide he displayed showing the utter mayhem of current immigration policy should someone seek to enter the country legally). There were no moments where Nowrasteh seemed caught off guard and none where he was unprepared.

Fleischman is right to believe the welfare state is a tremendous problem but didn’t seem to evolve his argument beyond the idea that “we can’t have folks coming here and then give them free stuff off the backs of hard working Americans”. I suspect he would agree with me that we shouldn’t have ANYONE receiving free stuff off the backs of hard working Americans (legal immigrants, natural born citizens, etc.). The welfare state is a parasite across the board, not merely for immigrants coming from south of the border. Rohrabacher seemed to consent that 50% of the disagreement with the other side was satisfied since they as well affirmed that welfare benefits ought not be given to immigrants.

This discussion, as is essentially always the case in every discussion of this issue I have ever seen, was impaired by the basic inability to separate what is from what ought to be. In other words, the debate was to discuss what OUGHT to be our policy as a nation in the subject of immigration (with the Alex/Teresa side favoring an easier and more accommodative path for legal immigration). But if one received a nickel for every time the Fleischman/Rohrabacher side said “but it is illegal”, or “these people are breaking the law”, etc, etc. one would have received a lot of nickels. A debate is needed on this subject where both sides stay reminded that we already know what the law is and has been; we are debating what the law OUGHT to be. If I ask you, “do you support legalization of marijuana” (for example), and you reply, “well no, because it is illegal”, I assume you would catch yourself in the fallacious error of your ways. Yet people stay in this circular nonsense with immigration over and over again. Begging the question on legal vs. illegal is unhelpful and prevents an evolved discourse. Nowrasteh tried to stay on point regarding the subject of what to do about the current bad policy. Rohrabacher felt that the law is what it is and needs to be enforced, but Alex pointed out that we are a nation with a long history of changing bad laws, and not militantly enforcing the bad laws we have while we process towards change (federal highway speed limit laws and alcohol prohibition both come to mind).

Hernandez was unrelenting in her reminders of present labor realities and the empirical facts that demand for immigrant labor far exceed the supply. Rohrabacher’s retort was that these jobs were “impeding the just interests of the United States”. On this point it seems fair to point out that Rohrabacher and Fleischman themselves may be divided. I asked the Congressman afterwards if he truly felt that Hispanic labor being cheaper (and therefore undercutting American access to a higher paying job) was really an argument against immigration? I fully expected him to say, “of course not, that would be rank protectionism”. He did not bite whatsoever. He reiterated that he opposes imports on Chinese manufactured products and he opposes the importing of cheaper Hispanic labor as well. Fleischman is perhaps too economically sensible (or familiar with the most elementary realities of free market economics) to make this dubious argument (at least dubious for one claiming to be a conservative). It is, of course, not the duty of the state to make laws geared towards protecting one free economic actor from another (the debate always comes down to producer vs. consumer). Immigration may or may not be a good thing and there may be good ways and bad ways for dealing with illegal immigration, but saying that wages of the American worker must be protected via government fiat is statist and economically discriminatory. Fleischman should be commended for not joining the protectionist brigade here.

Dealing with the present 10-20 million illegal immigrants (depending on which study you believe) is perhaps the weakest part of the Fleischman/Rohrabacher argument. I did my best as moderator to force an honest answer to the subject but the best I got was the Congressman saying that Gov. Romney had this right on the campaign, presumably meaning that he is in agreement with the idea of “voluntary deportation”. He claimed he was not for “forced deportation”, but of course some comprehensive and rational policy position on what exactly should be done was not forthcoming. On this issue the militant anti-immigration folks see their argument fall down, for only one in the most incredible levels of delusion would suggest that 16 million people are going to be found, lined up, and transported out of the country (presumably to be dropped at the border?). The heated rhetoric and shouts of “amnesty” have poisoned the well on this subject for years and will continue to do so until both sides admit the obvious: some form of creating a legal guest worker status is going to be required to get our illegal immigrants out of the shadows and into the light of American society. The Lincoln Club’s position stops short of calling for a path to citizenship (though I personally have no aversion to such), but when the choices are clearly limited to one unpopular decision and one impossible decision, unpopularity needs to win.

Finally, and this was highlighted in our debate but also represents the underlying challenge this issue always presents: Conservatives need to come to grips with the fact that it is the preposterous and infantile love affair with multi-culturalism which has become our real enemy, not the mere immigration of those from another race. Fleischman articulated his concerns four times in the debate (concerns that I fully share) regarding the difference between Ellis Island immigration and modern Hispanic immigration (where immigrants were formerly coming to understand and embrace the American way of life, and to assimilate into her land, language, and culture, as opposed to the current system where our own history, heritage, and uniqueness are diminished or ignored). The success the left has had in disparaging American exceptionalism has created the modern controversy over immigration. There should be no fear for “first things” conservatives in foreigners coming to America to pursue a better life – it is the backbone of American history, and it presupposes that there is something better about our country to want to come to (because there is). Our problem is the cultural adoption of the egalitarian notion that all cultures are equal, and no group has right to claim bragging rights over another. The American culture has every right (and responsibility) to defend its way of life, its Constitution, its founding principles, its creeds, its liberties, and language, and its historical civics. Our national failure to do so has ignited opposition to Hispanic immigration, and I am not sure that either side can even see that this is the real source of the angst.

I join Mark Steyn in his classic paradigm formation of a decade ago: Immmigration, Democracy, Multi-Culturalism – pick any two. I pick the first two. So should you.