8 Myths In The Immigration Debate

Stop Saying That. It's Not True.


The ongoing debate over immigration, and over illegal immigration in particular, is one of the most acrimonious – usually needlessly so – in our politics. It divides both parties, though it’s no secret that the divisions within the GOP on this issue are far worse. And all sides in this debate are guilty of peddling myths and rhetoric that do more harm to the debate than good.

1. “One-Time” Amnesty: The 1986 immigration bill – one of Ronald Reagan’s biggest mistakes as President – was sold to the public as a long-term, if not permanent, solution to the immigration problem, and in exchange, illegal immigrants already in the country for four years were given a one-time path to citizenship. The law was a failure, as all sides of the debate recognize (if it had really solved the problem, we wouldn’t still be fighting over it): “the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the country soared, from an estimated 5 million in 1986 to 11.1 million today.”

Trust us, we are told: it will be different this time. And it probably will – some things will work better than in the past, some worse. But fundamentally, complete security at the border that eliminates 100% of illegal immigration is no more plausible than 100% elimination of drugs, abortion, guns, pornography, cigarettes, prostitution, or anything else there’s a demand for. The best we can do is to reduce, rather than completely eliminate, lawbreaking. And the record of government competence in this particular area does not inspire confidence.

Personally, I favor a path to legalization, perhaps not full citizenship but at least lawful permanent residency for people who have made a life in this country and – other than being here illegally – have not committed any crime. But if we are talking seriously about the terms of a path to legalization, we should ask ourselves what kind of path is rigorous enough to accept as a permanent feature of our immigration laws, one that preserves the preference and priority for legal immigrants rather than incentivizing them to come illegally. We should not play the childish game of pretending that we can lay down a path now and never be asked to do it again.

2. Everything Is “Amnesty”: At the same time, the unrealistic and hyperbolic overuse of the term “amnesty” often makes it impossible to have a reasonable discussion of what to do about illegal immigrants. Not every proposal short of mass deportations or Romneyesque “self-deportation” by attrition is the same: many proposals involve penalties or disabilities that make people worse off than if they had come legally, or worse off than they were before (except for gaining legal status). And immigration is by no means the only policy area in which governments use amnesties, clemencies or similar programs – tax amnesties are fairly common, as are amnesties for lesser offenses like parking violations. No grave social stigma is attached to people who qualify for them. Even in the criminal law, few people are punished to the full statutory maximum penalty for any offense, and lots of people (even violent offenders) return to American society after paying whatever debt is demanded of them.

The blanket condemnation of any and all policies that allow people to stay in the U.S. after entering illegally is based on the view that illegal immigration somehow makes you different as a person, as if it is a form of original sin that can never be forgiven. That is neither a conservative nor a Christian view, and it is inconsistent with a long history of people making it to America by hook or by crook. If it benefits society to allow people to remain here – a point we can fairly and reasonably debate – and if we do not create undue incentives for illegal entry, there is no principled reason why people who want to be Americans cannot be allowed to stay here.

3. “Undocumented Immigrants” and “Illegals”: Because illegal entry is a form of conduct, not an identity, we should really dispense with referring to people as “illegals.” They are not a legal status – they’re human beings. But the flip side of “illegals” is the liberals’ insistence on the term “undocumented immigrants,” as if the law itself is simply meaningless misplaced paperwork. Really every person with a functioning brain recognizes the willful dishonesty of this term, which exists solely to pander and mislead.

The proper term for people who entered the country illegally is illegal immigrants, or perhaps illegal aliens, although the term “alien” isn’t really all that commonly used as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries.

4. “Conservatives Just Hate Immigrants”: One of the really infuriating tendencies in the immigration debate is the Democrats’ insistence on not distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration. But conservatives care about law and order, and to most conservatives, the distinction is a hugely important one. No serious person would propose that legal immigrants “self-deport,” for example. The majority of conservative voters, if given the choice, ask only that the government put the clamps on illegal immigration.

5. “Nobody Is Anti-Immigration,” and “Nobody Is Anti-Immigrant”: Again, the flip side of this is that our side of the aisle often protests that nobody is against immigration or that nobody is against immigrants. And if we are honest, this is simply not true. First of all, there are undoubtedly some people – and they are usually loud enough to be easily spotted – who simply don’t like Mexicans, or generally dislike non-English speakers. (In fact, even if you welcome immigration, it can undeniably be frustrating at times dealing with people who do not speak the language well. That is a completely human reaction and one that has always existed in every country.) Second, while I believe it has greater benefits than harms in the long run – because people, on net, are an asset, and a nation needs a growing population – the immigrant experience in this country has always brought with it a certain level of poverty and social problems, and reasonable people can differ over the costs and benefits.

And third and most importantly, even if you have nothing personally against immigrants, there are clearly people (and not just conservatives) who think all immigration should be restricted, legal and illegal, or at least that we should restrict the volume of immigration to something like what is now allowed legally. At the extreme, every sane person believes this – neither our economy, nor our culture, nor our political system is equipped to deal with, employ and assimilate an unlimited number of people who did not grow up here. But even within the bounds of current debate, there are those who argue that too many immigrants drive down wages and reduce job opportunities for native-born Americans. Like it or not, this view is fairly prevalent among labor unions and blue-collar workers (if anything, it is more commonly held among African-Americans, who have often been the workers competing directly with new migrants). It was the view of Cesar Chavez. It is, at least in part, why Mexico itself has such draconian immigration laws. The same arguments are echoed in debates over agricultural guest workers and H-1B visas for high-tech workers. Again, reasonable people can differ on the merits of this argument, but it is a legitimate argument and not simply a smokescreen for the hating of Mexicans. In times of economic hardship and uncertainty, it is callous and insular for our political elite to look down on these concerns and belittle them as unfit for public discussion.

If you think there is no such thing as people who are against immigration, ask yourself the last time you heard the phrase “close the borders.” Because that is being against all immigration.

6. “Secure The Border First”: One of the favorite phrases used by Republican politicians is “secure the border first.” As a matter of legislative bargaining, of course, it’s entirely reasonable to demand that the other side put X in a bill, or maybe even pass X into law, before we move on to Y. That’s part of the give and take of sausage-making.

But as a policy matter, as I noted above, the border will never be 100% secure. You can argue for particular policies: the fence (which I think would be both practically and symbolically helpful, but is no cure-all), an increase in the size of the Border Patrol and in the tactics it is approved to use, or interior-enforcement mechanisms like e-Verify (I’m skeptical of its big-government bureaucratic mandates). But realistically, we are unlikely even to have an agreed-upon, objective standard for when and whether the border is “secure”. If we had solid, real-time data about border crossings, we’d be better at stopping them. We can demand specific improvements, but any policy we enact must accept the reality that some level of border insecurity will always be with us.

7. “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”: One of the worst features of modern Washington is the thousand-page forest of “comprehensive” legislation on any given subject, in which there are an almost limitless number of places to hide special-interest gimmicks and giveaways and traps for the unwary, and so many nooks and crannies that even more voluminous regulations are needed to interpret the rules. Madison famously warned, in Federalist No. 62:

It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the few, not for the many.

Madison could hardly have asked for a better illustration of this than Obamacare, of which then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi earned her permanent place in the lexicon of notorious American political quotations by asserting that we would have to pass the bill to find out what was in it. Four years later, what the bill does and does not contain and when it goes into effect is still the subject of political debate, regulation, and litigation, including the pending D.C. Circuit Halbig decision on whether the bill’s reference to subsidies on state exchanges actually means state and federal exchanges (even the Administration and its defenders essentially concede that this could have been more clearly drafted) and current Speaker Boehner’s threatened lawsuit over when the employer mandate goes into effect.

Because so much of immigration law is a devil-in-the-details business, the prospects for mischief, misunderstanding and executive misreading abound, even if you think the idea of the bill is a good one. And while everyone is in favor of reforming the immigration laws, there are huge and real disagreements about what “reform” means. The only political justification for rolling every subject – border enforcement, path to legalization and/or citizenship, guest workers, H-1B visas – into a single bill is the theory that a comprehensive compromise is more likely to pass than a bill on one or another specific subject that does not have something for every faction.

The problem with this theory is that it is belied by political reality. “Comprehensive reform” didn’t pass when we had a Republican president and a Democratic House and Senate. It didn’t pass when we had a Democratic president, a Democratic House and a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate. It hasn’t passed with a Democratic president, a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. And there’s no particular reason to think it stands a better chance of passing with a Democratic president, a Republican House and a Republican Senate (if the GOP gains the Senate this fall) or even if the GOP were to win back all three branches in 2016. The more sensible approach, if you are actually looking to make the legislative process work and not just grandstand at campaign time, is to build trust and momentum by shearing off smaller pieces of the bill and passing them as standalone bills, one at a time, each with its own coalition, each concise enough that people will know what they are voting on.

8. The Facts Are On Our Side: Conservative immigration hawks repeatedly find themselves talking past the rest of the political system on these issues, because ultimately the conservative argument is about what is legal and illegal, right and wrong, practical and impractical, while everyone else is talking about what is popular and unpopular, what is offensive and what is welcoming. And of course, as with every aspect of this issue, there are fair arguments about immigration policy from the standpoint of pure, unprincipled electoral calculus.

Unfortunately, too many people on our side fail to understand that in a democracy, the facts are not everything – we can not win arguments without a thought to the tone and presentation of them and how they will be received by people who do not start off agreeing with us. It is always most effective to write and speak, on any issue, with an eye towards persuading people who may be undecided on an issue that yours is the most reasonable and humane position. Instead, way too many of the people who care most about the immigration issue write and speak as if their hair is on fire and an immigrant just killed their dog. And that is extremely unhelpful to the cause of the GOP, the cause of the conservative movement, and even the cause of doing something serious about controlling illegal immigration. For example, Proposition 227, banning bilingual education in California schools, passed with 61% of the vote in 1998 not because California voters were convinced to hate Spanish-speaking people, but because even many immigrants were persuaded that their children were better off being pushed to learn English. But today, with immigration a polarizing partisan issue nationally, California Democrats are pushing a ballot question to repeal Prop 227 by 2016.

Hispanic and Asian voters in particular tend to view the really hard-line rhetoric on this issue, the people who talk about “invaders” and hype every bad thing that can be said about illegal immigrants, the people who have a problem even with private charity aiding children and teenagers stranded at the border, as driven by racism. Fair or not, when the loudest voices in your movement have that effect, they should reconsider what they are doing, because facts or no facts, law or no law, in a democracy, one man and the truth are lonely drinking buddies.

The immigration debate is hard enough as a matter of both policy and politics without making it more difficult by constantly saying things that are not so.

Get Alerts