Criticizing immigration in America has become a little like criticizing the state of Israel: If you do it, be prepared to encounter a certain amount of abuse. Question Israel's policies or the US-Israeli connection and you're anti-Semitic. Question the open-door immigration policy of this country or the problem of illegal aliens and you're xenophobic or, worse, a racist. In either case, the provocateur has raised one of the great unmentionables of American public life about which rational discussion is precluded.
At the moment, immigration is the issue on the front burner, placed there by moves in Congress and the White House to "do something" about the current flood of undocumented workers. The May Day marches in support of general amnesty for illegals have succeeded in turning up the heat a few more degrees, guaranteeing that the debate won't soon subside.
Complicating the immigration dilemma is the extreme posture and simplistic rhetoric of the contending sides. To the political right, a portion of which is undeniably ethno-phobic, illegal immigrants are criminals or freeloaders bent on stealing American jobs, collecting undeserved social benefits, and acquiring the American Dream on the cheap. To the political left, some of which is playing the ethnic-identity card, the undocumented are innocent, idealistic pilgrims seeking freedom and self-actualization through hard work and an embrace of American values.
Republicans hope to use nativist sentiment in the heartland to shore up their wobbly electoral base; Democrats hope to use Latino pride and consciousness in the southwestern border states to create new electoral majorities. Caught in the middle are the great mass of Americans, conflicted by legitimate socioeconomic concerns on the one hand and memories of their own immigrant heritage on the other.
The present wave of Hispanic migrants (the majority of the undocumented) have themselves been convinced, not without reason, that they have a God-given right to enter the US at will and be accepted. Partly, this is a reaction to the widely understood, but increasingly problematic, cultural ethos holding that, as "a land of immigrants," America cannot in good conscience turn away any newcomers, legal or otherwise. Partly, it is a function of history as well. The US-Mexico border has been fluid for decades; the southwestern states were once part of Mexico, and short-term migration back and forth has long been a fact of life. Then, too, there exists a tradition of winking and looking the other way with respect to the southern boundary when Anglo business interests so dictate. And, finally, there is the broad, overall US immigration policy of more or less open borders that says, in effect, if you can get here, no matter how, you get to stay.
It will be hard to suddenly create and enforce a coherent border-control policy when for years the working policy has been no policy at all. Those to whom the new rules are applied will feel singled out and discriminated against. Regardless, it has to be done. America can't accommodate the entire world, let alone serve indefinitely as an economic safety valve for Mexico and all the other nations of the Western Hemisphere.
For one thing, this country is becoming overcrowded. Our population has more than doubled just since World War II, putting strains on the environment and all manner of natural resources, and threatening the quality of life. Immigration has been a large factor in the increase, particularly over the last generation. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, immigrants and children of immigrants accounted for 70% of US population growth between 1970 and 1998. During that time, the number of immigrants living in the US almost tripled (from 9.6 million to 26.3 million), and of those, half came from Latin America, a quarter from Mexico alone. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that average annual immigration into the US has ballooned from 800,000 in the 1980s to 1.3 million in the post-2000 era. Since the mid-1990s, over half of it (an estimated 700,000 migrants per year) has consisted of illegal entrants. No country can continue absorbing numbers like that without dire consequences.
Many of the consequences will be economic, and here we reach the crux of the matter. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are, and always have been, economic immigrants, coming in search of work, not freedom. This is a fact well known to the American business community, immigration's most powerful advocacy group, but a fact largely ignored in the emotionally charged debate of our time. Economically, immigration helped build the US; it also enabled American capitalists to force down domestic wage rates across the board for the better part of a century, something organized labor (now strongly proimmigration) has forgotten.
Today, the economy is global, and immigration is an integral part of globalization's framework. Migrant workforces represent the free flow of labor, and labor flexibility and mobility are key to making globalization work as the multinationals intended. Immigration and outsourcing are, in fact, the opposite sides of the same coin. (Not by accident is such a passionate globalizer as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also a supporter of untrammeled immigration.) Large-scale immigration allows corporations to enforce their economic will, keeping populations on the move, wages low, and profits high; if Americans, for example, won't do the work at the right price, there are always others who will.
So, a new immigration policy that controls US borders and slows both the legal and illegal influx from abroad is essential for, among other things, the long-range well-being of American workers. A bogus reform that merely confers a blanket amnesty on the undocumented population won't be sufficient. We tried that in 1986, when three million resident illegal aliens were absorbed in a "onetime" amnesty supposed to be followed by firmly enforced rules and regulations for future legal entry. Twenty years later, it's déjà vu all over again, this time with an estimated 12 million resident illegals instead of 3 million.
What precise shape a new immigration policy should take remains debatable. Perhaps a limited guestworker program needs to be part of the equation. But it's time to get serious about solutions, and end paeans to the Statue of Liberty and romantic notions about an endless open door to all the world.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.