Sunday, January 06, 2008

Conservative Approaches to Immigration

I've been thinking about why immigration is such an important subject especially for conservatives. Living in DC one doesn't get a good sense of what drives the concern. I was in Texas last May, however, and asked about the immigration issue. It's a more salient issue there and has been as long as I can remember.

Running through and rejecting the standard arguments and claims (taking away American jobs, not paying taxes, being a drain on the healthcare system, etc.), which we know don't hold up, I would find that the Texas conservatives I talked to ended up mostly saying something vague along the lines of this: "well, we are here legally; and they ought to be here legally too." Of course, a response could then be to ask why amnesty - legalizing undocumented immigrants already in the US - isn't an option if legal status is the foundational concern. This then gets the whole cycle through the other claims/arguments going again. I wondered aloud, perhaps unfortunately even if in Socratic fashion, if racism isn't at the heart of the issue. Of course, few people are going to overtly argue that.

My colleague, Peter Levine, does a very nice job of summarizing the main stances for a "principled conservative" on immigration. I'm going to repost his post in its entirety because it's a very good one and difficult to chop up without losing the substance. But make sure you click through and check out some of his other posts.

On what grounds can a principled conservative oppose immigration?

One strain of modern conservatism is explicitly Christian and fundamentalist, in the specific sense that it uses the Bible as its "foundation." The New Testament seems a poor foundation for restrictions on immigration. The apostles are given the gift of tongues so that they may emigrate and convert everyone, everywhere. They show no respect for borders. "Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34-35).

Another strain is libertarian. Libertarians criticize the state for its use of force to restrain individual choice. They do not regard any state as intrinsically legitimate, but only as a tool for preserving liberty. Nothing could be more forceful than stationing agents with guns on a border to prevent individuals from moving freely across it. Immigration restrictions should be anathema to libertarians.

A third strain is free-market utilitarianism. The idea is that unrestricted markets are best for the most people--they are maximally efficient. That assumption should apply to labor markets as well as capital markets, and should therefore support free flow of people across borders. Possibly, it's good for the median US citizen to restrict the in-flow of poor people. But if we take utilitarianism seriously, it requires the most good for the most human beings--anywhere. If we are free-market utilitarians, we should favor free immigration.

A fourth strain is Burkean--skeptical about any radical changes, especially if they are engineered by law or regulation. On Burkean grounds, opening the US to massive immigration may have been a mistake in the 1960s, but reversing that policy would be equally foolish today.

A fifth strain is communitarian/traditionalist. The most attractive version of that philosophy says: Our community may not be better than anyone else's, but it gives our lives meaning and shapes our identities. We have the right to preserve its traditional outlines and to guide its growth. One might add that the traditional culture of some parts of America is English-speaking, Protestant, and of European origin (or of European and African origins). But that's no argument against immigration to New York City or LA, where the local traditions revolve around diversity and migration. Nor is it obvious that the real driver of cultural change in rural America is migration across national borders. Old ways would hardly be preserved if the newcomers were sent away.

Some conservatives have already decided that a few specific issues, such as abortion, have transcendent significance. It's not clear why they should also be opposed to immigration. In fact, new immigrants are less likely to favor abortion rights than native-born Americans are. Immigration may be a path to conservative social policy.

Finally, there's the idea of "rule of law." Actually, that's a complex idea with several components, but one element surely is the principle that a clear, written law must be obeyed and enforced. As some of the anti-immigrant activists ask, "What is it about 'illegal' that you don't understand?" I too am concerned whenever formal laws are massively disobeyed. This probably causes some loss of legitimate order and security; it also gives agents of the state too much discretion about when to enforce. But I'm not sure that rule of law is a specifically conservative principle. It is in tension with all the elements of modern conservatism listed above--and with many principles of modern progressive thought. I'd prefer to see it as a separate idea that has considerable merit when balanced against other values. (Of course, one way to respect the rule of law is to relax immigration regulations so that they are no longer widely disregarded by migrants and by American industry.)

I conclude that principled conservatives should not adopt an anti-immigrant posture. It's therefore disappointing the Republican presidential candidates should be united only by their opposition to immigration.


jenhargis said...

I consider myself somewhat conservative, however, I claim NO party affiliation, no person and certainly no party represents all of my values. Anyway, I am not against immigration or amnesty. My problem is people who don't want to learn English as it relates to me. I know that USA has no official language, so I have no desire to mandate that people learn it, but if someone wants to talk to me, they should know enough English to do it. I realize this can be a controversial opinion, but if I am a guest (which I consider illegal aliens to be) in a non-English speaking person's home, I don't expect them to accommodate me by learning my language. It is my responsiblity to learn their language in their home.

If all the good people of Mexico come to the US, then maybe all those American companies who took their jobs to Mexico will bring them back here. I can't be against THAT.

helmut said...

Yeah, see, I really don't see how this is a problem. If I travel abroad and don't already know the language, I try to at least learn a bit so I can communicate and get by. Americans are notorious, however, for demanding that others speak English to them in other countries. So, at best on my understanding, people ought to try to speak the language of the country they're in. But this isn't any moral obligation. It's really only a matter of practicality. But some Americans seem to have turned what is at most a question of etiquette into some kind of profound moral principle. I find this ridiculous. It's especially ridiculous because most of the people making the claim never have to deal with anyone in any significant way who can't speak English.

And this is all beside the fact that a pluralistic society such as the US is necessarily going to include different languages.

Thus, I don't see what the issue is.

jenhargis said...

I agree that this a small point. Maybe even weak. I don't seek legislation in any way, as you said, it is a matter of etiquette. I am one who has to deal with people who don't speak English on a fairly regularly basis, and I do whatever I can to accommodate them, that doesn't bother me.

Here is an example of what does (I am aware that it may make me look like quite shallow): I was in McDonald's recently and there was a kitchen full of people and one person taking orders at the counter, one at the drive-thru. The drive-thru and the counter were backed way up, there were 17 people in line inside, 12 in drive-thru. I asked the manager why the girl who stood uselessly in front of the fry vat wasn't taking orders too, he said she didn't speak any english. Nor did anyone else in the kitchen. The kitchen workers weren't terribly busy, the food was going out just fine. So the manager, the guy taking orders in the drive-thru and the guy at the counter were the only ones who spoke english. That is 3 out of 11 people. It took me 20 minutes to buy a coke. Go somewhere else? Yes, in the future, it would have taken me just as long to get a coke somewhere else as it would have for me to stand in that line. Shallow? Yeah, probably.

MT said...

Nothing's easier than getting diverse people to unite under a poorly rationalized principle that attracts them for reasons they'd rather not admit.

Anyway the law breakers are the employers, who entice foreigners without visas to cross openings in the border when nobody is looking with the prospect of cash, with which they bribe them to occupy positions that people with proper visas or green cards or even native-born citizens of the United States could fill. Allegedly ignorance of the law is no excuse, but speed limits and prohibitions against parking are posted. I doubt many of these foreign enticees ever face a posted notice in English even, let alone their own language, that by accepting money for work of a kind that people engage in openly here and back in their own country they will be breaking a law. It's a dubious practice having special laws of the land just for people from other lands--at least, assuming an egalitarian society. Do we have a law for every land a person might come from? I suspect there's no legal language that strictly and sensibly applies to a Djiboutian who is in Texas without a work permit until that Djiboutian is working. Then suddenly there's pertinent language stating that they're obliged to go to jail or be deported. That would be a mean kind of law.

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