Saturday, April 10, 2010

Explaining the Immigration Divide. (Part I)

No other topic produces such divergent views as immigration. As I've listened to debates, I've often wondered how such a large chasm could exist between intelligent, good willed people. Both sides of the debate recognize that the system is broke, however each side offers radically different solutions, with one side seeking an amnesty and the other" seeking greater enforcement of existing laws. Most participants in the debate utilize the terms of "pro" or "anti" immigrants, which tell us very little about the reasons and policies that characterize and individual's or group's positions and policies. I prefer immigration liberalizer or restrictionist. I came to see that both sides differed so sharply because they were focused on totally different aspects of the same phenomena. Or, more specifically, both sides had a dramatically different scale of focus and temporal orientation, both logistically and in terms of fundamental values.

Most of the liberalizer narratives are focused on an individual, human scale and the direct and immediate effects engendered by the enforcement of immigration law. Such narratives usually center on heart wrenching tales of good, hard working families split up by the enforcement of immigration law. Hearing the pleas of tearful children, one cannot help but desire a normalization of the immigration status of the millions of families who face similar circumstances. And naturally, many people are led to wonder how the restrictionist camp could resist measures that clearly would alleviate the real, immediate hardship of millions.

In contrast, outside of a racist fringe, most restrictionist narratives focus on a larger, socio-economic scale and the indirect, long term effects of our current immigration policies. These narratives usually center on hard data that demonstrates the deleterious economic and social effects of our current immigration policies. More sophisticated partisans, such as the Harvard economist George Borjas present the paradox of behaviors that are positive on an individual level, but hold negative economic repercussions. For example, who could fault a man who risks his life to cross a border and then labors as a painter or gardener to help feed his family in Michoacan? But, as Borjas points out, when several million individuals engage in the same behavior, wages are depressed and public services are strained. Thus we see that most restrictionists are not indifferent to the hardships of their fellow man, they are simply more focused on long term, macro-economic and macro-social welfare. And they recognize that in many ways the kind acts of yesterday, have lead to the suffering of today. For example, years of lax immigration enforcement have allowed for our current debacle: the massive growth of a class of residents who reside in the legal, social and economic shadows of the United States.

On a deeper level we see that both sides are focus by positive, but distinct values. Whereas the arguments of liberalizers tend to center on emotional based values, such as kindness, restrictionists tend to focus on more abstract principles like: national sovereignty and rule of law. They argue that although the maintenance of these principles often imply short term hardships for some, they are essential in promoting the general welfare of the nation. And some would go further saying that arguments pertaining to immigration transcend utility and welfare and touches on the issue of natural rights. Specifically, it is the natural right of a people to enact and enforce laws that they see fit, especially those that pertain to its borders. So, the selection of immigrants, solely rests with that nation's citizens. Most liberalizers implicitly reject this position, believing that non-citizens have the right of "self selection"
by illegally crossing the border and then protesting against laws fashioned by the American people via the democratic process. Even many individuals who were sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants were troubled by recent marches, believing that this issue must be be debated and resolved solely by American citizens.

This brings us to another divide - the explanation of the cause of and solution to undocumented immigration. Liberalizers often state is that the phenomena arises because the supply of visas neither matches the external demand to immigrate to the United States nor the internal demand of employers for immigrant workers. So, their solutions is based on the premise that the supply of visas must sharply rise to match internal and external demand and internal enforcement must cease. Few would directly propose the elimination of borders, but the said policies imply a defacto open border in which the movement of people are determined by the forces of supply and demand and not the will of the electorate via laws. The great irony is that few liberalizers are proponents of laissez faire economics; on all other issues, most seek greater government control over the economic and social life.

Restrictionists sharply reject this line of argumentation for various reasons. First, they point out that even if we quadrupled the number of allotted visas, we could never hope to match the insatiable and rational desire of hundreds of millions of poor people from across the globe to immigrate to the United States. Secondly, it's the right of the American people and not businesses to determine immigration policy. And on an economical level, many economists believe that the demand for cheap(er) and (more) compliant labor is an elastic demand that can never fully be met. In other words, even if we enacted an amnesty of today's undocumented workers and substantially increased the number of work visas, a huge demand would still exist among employers for undocumented workers, in order to gain a competitive edge.

Restrictionists also point out that when wages rise because of a relative shortage of labor, employers begin to substitute capital for labor; investing in the development of new technologies, as well as human capital. They further point out that before we expand the supply of labor via immigration, economic and more importantly social logic dictates that we should seek to "activate" underutilized human resources, such as millions of Americans who are chronically unemployed. On a deeper level they point out that over the long run, plentiful cheap labor has never raised the living standards and competitiveness of nations. Rather, the substitution of capital (both financial and human) for cheap labor, necessitated by a relative shortages of labor, is central in raising wages and living standards. But, given the opportunity, most employers will take the low road of expanding the supply of cheap labor, even when this standards in contrast to the general welfare and wishes of the public.

Liberalizers correctly point out the direct and immediate benefits of bringing millions of undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. A surprising number of restrictionists are willing to concede this point, however they respond that such a line of thought and action fails to consider the past and the future. They point out that since the Amnesty of 3,000,000 undocumented immigrants in 1986, the number of undocumented immigrants has surged to 12,000,000. They are understandably skeptical when pro-amnesty politicians promise an increase in law enforcement and they correctly conclude that today's amnesty will increase incentives for future law breaking and within 10 years, liberalizers will be demanding yet another amnesty. The only difference will be that shifts in the electorate will make future enforcement even less politically feasible. And while both sides can legitimately disagree on what measures are most conducive to broad, national interests, most liberalizers seem to be far more focused on the interests of their ethno-political constituents, rather than the general welfare of all Americans.

So, the question remains: how much of government policy should be driven by the heart and how much by the mind? How much should be driven by a concern for alleviating individual hardship and how much by long term socio-economic concerns? And irregardless of our positions, we must always bear in mind that the easy solutions of today often lead to even greater problems in the future. But unfortunately, most politicians are all too willing to pursue measures that will increase their power, regardless of the costs they will impose on future generations. Stay tuned for more change we can believe in.

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