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June 18th, 2004

  Immigration: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


The Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank located in, duh, Manhattan, which publishes deep-research articles by investigative journalists like Heather Mac Donald as well as literate, discursive "think pieces" from the likes of Theodore Dalrymple. They also publish the quarterly City Journal, one of the best policy magazines in the country. They don't have a particular "line" on immigration, though their free-market orientation tilts them somewhat to the libertarian, Wall Street Journal, side of the issue.

Last Tuesday the MI had a morning panel discussion on the topic, featuring their own Tamar Jacoby, the Hudson Institute's John Fonte (who is also a National Review contributor — as occasionally, is Tamar) and Peter Brimelow, who runs the VDARE immigration-restictionist website. Peter is also the author of the landmark 1994 study of U.S. immigration policy, Alien Nation.

Tamar (it's an iamb) put the "realistic" point of view: the U.S. needs lots of low-wage workers, since we no longer generate a large enough class of native-born high-school dropouts to do all our unskilled jobs. We should therefore adjust our immigration rules and laws to reflect this reality, along the lines of President Bush's January 7 proposals.

John Fonte argued that the mechanism of assimilation has broken down. He said we should end extended-family reunification, refuse admission to foreigners known to be hostile to the U.S. as currently constituted, and penalize violations of the Oath of Naturalization. (That's the one in which a new citizen declares: "I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty …")

Peter Brimelow put the case he has been putting for the past ten years: That mass immigration of non-Europeans on the present scale is an unnecessary and unprecedented demographic experiment, for the most part not wanted by the American people, and whose long-term consequences are unpredictable, but very likely negative.

Tamar was in the minority with her relaxed views on the issue — not only in a minority on the panel, but in the room: Most people attending, to judge from the floor questions, were restrictionists. She laid out her case with conviction and spirit, though, and left me admiring her intelligence and debating skills.

Unconvinced, though. Tamar's central argument — that we should adjust our immigration rules to allow in, legally, "the numbers the free market requires" — begs too many questions. For example: One thing the free market really, really likes is cheap labor. Well, guess what: The world is swilling in cheap labor. There are billions of units of cheap labor out there. As Deng Xiaoping famously remarked when Jimmy Carter urged him to open China's borders so her people could emigrate freely to the U.S.: "How many would you like?" (Or, as old British immigration gadfly the late Enoch Powell used to say, and say, and say: Numbers are of the essence.) Given the choice between paying an American $15 an hour to mow its lawn and paying a Guatemalan $5, the free market will go for the latter. Similarly if given the choice between paying an American $100,000 a year to program its computers and importing a Bengali to do the job for $20,000.

And in any case, as John Fonte countered, the Founders of this country made it perfectly clear that issues of large national importance should be decided by "we the people," not by impersonal market forces. I myself much prefer a free market to an unfree one: but I don't believe that the free market is an infallible judge of what is good for the country in all aspects. Should the free market determine defense policy? (Pearl Harbor's been attacked! Never mind, the free market will take care of it.) Public health policy? (A horrible new plague is killing tens of thousands of Americans every week! Don't worry, leave it to the free market.) Then why should the free market decide population policy?

(Oh, you didn't know the U.S. has a population policy? Of course it does; though this policy is a bit like the British Constitution — unwritten. You have to assemble it from all sorts of places: tax laws, immigration and citizenship rules, house-price statistics, health-care premiums, rates of marriage and divorce, college tuition fees … To borrow a rhetorical figure from Aldous Huxley: The choice is never between having a population policy and not having one. The choice is always between having a good population policy and having a bad one.)

And again, as always in these events, the discussion bumped up against the peculiar blind spot native Americans have on this topic, the one I've written about before. (I exclude the British-born Peter Brimelow from this paragraph.) For example, Tamar Jacoby related some stories about Mexican immigrants who become naturalized U.S. citizens, "losing" their Mexican citizenship thereby and having to go through an arduous process ro re-acquire it. Even John Fonte, who is as knowledgable and well-read on this topic as any native American, and has testified to Congress about it, had a tale concerning a Pakistani immigrant who had had to surrender his Pakistani passport in order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Now, I myself went through the naturalization process two years ago. Not only did no U.S. official ask me to surrender my British passport, the officer at my final INS interview made a point of telling me that I could hold on to it for convenience if I so chose! (And in fact, since a passport is a government document which you merely "bear" but do not own, if a U.S. government official demands that you surrender your British or Pakistani passport to him, he is probably violating international law.)

If you naturalize as a U.S. citizen, you don't lose anything — except your personal integrity — if you later violate your Oath of Naturalization. In fact, when you naturalize you acquire dual citizenship by default, since there is no way your country of origin can know you have become a U.S. citizen, unless you go out of your way to tell them. There is no vast, omniscient international database tagging every person in the world with his correct and lawful citizenship. Heck, there aren't even any national databases doing this! (Except possibly in a few small, over-controlled police states like Singapore.)

When I raised this in a floor question, John Fonte mentioned a scheme that he had mooted with the immigration authorities, by which the embassy of (say) Pakistan would regularly be presented with lists of Pakistanis who had become naturalized U.S. citizens. The Pakistanis could then strike these people from their own citizenship rolls. Again, and with all due respect to my friend and colleague, this sounds to me like fantasy. I should be very surprised to learn that such citizenship rolls exist in Pakistan, and are reliably maintained. The whole scheme, in fact, depends on the efficiency and honesty of the Pakistani state bureaucracy …


At this point, I start to get depressed. I get depressed because I very much like the idea of human liberty. Yet I don't see how this country, or any country, can have a sane population policy without further curtailing human liberty, not in this age of cheap travel, instant information, and international terrorism. It is very hard indeed to think of schemes for getting a proper grip on immigration without greatly expanding and improving the government's knowledge of our personal, individual lives — and even of the lives of foreigners, too.

That is depressing. I get very melancholy, in fact, contemplating the great retreat of human liberty this past 100 years — even in the Anglosphere, where we take the concept of liberty seriously. Look at that page I quoted from A.J.P. Taylor a few months ago. What an easy-going world that was!

A few scraps of this insouciance about what private citizens are doing has survived into modern times. For example: Am I married? To be sure, I can produce a certificate to say so. Would you like to see it? Here you are. Now, is this document actually valid in the United States? I have always vaguely supposed so; but I confess I have never bothered to check, and for all I know my marriage may not be valid here. It doesn't seem to matter. The certificate got my wife a U.S. visa from the Shenyang Consulate back in 1986, and since then no-one has asked to see it.

A much larger part of our public life — our relationships with the authorities of the State, I mean — used to be like that. As A.J.P. Taylor says in that extract: "Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman." That zone of liberty has shrunk considerably. My guess is that it will have to shrink more, if we are to survive as a nation.

Just as, according to Professor Pinker, we are stumbling through the modern high-tech world with mental skill sets developed during the Paleolithic, so we are still operating our immigration and nationality policies as if we still lived in a time when everyone had six kids and lived on a farm, it took a week to cross the Atlantic, and peasants in China and Bengal would not have been able to see any point in migrating en masse to the U.S.A. even if they knew such a place existed, which they mostly didn't. This can't go on. And that's a shame.


Postscript.  So much for cerebration about this topic. Now to some practical politics in the real, ugly world — the world where accusations of "bigotry,"  "intolerance,"  "mean-spiritedness" and "hate" are sufficient to shut down all debate and frustrate all action.

The morning after that panel discussion I happened to read the day's issue of Long Island Newsday, a local rag with a strong left-liberal line pervading not only its editorial pages but also, as is pretty much routine nowadays, its news coverage.

What should I read but a report on a June 8 debate in the legislature of my home county — Suffolk County, Long Island. Our county legislature meets once a month or so, largely to authorize line-item resolutions spending federal, state and local revenues. There are also, however, always a few "Sense Resolutions" on offer to the legislators, in which they can express a collective opinion about something or other.

On June 8 one of the items before the legislature was Sense Resolution S-042: "Memorializing resolution requesting Federal government to enforce immigration laws." This resolution was hotly debated before being rejected because it was short one vote. Legislator Elie Mystal, who represents a district largely populated by African-Americans (but who himself hails from Haiti) said: "I am an immigrant and this bill is hatred." Well, I am an immigrant, too, Mr. Mystal, and here's a question from one immigrant to another: If calling on the federal government to enforce federal law is "hatred," what would calling on my County government to enforce local ordinances — the ones you and your fellow legislators enact — be?

My own representative, Republican Legislator Paul Tonna, added: "The fact is that in the history of the United States there's been a lot of unjust laws, this being one of them. I don't want the enforcement of this law because I think these laws are bad laws. They don't work." Apparently Legislator (!) Tonna believes that it is up to him personally to decide which laws he will obey and which he will ignore. As with Mr. Mystal, I should quite like to know if Legislator Tonna has the same free-wheeling attitude to the laws that he and his fellow legislators impose on myself and my neighbors — the ones that determine my property taxes, for instance.

Not that legislator Tonna's point of view is a completely original one. Dr. Johnson was once told of a philosophical gentleman who maintained that there was no distinction between virtue and vice. Replied Johnson: "If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons." Should Legislator Tonna or Legislator Mystal ever grace the Derbyshire dinner table with their presences, we shall be sure, after they have gone, to count our spoons very carefully.