Sunday, May 27, 2007

Further thoughts on immigration

The earlier postings on inequality mentioned illegal immigration as one of the three major sources of the "new inequality" in the US in the last 30 years. (The other two are the education and marriage bifurcations.) It's an important aspect of both the inequality and immigration issues, one strangely neglected by most liberal commentators, who seem very confused on this point, as they're often confused about many things. (Although Kaus is one liberal commentator who's been consistent and persistent in his opposition to illegal immigration; he too wonders why many liberals are confused.) Of course, the whole issue really only registered nationally in the last year or so, a testimony to the ability of political elites to live in their own world and the power of news media "blackout."

But it would be wrong to view immigration as a whole this way. After all, America was built, following the earliest generations of colonial settlers, by immigrants, and immigration has been a largely positive force in American life. The earlier inequality discussion should also have made clear that the problem is with illegal immigrants. The problem is not just that they're breaking the law by coming here; their whole way of life here depends on chronic lawbreaking by themselves and practically everyone dealing with them. Even more unsettling is that the combination of illegals having welfare state claims, while remaining outside the tax system, puts a permanent lopsided burden on local and state governments. In locales with large numbers of illegals, those lower levels of government have faced year after year of fiscal crisis directly a result of a situation caused by a serious federal failure. Voters are rightly angry about it, and they're largely angry (correctly) at the politicians and political elites, more than at illegal immigrants per se. (The supposed economic benefits of illegal immigration are more than offset by these costs, as well as by the downward pressure on wages of unskilled labor.) Finally, there is the serious problem of the development of permanent ghettos of residents unwilling and uninterested in integration with the rest of American society. You only need to look at, say, France to see where that leads.

Much of the debate, especially on the right, but on the liberal side as well, has also been carried on under the false doctrine of economic determinism. All three sides of the issue - political/legal, social, and economic - need to be considered together; each has ramifications for the other two. Economics is not the fundamental dog that wags the tail of the other two.*

But back to the positives: One of the few good things about the new immigration bill is that goes a long way towards fixing the other thing that's broken, the legal immigration system. It's currently a mess and makes immigration by legal immigrants - people who seriously want to become part of American society and who should be welcomed - much more of a hassle than it should be. This hassle in turn has created a whole cottage industry of immigration law that rakes in money from people caught in the resulting limbo. The only problem is that the new bill implements a more rational system over the next decade. It should be phased in immediately, or within a few years, at most.

While welcoming legal immigrants - especially those with skills and possibly capital - we should pause to consider the effect massive immigration from poorer countries on those countries of origin. The earlier postings also pointed out that the illegal immigration problem - like our lopsided trade deficits with Japan and China - cannot be fully solved here. There is also the failure of the countries-of-origin to develop. When their best-and-brightest immigrate here, does that not have the effect of "country-stripping"?

POSTSCRIPT: Related thoughts from Charles Krauthammer, over at the WaPo.
* That's the purplest passage of weird metaphors you'll ever see on this blog :)

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