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The Real Immigration Debate Isn’t About the Law

Anyone who keeps an eye on immigration in America is thinking about Arizona right now, as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the federal government’s lawsuit against Arizona’s SB 1070.

While the court digs into the legal nuances of pre-emption, let’s step back and consider what the debate is really about.

The Washington Post this week published an article about the architects of many state and local laws cracking down on illegal immigration, including Arizona’s—Michael Hethmon and Kris Kobach. 

Hethmon, general counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, says immigration is “on track to change the demographic makeup of the entire country. You know, what they call ‘minority-majority….’ How many countries have gone through a transition like that—peacefully, carefully? It’s theoretically possible, but we don’t have any examples.” He also predicts that if the Supreme Court upholds the Arizona law, this country will experience “the classic environment for, if you will, sort of nativist-type sentiment.... It should explode at the states or--even better --[Congress] will be provoked to take action.”

His admission that the proliferation of state and local action on immigration policy is about ethnicity and culture rather than legality doesn’t stand alone. Kobach echoes, “Change the individual decisions of particular illegal aliens, and they will decide to leave the country.”  Which particular illegal residents is he referring to?   If this is indeed about legality shouldn’t he be focused on all illegal residents?

Consider the Prince William County, Va. anti-illegal immigrant ordinance (authored by Mr. Hethmon), passed in 2007. In our 2009 case study, my co-authors and I found that county residents who pushed for the law acknowledged that the (presumed illegal) status of their new neighbors was secondary to the changes they were seeing on the ground such as to the outward appearance of houses and property, many of which could have been addressed by local zoning enforcement. But these residents supported the ordinance because it’s easier to focus on something as black and white as legal status as to face the difficult work of addressing neighborhood and cultural change.

As Kobach said about the options for federal immigration reform: “We are constantly told that the only two options are massive roundups [of illegal immigrants] or an amnesty. But attrition through enforcement is the third way.”  

He’s right and wrong. We are told that those are the only two options because people in his camp keep saying it. But it’s not true. The real third way is a legalization program allowing immigrants who have been living and working in the U.S. for several years and not committed crimes to pay fines, learn English, and wait in line to become legal residents. If that is amnesty, then U.S. businesses and consumers have enjoyed a form of amnesty -- cheap labor and cheap goods--all the years that our immigration system has failed to legally meet our demand for labor.

Hethmon acknowledges that the strategy of attrition is flawed: “What are you going to say to the people who say that you’re creating a climate of fear?” Hethmon recalled someone asking him recently. “I say, ‘Well, yeah, it’s not great. But it’s the best choice.’"

No, it’s not. The best choice is to set levels of legal immigration (both low- and high-skilled) that meet our demand for labor, enforce them at the border and the worksite, and then find a legal way for the millions of residents living in this country illegally to continue to contribute to our economy. 

New analysis out this week from the Pew Hispanic Center showing that net migration from Mexico has dropped to zero suggests that the strategy of attrition has been a factor in some migrants’ decisions to leave the United States or not to come in the first place. But migration decisions are complicated, and the recession-driven drop in construction and service sector jobs north of the border combined with improving conditions in Mexico are other major contributors to this shift.

Figuring out how to integrate newcomers into our midst isn’t easy but we’ve been doing it--successfully by most counts--for generations. Hethmon argues that no society has yet succeeded in transitioning peacefully to “majority minority” status, but our history reveals that it’s possible here. Previous waves of immigrants--Southern and Eastern Europeans, Irish, and Chinese--have been vilified, yet today they are considered a positive part of the American story. So much so, in fact, that those once considered “minorities” (i.e. certain European immigrants) are now counted in the “non-minority” category.

The statements reported in the Post piece--and similar ones by many others over our history--reveal that the unease over illegal immigration is, at its heart, cultural. So let’s stop beating around the bush and get down to the difficult task of succeeding in this most important demographic experiment. If any country can do it, we can.