Seen on Saturday's rally. Photo by Kelly Davis.
Last week, we published an editorial criticizing Arizona's draconian anti-illegal-immigration law, and some of the negative responses to it bemoaned the charges of racism we liberals sometimes level at folks who are virulently against people living in the United States illegally. True, we can't know what's in our adversaries' hearts unless they make it abundantly clear, but given the facts surrounding the emotional policy issue, it's reasonable to arrive at bigotry as a diagnosis.
Folks who decry illegal immigration say it's about the rule of law and economic protection. They say immigrants have been coming to this country legally for centuries and that new immigrants should wait in line like everyone else, and they lament the burden on taxpayer-funded social services and criminal justice—education, emergency medicine, jail, etc.—that illegal immigrants pose.
First of all, we're all for the rule of law—we certainly want powerful interests like corporations, police agencies and elected officials to follow it—but it can take up to a quarter-century for immigrants from certain countries to get into the U.S., and many people fleeing abject poverty in Mexico and Central America don't exactly have that kind of time. These are desperate economic refugees willing to risk death for a chance at a low-paying job. We have no doubt that, given the opportunity, every person on the other side of this debate would cross that border illegally if they were the ones who needed to feed a hungry family right now. The immigrants of yore didn't have to wait that long.
About that economic argument: For the sake of debate, let's agree that illegal immigration represents a net loss for the U.S.—in 2007, the Congressional Budget Office examined more than two-dozen studies and determined that the impact to state and local governments was “most likely modest.” How much of that drain is attributable to the fact that these people are paid poverty wages and therefore impact the economy the way any impoverished people would? What would happen if we instantly legalized everyone here illegally, dramatically raised the immigration quotas for Latin American countries and paid these people decent money for the grueling work they typically do? Sure, it would cost their employers more, but even if the workers sent some money home to their families, they would also spend much more here on products and services and contribute more property, sales and income taxes. And wouldn't that additional economic activity prompt proportionate job creation?
(Frankly, the best argument against increasing the U.S. population isn't about short-term economics; it's about long-term carrying capacity. It's possible that the United States has far exceeded its carrying capacity—that is, the number of people who can be reasonably supported by available agriculture and forest land. One estimate has us already exceeding our carrying capacity by as much as one-third.)
Even so, the bigger picture should be balanced by a certain economic concern not too far off in the future: Social Security has already reached a tipping point—benefits paid out are exceeding payroll taxes coming in, and the imbalance will only increase as the U.S. population ages and the ratio of workers to retirees decreases. Last month, liberal economist Robert Reich argued that increasing legal immigration might be the alternative to the choices before us: raise taxes, reduce benefits or cut expenses elsewhere, such as on big-ticket items like defense or education. Reich points out that immigrants tend to be young people who'd help restore a sustainable balance of workers and retirees, and he argues that once the economy recovers, there should be plenty of jobs. We'd add that some of them would return to their home countries as they get older and wouldn't even benefit from the taxes they've paid in.
Here's the thing: An economics debate is terribly important but doesn't typically come loaded with such heavy emotional baggage, and the inequity of some people getting in illegally after others played by the rules is tempered by the reality that the line to get in is simply too long. The conclusion at which we continually arrive, no matter the route we take, is that the passion comes from xenophobia. White Americans have, over the past half-century or so, seen their beloved culture gradually overtaken by people who look different, speak a different language, listen to different music, engage in different religious traditions—and reproduce at a greater rate.
Maybe we liberals should just start using “xenophobic” instead of “racist” or “bigoted”—might take a little bit of sting out of the punch.
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