Whoever he is, the next US President will be wrong on immigration

Josh Barro of Bloomberg has a good piece on 5 terrible policies which both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney endorsed in last night’s US presidential debate. My only complaint about Barro’s article: its obvious failure to mention immigration policy. The immigration¬†status quo, not just in the US but in virtually every modern nation-state, is regressive, degenerate, and immoral. Maybe this universality makes it unremarkable in the US, but keeping the borders closed certainly qualifies as one of the “Worst Ideas Romney and Obama Agree On,” per Barro’s headline.

The acknowledgement of immigration’s importance was a welcome change from the first presidential debate earlier this month. It was wonderful as well to see both candidates embrace the language of civil rights in speaking about the most important moral issue of our time. The immigration portion of the debate actually probably couldn’t have started off much better from an open borders standpoint; Romney started:

I want our legal system to work better. … you shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to figure out how to get into this country legally. I also think that we should give visas to people … who graduate with skills that we need. People around the world with accredited degrees in science and math get a green card stapled to their diploma, come to the U.S. of A.

Preach it, brother! If any person with a STEM degree from any accredited university in the world could get a green card, how much better off would the US, and the world, be for it? Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s exactly what Romney meant — and of course, he is conveniently ignoring all the benefits of immigration for immigrants who want to contribute in a developed economy, but don’t have the specific background or skill set necessary to fit in the narrow box he’s prescribed for open borders.

As for making the US immigration system simpler, my family didn’t need a lawyer to get our green cards — but that’s because my stereotypically frugal Asian father insisted on doing all the immigration paperwork himself. Besides the US and Malaysia, my family has lived in Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand — and we also held Australian immigrant visas for some time, but gave them up after deciding not to settle there. Of all the red tape criss-crossing the world’s borders, my father can tell you from personal experience that the US’s was the worst. Romney continues:

Number two, we’re going to have to stop illegal immigration. There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who’ve come here illegally take their place. So I will not grant amnesty to those who have come here illegally.

If Romney’s words are literally true — that each undocumented immigrant “takes the place” of a prospective documented immigrant — then we should have seen an explosion of legal immigration in the last 4 years. After all, as Obama boasted in the debate, illegal immigration has plummeted under his administration — so where are all the legal immigrants who these undocumented migrants supposedly were keeping out? Romney likely didn’t mean it, but he was speaking the literal truth: if you want to reduce the amount of illegal immigration to the US, the only sane policy is to increase the amount of immigration you permit.

Not once in the debate did either candidate mention actual problems associated with illegal immigration, beyond its prima facie illegality. If the only problem you have with illegal immigration is that it is illegal, then make it easier for people to immigrate legally! The vast majority of people who risk death to enter the US aren’t doing it because they are career criminals; they do it because they see no other choice if they want to make a better live for themselves. I can’t put it better than GOP Senator Marco Rubio:

If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn’t give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn’t a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here.

Unfortunately, rather than continue taking cues from his sane peers like Rubio, Romney then takes a turn for the worse:

What I will do is I’ll put in place an employment verification system and make sure that employers that hire people who have come here illegally are sanctioned for doing so. I won’t put in place magnets for people coming here illegally. So for instance, I would not give driver’s licenses to those that have come here illegally as the president would.

Fantastic. What justifies punishing people for the crime of being born in the wrong country? What justifies punishing your fellow citizens who want to employ these poor people? “They broke the law” is not an excuse when the only laws most of these poor people have broken are stupid, unenforceable, and unjust.

Romney then tries to come off as magnanimous by insisting he will do right by those who had no choice about the matter in immigrating illegally:

The kids of those that came here illegally … should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident.

But all this does is illustrate the utter hypocrisy of the restrictionist approach. Yes, it’s wrong to punish someone for a decision they had nothing to do with. Of all the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US, how many chose to be born outside the US? Whose fault is it that they saw no other choice to better themselves than to cross the US border? Nobody chooses where we are born; hardly any of us got to choose where our parents raised us. Romney insists the second is a pardonable “offense”, but the first remains unpardonable. How can any restrictionist square this circle?

Romney closes by excoriating Obama for having legislative majorities during the first 2 years of his term, and doing nothing to advance immigration reform, despite his repeated promises to do so previously. Obama kicked off his response by dissembling:

We all understand what this country has become because talent from all around the world wants to come here. … But we’re also a nation of laws. So what I’ve said is we need to fix a broken immigration system and I’ve done everything that I can on my own and sought cooperation from Congress to make sure that we fix the system.

The first thing we did was to streamline the legal immigration system, to reduce the backlog, make it easier, simpler and cheaper for people who are waiting in line, obeying the law to make sure that they can come here and contribute to our country and that’s good for our economic growth.

Did you really, Mr. President? Let’s look at actual wait times for green cards: except for very select classes of immigrants who can get green cards immediately, the most recent date on the green card backlog dates back over 2 years, to July 2010 for spouses and underaged children of immigrants! Can you imagine waiting over 2 years to see your spouse and children, with no end to your agony in sight?

It only gets worse from there; the next most recent date on the backlog is over 5 years in the past, September 2007 for Chinese citizens with advanced degrees. And these are relatively rosy scenarios here — most other visa categories are backlogged to the early 2000s or 1990s. There is one class of legal immigrant — Filipino siblings of US citizens — backlogged to 1989! Justice delayed is justice denied, so what justice is the US legal immigration system administering? Is it really unimaginable that someone might take the law into their own hands so they can join the family members that the “legal” system keeps them from seeing?

Obama goes on to brag about his law enforcement cred:

…we do have to deal with our border so we put more border patrol on the — any time in history and the flow of undocumented workers across the border is actually lower than it’s been in 40 years.

I suppose the tanking economy couldn’t have had anything to do with that? I don’t see the justice in bragging about a legal system that makes families wait years to be reunited. Posting more border guards to keep out people looking for work or hoping to see their loved ones — great achievement there, chief.

Of course, Obama characterised this so-called accomplishment as “go[ing] after folks who are criminals, gang bangers”. He said this in a lame attempt to justify the “accomplishment” of becoming the president who has deported the most people in his 4-year term: 1.5 million human beings.

If, as Obama claims, the US kicked out 1.5 million criminals — ~0.5% of the 300 million-strong US population — why didn’t the crime rate fall precipitously? Oh, that’s right — because, unlike what some selective reports would have you believe, crime rates among immigrants are actually lower than among native-born Americans. Who is Obama kidding? I am sure he deported plenty of vile criminals who don’t deserve the opportunity to live and work in a developed economy, but there is no way he rounded up 1.5 million such criminals without deporting hundreds of thousands of US citizens. (Update October 23, 2012: The percentage of deportation court filings since January 2008 which cite criminal activity as a reason for deportation has never exceeded 17%, and has been falling throughout the Obama administration.) ¬†The numbers don’t lie: more than any other president, Obama has broken up families and torn apart communities in some vain devotion to immigration laws that both he and Romney agree don’t make sense.

Obama closed by blaming Romney for blocking his immigration reforms (even though Romney hasn’t held any public office or political position in years) and mischaracterising Romney’s support for Arizona state immigration policies, suggesting that Romney favours state police stopping people purely based on a suspicion that they might be immigrants. Romney’s true position is less but still vile: he supports Arizona’s legislation requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to confirm their employees are not undocumented immigrants. In practice, all this law has done is waste employers’ time having to prove that the thousands of false positives which E-Verify flagged are actually legally authorized to work; 12% of Intel’s new hires were flagged, and all of them were later cleared after much wasted time and expense.

After clarifying his position on E-Verify, Romney went on to defend his previous suggestion that illegal immigrants “self-deport”, a term which Obama rightly attacked. Romney insisted:

What I was saying is, we’re not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead let people make their own choice. And if they find that that they can’t get the benefits here that they want and they can’t find the job they want, then they’ll make a decision to go a place where they have better opportunities. But I’m not in favor of rounding up people and taking them out of this country.

Romney has been lambasted, rightly, for clinging to such a nonsensical term, but let me present the highly progressive stance on immigration that one can wring from his words if one squints hard enough: don’t deport people for the “crime” of being born in the wrong country. Just ensure they don’t consume the limited public funds available for social welfare programmes, and let them alone. If they become part of the local communities and integrate into society great; if they can’t find work and are at risk of becoming a burden on society, they will leave for better climes. Now that’s a vision I can get behind!

Of course, the unfortunate fact is that Romney meant nothing at all like that. The contrast he intended to draw with Obama is clear: Obama hired more border guards to keep out people looking for work or seeking to join their families, and deported 1.5 million other people in the same situation while he was at it. Pathetic! I can go one step further: I’ll commandeer the entire machinery of the state to make life for all such immigrants so hellish, we won’t need border guards or deportations to keep them out.

The only thing I wholeheartedly agree with the candidates on is this: their opponent is a terrible man, with terrible ideas. Romney was right to call Obama out on his broken promise to reform the US immigration system, and Obama was right to call Romney out on his non-sensical proposal for “self-deportation”. Both men are wrong on immigration; both men stand for unconscionable repression of millions of human beings, who have done nothing to merit such oppression beyond committing the “crime” of being born in the wrong country. Abraham Lincoln, whose debates with Stephen Douglas were the forerunner of modern US presidential debates, would be appalled by the men who seek to succeed him — so appalled, in fact, that he wouldn’t even want to call himself an American any longer.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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7 thoughts on “Whoever he is, the next US President will be wrong on immigration”

  1. John, This is an interesting analysis, but I would say that the blame falls on the median voter whom the candidates are trying to appeal to, not the candidates themselves, so your disappointment should be directed at the political externalities exerted by the median voter. The more interesting question to me: how far could a pro-open borders candidate realistically go on the issue while continuing to stay popular with the median voter. You’ve hinted at some aspects of this in your post, but a more explicit treatment would be nice.

    1. “The more interesting question to me: how far could a pro-open borders candidate realistically go on the issue while continuing to stay popular with the median voter.”

      Assuming the median voter theorem holds perfectly true, we are already sadly at the optimal feasible point!

      The median voter’s stance on this issue is wrong (just as the median US voter’s stance on slavery in the 1850s was wrong), so the median voter deserves a good share of blame too. But I think the lesson we’ve learnt from civil rights movements is that politicians aren’t wholly endogenous, blindly responding to the median voter; politicians and political movements have the power to set the agenda, in tandem with the median voter. If Lincoln had waited for the median voter to become abolitionist, instead of enacting policies designed to move the median voter’s views, the slaves would not have been freed. I wouldn’t absolve Obamney of blame for their restrictionist statements, even if they don’t actually believe what they’re saying.

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