Tag Archives: Republicans

The Tanton memo and restrictionism among US Republicans

A few months ago, I blegged for readers’ views on the relation between immigration and US politics. Here’s what I wrote:

Logically, I can make out four broad positions one can stake on immigration and US politics. I’m curious to hear from readers and co-bloggers about the relative merits of the positions:

  1. Immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans regardless of either party’s position on immigration. In other words, even if the Republicans took a pro-immigration stance, more immigration would still hurt them. The electing a new people argument offered by Peter Brimelow of VDARE has this structure. Mark Krikorian of CIS also makes similar arguments. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Democratic Party.
  2. Immigration good for Republicans, bad for Democrats regardless of either party’s position on immigration. I don’t know anybody who has taken this position, but I’m adding it for logical completeness. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Democratic Party.
  3. Immigration good for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties need to compete to be more pro-immigration, and whichever party manages to be more pro-immigration will benefit more from immigration. This seems to be the view of many open borders advocates and other pro-immigration forces, such as my co-blogger Nathan here and here. This argument naturally appeals to pro-immigration forces trying to simultaneously make inroads into both parties, setting up a “race to open borders” between both parties.
  4. Immigration bad for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties gain from adopting a more restrictionist stance. Restrictionists who are trying to make a broad-based appeal to both parties would find this argument appealing. In this view, the vote of people with restrictionist sympathies matters a lot more than the votes of potential immigrants and their apologists. Thus, whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance will lose a lot more in terms of restrictionist votes, even if they gain a few immigrant votes. Such an argument, if believed, would lead to a “race to closed borders” between both parties. Some restrictionists have made these types of arguments, though they’ve largely focused on (1).

The general consensus in the comments, which saw a fair bit of participation from people who are not Open Borders bloggers and have a somewhat critical/skeptical take on open borders, was in favor of point (1). Namely, immigration is good for Democrats and bad for Republicans, and this holds mostly regardless of the parties’ respective stances on immigration. In other words, if the Republicans adopt a more pro-immigration stance, they will see some gains among immigrants, but still won’t get a majority of the immigrant vote, and the overall increase in immigrant numbers would swamp the slight increase in immigrant share (basically, a small increase in the share within the immigrant vote could be overridden by a greater increase in the immigrant vote share relative to the total vote — this is the electing a new people argument).

Nathan in particular dissented from this view. He suggested that there may be more of a case for (3) in the somewhat longer run, i.e., either party could gain from immigrant votes by marketing itself well. This would of course be ideal from the open borders perspective, as I noted above. In this post, I discuss a memo sent out by John Tanton and the extent to which it sheds light on the discussion above.

The Tanton Memo

The Cafe Con Leche Republicans website’s self-description reads: “We are Republicans who think the GOP should be more welcoming to immigrants.” The site recently published a memo by John Tanton (here’s the PDF of the memo) from 2001. For those unfamiliar with John Tanton, he is an anti-immigration activist who played an important role in helping found leading US restrictionist groups such as CIS, FAIR, and NumbersUSA. Many people on the pro-immigration side view Tanton as a mastermind responsible for much of the success of restrictionism in the United States. I suspect that people have a tendency to overplay Tanton’s role (just as critics of libertarianism overplay the influence of the Koch brothers) but his contribution to the human condition (positive or negative, depending on your perspective) is far more than that of most people. I quote the memo in full below (emphasis mine):

Roy Beck [referencing Roy Beck, CEO of NumbersUSA] and I think we have come up with an idea that can actually move the battle lines on the immigration question in our favor. While we are working on other ideas to move Democrats, this one involves using the recently released census data to show Republican members of Congress, the Administration, and the party’s leadership how massive immigration imperils their political future. The goal is to change Republicans’ perception of immigration so that when they encounter the word “immigrant,” their reaction is “Democrat.”

Here’s what the Census Bureau tells us: There are 28.4 million foreign-born persons living in the U.S. (This was before the Census Bureau recently added another 5 millionto their totals, probably mostly more illegals.) The Center for Immigration Studies breaks the numbers down this way. Of the 28.4 million, 5.5 million are illegals, and 500,000 are here on temporary visas, like the HI-9. Of the 22.4 remaining, 10.6 are already citizens. That leaves approximately 12 million legal non-citizens, about 8 million of whom, having lived here the required five years, could be naturalized. The other 4 million are still in the waiting period. And, of course, we’re adding about 1 million or more to the queue each year.

We know about the heavy tilt of recent immigrants toward the Democratic Party, both from polling booth exit surveys, and from regular surveys like the Harris Poll, enclosed as Item 1. These folks vote at least 2 to 1 for Democrats, and even up to 9 to 1 – see The Boston Globe article (Item 2). Mr. Bush got 35% of the Hispanic vote overall; i.e., Mr. Gore got about 65% – a landslide. I could send many similar articles, but will stop with a U.S. News & World Report (Item 3) confirming the saliency of this view.

Our plan is to hire a lobbyist who will carry the following message to Republicans on Capitol Hill and to business leaders: Continued massive immigration will soon cost you political control of the White House and Congress, given the current, even division of the electorate, and the massive infusion of voters about to be made to the Democratic side. We are about to replay the Democratic hegemony of 1933-53, fueled back then by the massive immigration of 1890-1924.

We have a candidate for the lobbying work in James Edwards, a former staffer for a member of the House Immigration Subcommittee, recently a lobbyist with a trade association, and the co-author of The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform. He has just joined an independent lobbying firm. He’s solidly in our camp, is very well connected in Republican circles, and is willing and able to take on this assignment. We would like to hire him half-time for a year to give this a try. Our budget for this project is $1 00,000. Mr. Edwards would pay his expenses out of his hourly fee of $1 00.00.

May we have your frank opinion of this idea? If you think it plausible, would you be willing to help support it financially?

Implications of the memo

The memo, if legitimate, suggests that Tanton sought funding to promote the position which I label as (1) in my list: immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans. The points I make below assume the authenticity of the memo.

  • This memo certainly indicates a definitive strategy on the part of John Tanton and others in restrictionist circles to appeal to Republicans’ political concerns.
  • Tanton wasn’t the first restrictionist to make this sort of argument. Peter Brimelow, founder of VDARE, in which Tanton hasn’t played an important founding or ongoing role, made the electing a new people argument in the pages of National Review back in 1997 (four years before the Tanton memo).
  • Judging by the mostly consistent stance that restrictionist groups have taken in support of this position over the last few years, this strategy seems to have been selected for, though Tanton’s role as an individual in selecting this strategy for all restrictionist groups is questionable.
  • Of course, just because restrictionists chose to focus their resources on the argument doesn’t mean that it is false (unlike what Cafe Con Leche Republicans seems to suggest). In contrast, the reason they selected that argument is possibly because of its element of plausibility and truth. The ideal position from the restrictionist perspective, after all, isn’t (1) but position (4) on my list: Immigration bad for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance. That Tanton and other restrictionists chose to adopt (1) instead of (4) reveals that they were constrained in their narrative by the facts. More in the next point.
  • This and related evidence make it reasonably clear that restrictionists are restrictionists first and foremost, and their political party loyalties, if any, are secondary. Their choice to align with the Republican Party is a strategic choice based on a belief that they can convince the Republican Party more easily about the synergy between restrictionism and the Republican Party, not out of a principled loyalty to the Republican Party. Specific restrictionists may well be Republicans, but others may well feel more at home with the Democratic Party. Even in the memo, Tanton says in the very first para that he will be searching for parallel strategies to woo Democrats. For this reason, Republicans would be well advised, from the perspective of electoral success, to view restrictionists with a good deal of skepticism when restrictionists claim to have Republicans’ best interests at heart. It may so happen that on a particular issue, the restrictionist position coincides with what is electorally favorable to Republicans. But restrictionists have an incentive to exaggerate their case.
  • I don’t think that restrictionists are overall wrong in terms of their very basic numbers (I’m excluding restrictionists such as Ann Coulter for the purpose of this statement). Where I think Republicans may go wrong (from their own electoral success perspective) is in taking restrictionists sufficiently seriously that they don’t consider the possible gains from new, somewhat untested, pro-immigration configurations.

My co-blogger John Lee has argued (here and here) that Republicans may well benefit electorally from smartly chosen pro-migration and pro-migrant strategies, though he is fairly qualified and cautious in selling his case (for instance, John rejects the view that immigrants are likely to become majority Republican, at least in the near future). While I think John makes a fairly good case, a Republican strategist whose job is to provide Republican candidates advice to win elections would surely be advised to account for the possibility of bias in John’ assessment. Insofar as the discussion above suggests that the “immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans” meme was deliberately selected and exaggerated by people who are restrictionists first and Republicans second (if at all), similar caution is advised for Republican strategists listening to restrictionists.

Open borders: the right political and ethical choice for Republicans

Following up on my earlier discussion of why I think the US Republican Party would be wise to consider a more liberal approach to immigration, I note that the Republican Party of Nevada recently became the first state Republican party to endorse “amnesty” for unauthorised immigrants. Remarkably, their statement places a pathway to US citizenship on equal footing with “free enterprise” and “state responsibilities and local control” as priorities for the party. The relevant portion (emphasis in original):

The GOP has increasingly found itself in positions that do not meet the demographic realities of the State’s electorate. These positions also conflict with our party’s historic commitment to civil rights. To that end, Republicans must become more inclusive, reflecting our desire to secure a better life for all Americans, and equally important, for our children.

The United States should secure its borders, enforce the laws that exist, and recognize the many groups that have worked hard to support their families and build a community. These groups include Hispanics and other immigrant minorities, young and old, black and white. We support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that would require registering with the government; and, include the ability to communicate in English, performing military or other community service, and proof of financial responsibility as required by the USCIS. One hundred and fifty years ago, our country fought a bloody Civil War. That war affirmed we have only one class of citizens— American.

It’s remarkably aggressive to compare the struggle for immigrant rights to the struggle against slavery in the US, and for this I say good on the Nevada GOP. But let’s put aside the moral dimension for now: even from a purely cold-blooded standpoint, it’s not at all unreasonable to believe that a more open stance towards immigration would be beneficial to the GOP.

Let’s take the preferences of different ethnic communities, which I previously discussed. Asians look to be a probable swing group, with some subgroups that historically have leaned Republican (e.g. non-African Muslims). Hispanics definitely lean Democratic, but with some fairly large gyrations in degree (George W. Bush narrowed historically very sizeable gaps in Hispanic support to about 20 percentage points).

Now if more Hispanics were to enter the US electorate today, that would be a huge concern for Republican strategists. It would be difficult for them to endorse outright citizenship for a very broad, undifferentiated swathe of unauthorised immigrants today. But that isn’t the only option they have. Republicans could just as well do what the Nevada GOP is doing and say: Sure, these people who live and work alongside Americans have just as much a right to aspire to citizenship as anyone else. But first, they should make reasonable amends for their past; if they do not, they must wait a substantial amount of time before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship.

Applying a filter of this sort would minimise the immediate hit to Republicans’ “bottom line”, so to speak. Moreover, if they position themselves correctly, and can claim the mantle of being the ones who saved immigration reform, doing this is liable to swing some portion of the current Hispanic electorate — not to mention other immigrant communities and other Americans who support reform. If we are doing a simple cost-benefit analysis, there is some potential long-run cost to this “amnesty”, but there is also a decent upfront benefit, one that might make this trade-off worth taking. It’s basic business practice to discount long-run costs/benefits and focus more on the upfront numbers, but I have not seen anyone actually try to run this basic cost-benefit analysis.

And we’re not even done yet. The preferences of communities can swing substantially based on the turn of events. Some surveys suggest the Muslim electorate swung from 70% for George W. Bush in his first term to 4% for Mitt Romney in 2012. Muslims were solidly Republican — right until they weren’t. If the Republicans can stake an even more aggressive position on immigration reform than Democrats and steal their thunder, there’s clearly a non-zero chance this will redound in a Hispanic swing substantial enough to turn their community from solidly Democratic to swing-voting or even leaning-Republican.

Moreover, Republicans need not and should not stop at a path to citizenship for unauthorised immigrants. They have a chance to shore up their brand as the party of “free enterprise” and “state responsibilities and local control”: immigration lawyer Angelo Paparelli has laid out over a dozen piecemeal immigration reforms that are consistent with core Republican principles and also build their brand as a forward-thinking party on immigration and social issues.

And there’s one other piece that Paparelli doesn’t have: Republicans should fight to open the borders, not just to more Hispanic immigrants, but to immigrants of all creeds and colours. The Latin American is but one of many who would like to call the US home. Again, Republicans can beat the Democrats at their own game: it’s not fair to the millions of poor in the world who work hard and have the same dreams as Americans to keep them out. Opening the gates to primarily more Hispanic immigrants is wonderful, but it perpetuates discrimination against someone born in Londonderry, Lahore, or Lagos.

If they pull this reorientation off, Republicans will have been responsible for one of the greatest expansions of liberty in the history of the world. Arbitrary immigration controls keep people in chains, prevent them from authoring their own life stories. The millions of new Americans and their descendants who get the vote (if the Republican-backed reforms will permit it) will forever owe a debt of gratitude to the farsighted Republican leaders who cynically chose to open the borders, knowing this would one day redound to them at the polls. (I jest, but only slightly — a hardheaded cost-benefit analysis was the starting point for this post after all.)

This whole scenario I’ve laid out seems incredible, if not impossible. I doubt it will happen. But the odds of it happening are definitely greater now than they were on the 5th of November 2012. Yes, the rudimentary beginnings of a cost-benefit analysis which I’ve laid out do not present a slam dunk for immigration reform. But neither is it a slam-dunk that immigration reform would be politically costly to the Republican Party, today or even tomorrow, despite this being restrictionist conventional wisdom.

And beyond the cost-benefit analysis, there is always a moral dimension. We cannot ignore forever the damage that morally-compromised laws do to immigrants, whether they live in our midst, or live faraway yearning to come. The Republican Party recognised this in 1864, when it proclaimed in its election manifesto:

Resolved, That foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.

The Nevada GOP harked back to this when it recalled the waging of the US Civil War to prove “we have only one class of citizens”. But they would do well too to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln on the eve of that war:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

Abraham Lincoln dedicated his life to the proposition that all men are created equal — black or white, foreigner or native. Lincoln himself told us: he would rather emigrate to Russia than put up with a modern Republicanism declaring that foreigners deserve unequal and unjust treatment. The defeat Republicans suffered at the polls in 2012 offers them a chance to redeem themselves, to stand proud once more as the party of Lincoln. The question is, will they take it?

US Republicans should not give up on immigrants

Bryan Caplan at EconLog recently pondered why it is that Asians in the US lean Democratic. I suggested in the comments of Bryan’s post that his view — that Asians don’t feel Republicans respect them — seems right, at least to me. I met Bryan for lunch recently, where the topic came up again, and co-blogger Vipul has urged me to elaborate on the subject here.

The important question here, from an open borders standpoint, is how far do immigrants holding undesirable political opinions justify restrictions on their liberty. Secondarily, whether or not undesirable opinions justify immigration restrictions, how much of an actual concern is this for natives, such as political activists hoping to win the votes of immigrants? Specifically, in the US context, is it worthwhile for Republicans to become more “immigrant-friendly”?

We’ve addressed the first question — do undesirable opinions justify immigration restrictions — a fair bit on this site, and we’ll return to it in the future. But for the second, with regard to the US context, my answer is: if Republicans toned down their rhetoric on immigration, and more generally, embraced a less fundamentally white vision of America, they would be much more competitive than they are now.

Bryan’s question about Asian-Americans particularly is interesting because the Republicans quite concretely favour more Asian (high-skilled) immigration, and back policies, such as extension of the H1-B visa, that promote Asian immigration. One hypothesis is that Asian immigrants, who are very well-educated on average, disdain the Republican party’s seeming anti-intellectual/anti-science bent. This seem plausible to me, but I think it’s overlooking the even simpler explanation that Asians feel Republicans don’t fundamentally see them as part of America.

At this point Republicans are up in arms, protesting that they’re not racist. I agree, most Republicans aren’t. I think even Republicans who say insensitive things probably don’t actually harbour much, if any, meaningful prejudice towards the people they’ve insulted (unintentionally in some cases). But the difference between Republicans and Democrats, I think, is not that one group is necessarily less prejudiced than the other. You can be perfectly unprejudiced towards somebody and still see that person as outside your fundamental community or constituency. That, I daresay, is the Republicans’ problem.

It’s difficult to vote for someone whom you believe doesn’t see you as part of their constituency or community. Even if you understand they don’t dislike you on a personal level, that’s a far cry from embracing you and your community as someone to serve, as someone whose interests they care about. In the comments on Bryan’s post, I referred others to this fantastic piece by Muslim baseball blogger Rany Jazyerli, one that starts:

Almost before I knew that I was an American, and almost before I knew that I was a Muslim, I knew that I was a Republican.

It ends:

I look forward to the day, hopefully in the near future, when I once again vote for a Republican candidate… But first, the Republicans have to stop insinuating that I’m alien to this nation. They have to stop implying that I support terrorists. They have to stop accusing me of being anti-American. And they need to denounce anyone in their ranks who does those things. That, I’m afraid, is not negotiable.

Read the whole thing. Rany’s story may be specific to the Muslim community, but to me personally, I think it’s also the story of why Asian and Latino support for the GOP is at pretty much an all-time low. The Asian vote flipped from 48% for Bob Dole in 1996 (versus 43% for Bill Clinton) to 73% for Barack Obama in 2012. Rany cites research by CAIR (a Muslim activist group) which found that Muslim support flipped from 70% for George W. Bush in 2000 to 4% for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Over lunch, Bryan Caplan mentioned that his father’s vision of America includes people like me — people who, as Bryan put it, “dress normally, don’t wear ethnic dress, work at a bank, fit into white society”. The senior Caplan’s vision strikes me as the vision of the Republican party as well. If that’s how you see the US, then of course it’s fine to be suspicious of Muslims’ and other minorities’ loyalties to the US. Of course it’s fine to suspect the sincerity of Barack Obama’s or Nikki Haley’s religious beliefs, and of course it’s fine to joke about them being “ragheads”. Of course it’s fine to make fun of the names these weird people give their children, just as former Virginia governor George “Macaca, or whatever his name is” Allen did.

Republicans at this point rightly retort that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden make their fair share of racial gaffes too. But I have a hard time believing that a poorly-timed joke about Gandhi segueing directly into lofty praise for the man is at all comparable to calling someone a raghead, or making fun of someone’s culture or name. If the best defence Republicans can muster is that “Democrats are racist too,” that hardly debunks the case that Republicans should be doing more to reach out to immigrant ethnic groups. If anything, it means Republicans could easily stop making insensitive comments and clearly differentiate themselves from Democrats in this regard.

Just compare and contrast the entrenched “give no ground; show no quarter” approach to dealing with Latino-Americans and other immigrants that a current strand of Republican thinking espouses with the approach George W. Bush promoted when he ran for governor of Texas:

Bush has pointedly refused to sign on to his party’s immigrant-bashing agenda. He opposed Wilson over Proposition 187, which withdrew health and public education benefits from illegal immigrants and their children in California.

He’s a strong supporter of Mexico, and he says his warm relations with that country’s leaders have helped him with Hispanic voters. “I’ve talked to a lot of friends who’ll go down to Mexico and they’ll come back and say, ‘God, Bush, you’re really popular in Mexico City,’ ” he says.

Bush gives qualified support to bilingual education, which Wilson and Republican conservatives in Congress have attempted to outlaw. Bilingual education is fine, Bush says, as long as students can pass the state tests he is promoting.

Bush is a vocal opponent of conservative Republican efforts to make English the official language, calling that “a powerful negative message” that repels Hispanic voters.

The natural retort is “And fat lot of good that did George W.” But according to the Pew Research Center, Bush in 2000 cut the Democratic advantage with Latinos from 51 percentage points in 1996 to 27%. In 2004, he reduced it further to 18%. Simply by aggressively building a friendly image with Latinos, George W. Bush reduced the Republican vote deficit among Latinos by 2/3rds. For various reasons, Hispanics may never be a natural stronghold for Republicans, but that doesn’t mean Barack Obama’s mind-blowing 71% of the Hispanic vote in 2012 is the historical norm.

I am not sure if Republicans should hope to return to the halcyon days when they were winning 70% of the Asian or Muslim vote. Certainly I don’t dare claim they can be extremely competitive in the race for the Hispanic vote. There are far too many other confounding issues, such as fundamental policy preferences. But at the same time, it’s difficult to say how competitive the Republicans can be with these ethnic groups when, honestly, George W. Bush aside, they haven’t even been trying.

Barry Goldwater’s vision of open borders

Goldwater is a name synonymous with the rebirth of American conservative, right-wing politics. But it is also a name that should be synonymous with open borders. In 1962, Barry Goldwater jotted down some thoughts on where his beloved Arizona would be in 50 years. On immigration and Mexico, he said:

Our ties with Mexico will be much more firmly established in 2012 because, sometime within the next 50 years, the Mexican border will become as the Canadian border, a free one, with the formalities and red tape of ingress and egress cut to a minimum so that the residents of both countries can travel back and forth across the line as if it were not there.

To a certain degree, his vision came true ahead of time. Stories of lively cross-border interactions pre-9/11 abound. After the post-9/11 crackdown on border movement, it became much harder to cross the Mexican border with the US without enduring much lengthier delays than existed before. Goldwater’s vision plainly does not exist today.

Of course, to some degree, one can argue that Goldwater wasn’t really arguing for true open borders (though I find it interesting that Goldwater pointedly refers to the “residents of both countries,” as opposed to just citizens). Canadians themselves face a fair number of immigration restrictions in the US. The popular television show How I Met Your Mother has made fun of this by depicting a Canadian character’s issues with her work visa forcing her to consider a sham marriage with a friend. This theme is fairly popular in the media, actually; Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock starred in The Proposal, a film based on a very similar storyline, also about a Canadian woman forced into a sham marriage to hold down her job in the US.

These pop media depictions have a basis in reality. My current employer used to hire non-US residents frequently. It stopped doing this a few years ago not just because of the cost, but because of the immense uncertainty about whether a work visa would actually come through. It’s no use hiring someone only to have to bid goodbye to your tens of thousands of investment in that person’s training thanks to immigration enforcement. Canadians at my firm were no exception to this; I met someone who transferred to my office from our Toronto office very shortly before we stopped sponsoring work visas; he told me he actually decided to work for us in Toronto because he wanted to work in the US in the first place.

So no open borders for Canadians. But looking at Goldwater’s statement, I don’t think he would have expected the kinds of restrictions my Canadian colleagues put up with. One can hardly describe a convoluted work visa process as an immigration law that cuts the formalities of ingress and egress to a minimum. One can hardly say that Canadians can cross the US border as if it were not there! Maybe Goldwater was only imagining open borders for tourists, but that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing someone dreaming about the next 50 years of progress would be focused on.

Modern US conservatives would do well to hark back to Goldwater (and Ronald Reagan, for that matter, considering his willingness to embrace “amnesty”). The nature of North American trade and physical borders means closed North American borders are legislating against economic and geographic reality. Instead of trying to build an expensive and unrealistic wall, the sensible thing to do is to allow those acting in good faith to come and go — and monitor these legal movements carefully to filter out those with ill intent. In fact, this is a lesson from another famous US conservative’s Operation Wetback. Reflecting on Dwight Eisenhower’s policy, Alex Nowrasteh writes:

By the early 1950s many unauthorized migrants were entering alongside Braceros to work, mainly in Texas. The government responded with the now infamous Operation Wetback that removed almost 2 million unauthorized Mexicans in 1953 and 1954. Unlike today’s removals and deportations, the migrants were only required to step over the border into Mexico and could then step back in and lawfully sign up for the Bracero program. As a result, the number of removals in 1955 was barely 3 percent of the previous year’s numbers and those who previously would have entered unlawfully instead signed up to become Braceros, which was the intended purpose of Operate Wetback. The government did not tolerate unlawful entry but made it very easy for migrants to get a guest worker visa and used Border Patrol to funnel unauthorized migrants and potential unauthorized migrants into the legal system.

US immigration policy consciously makes it difficult for Canadian white-collar professionals to work in the US, and essentially impossible for Mexican blue-collar professionals to work. Is it any surprise that the white-collar professionals of the world would rather go elsewhere, while the blue-collar professionals sneak in to work?

Restrictionists and those critical of open borders contend that Operation Wetback “succeeded” in the sense that it deported millions of people, and most of them did not come back. Calls for Operation Wetback II or variants of it are not uncommon; they appear on FOX News and on stage at presidential debates. But US law then, unlike now, was not prejudiced against previous deportation victims. You could still re-enter as a Bracero legally right after you were deported; the whole point of deportation was to encourage you to re-enter legally, not to erect further barriers to your entry. After all, if you were able to get in unlawfully before, you could certainly try again!

Conservatives need to recognise physical and economic realities, and use the legal system to work within them, instead of trying to pretend there’s some perfect form of “border security” that doesn’t involve doing battle with the fundamental realities of the North American map. Modern border enforcement proposals take for granted that it’s possible to control in totalitarian fashion large swathes of border territory. That may be so, but only if the state assumes a totalitarian form itself. As the American Civil Liberties Union would put it, to enforce the border, you’d need to erect a Constitution-free zone.

The photograph featured in the header of this post is of Americans and Mexicans playing volleyball over the border, circa 1979. Via RealClear.