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Make Immigration Legal Again
Answering the Populist Position on America’s Borders
“This land is your land and this land is my land, From California to the New York island; From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters; This land was made for you and me…
– Woody Guthrie
This post is the first in a series of articles debunking the most common populist arguments against (mostly) open immigration, based on my dozens of interviews on the topic since I began broadcasting The Bob Zadek Show in 2008.
America Pulls Up the Drawbridge
In over a decade as an AM talk radio host, I’ve covered illegal immigration more often than any other topic. It seems to never leave the headlines for more than a few months, nor do we ever advance anything resembling a solution to the perpetual crisis at the border.
In most public policy debates, I can understand and appreciate the other point of view. I even often learn from the opposing arguments, which makes the on-air conversations even more pleasant and beneficial. On the subject of immigration, however – try as I might – I find it almost impossible to understand the intellectual position of those who oppose mostly free and legal immigration to the United States.
It has always seemed so profoundly un-American to pull up the drawbridge, build a wall, or otherwise deny access to people who want to share in the benefits of this country while contributing to its success.
Whenever I return to this topic, which so deeply touches both my heart and my head – two of my favorite organs, I daresay – the phone board lights up with callers. On most topics, my callers tend to agree with me and feel no compulsion to voice their disagreement over the radio airwaves.
This subject is different.
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I’ve been fielding calls from angry listeners for over a decade. The calls often get ugly and emotional, as the callers’ brash rhetoric clashes with what I consider to be core American values.
Their objections are many:
“They’re taking our jobs!”…
“They will bankrupt the welfare system!”…
“They won’t assimilate!” …
“They don’t learn English!” …
“They’ll vote for socialism!” …
“They commit more crime!”
… and so on and so on.
This post inaugurates a series of articles examining these claims one by one, to see whether they are based on facts and reality.
There are a troubling number of false perceptions that substitute for facts, especially when it comes to two subjects: the economic effects of immigration, and crime rates among immigrant populations.
Take the horrific recent story about a Guatemalen immigrant – in this country illegally – who raped a 10-year-old in Ohio. Each side wants to turn this tragedy into a political football to score points. Liberals use it to protest abortion restrictions while conservatives use it to scapegoat Hispanic immigrants. Ron Unz, founder of the Unz Review, has shown in his essay “The Myth of Hispanic Crime” that immigrants demonstrably commit less crime on average than native-born Americans. Scary images of the MS-13 gang attract clicks and views on the nightly news, but almost all of the “crime” associated with illegal immigrants comes from the mere illegality of their being here in the country – and that is the issue we should be debating.
Most opinions are formed in one of two ways. Either somebody studies the data and reaches an informed perspective, or they simply have an emotional reaction. Unz rightly blames “talk TV sensationalists and axe-grinding ideologues” for the emotional perceptions. Most emotional reactions are acquired through some public influencer – often radio and television hosts, or some other public figure – rather than independently developed.
Polls on how people feel about immigration are really just polls on what kinds of media people consume – not on what they think. The ignorance transcends party lines. The views of politicians and pundits will vary, but there is no consistent Democratic position, Republican position, or indeed Libertarian position. Even Senator Rand Paul frequently scapegoats illegal immigrants, and American citizens are all over the map on this issue.
Since my audience is made up predominantly of libertarians and conservatives, I address this apology for open immigration primarily to them – especially the more populist and nativist factions of the Republican Party.
What Part of Illegal Immigration Do You Oppose?
Way back in 2010, I covered a New York Times article titled, “Poll shows most in U.S. want overhaul of immigration laws.” 12 years later, the system has hardly been changed, let alone overhauled. The article doesn't explain what kind of “overhaul” the majority of people want. A majority say that immigration policy needs major change, but nobody knows what the changes should be. 78% of the people polled said that the U.S. should be doing more to keep illegal immigrants out. Three-quarters of the people polled say immigrants drain the economy – without having reference to any actual data. These numbers remain largely unchanged today. Everybody has an opinion, but few have a basis for their opinion.
Before you can participate productively in the discussion, you have to ask yourself a simple question: Are you opposed to legal or illegal immigration? Many populists will respond that they are merely opposed to illegal immigration. They act as if those two words cannot be separated – as if an immigrant is per se illegal.
“Well, gee,” I say, “I suppose that everybody is opposed to illegal immigrants. I’m opposed to illegal everything. When you oppose illegal immigration, is it the illegal part you don’t like, or the immigration part?”
They quickly say, “Well, I oppose the illegal part.”
“Okay,” I then ask them, “What if Congress passed a law, which made immigration legal – virtually everybody was allowed in, and amnesty was granted to those who are here? Suppose that the law reverted to the period when there were no restrictions on who could immigrate to the United States?
What if we basically said, ‘Let in anybody who wants to come,’ as we said at the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century – a period of phenomenal growth?
Now, we have legislated away the “illegal” part and those words get separated forever. The only immigrants are now legal immigrants. Now are you content? Or alternatively, is the issue the immigrant part?”
They invariably stutter, “Well, no...,” and then begin some strange mental gymnastics – contorting their argument into a pretzel shape to reach their preferred conclusion. Inevitably, I end the conversation by saying, “Aha! So it is the immigrant part you oppose – not the illegal part!”
Then, the conversation usually turns unpleasant and we go on our merry ways.
In short, many who say they only oppose illegal immigration really oppose immigration altogether, and they are hiding behind the word illegal.
That, my friends, is a profound violation of core American values.
Back to the Future: The Ellis Island Immigration Reform
A second question to ask before participating in the discussion on immigration is this:
If you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who feel we have to “fix immigration,” is your fix to make sure nobody gets in?
My own view of immigration can be summarized in four words:
Let Them All In.
What was the secret of America’s emergence from a collection of very different British colonies with nothing in common except a love of freedom?
It was open immigration.
Our policy was “Let them all in”… and it worked! It brought to America the world’s “Tired, . . . poor, . . . huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” And breathe free they did. Yes, they remained tired and perhaps poor for the first few generations, but their fatigue resulted from the work they did for themselves and their families. Their efforts made America a powerful economic engine. Today, America seems willing to turn its back on the secret sauce of its political and economic success – the unconditional welcoming of all who cherish economic and political freedom.
I say “Let them all in” because it will provide competition for jobs. It will perhaps lower the salaries that some Americans receive, but all consumers will pay less for the goods and services that they buy. What could be more American than competition in a free marketplace?
I hope to convince the populist and nativist factions of all parties that everyone benefits from the flow of immigrants into this country. Not only that, but once you legalize immigration and “Let them all in,” you reduce the costs of incarceration and protecting the border. Indeed, the phrase “protecting the border” is little more than a code for “Keep them all out.”
The Framers of the Declaration of Independence held the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be self-evident. Our initial founding document begins with the wonderful language authored by Thomas Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
In the third section of the same Declaration, America explained to the world why they were entitled to declare independence from the King of England. One of the specific indictments against the King was that he restricted immigration:
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
It can be said without qualification that the call for free immigration was an enumerated complaint against the King, and one of the primary values that drove independence in our country.
Which Way, GOP?
In contrast with the founders, today’s political leaders stand idly by as many around the world are denied the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – often having no alternative to the repressive regimes that rule over them. The GOP wants to be known as the party of freedom and opportunity, but its figureheads seek to limit the good fortune of American freedom to those who happen to have been born within our borders.
Prominent Democrats have routinely come out in favor of expanding amnesty for a large percentage of the 11 million undocumented U.S. residents, leaving Republicans struggling to appeal to Hispanics in particular, without losing the approval of anti-immigration conservatives. Not a single prominent Republican in national politics has yet to come out in favor of the one policy that could truly distinguish them in the eyes of both Hispanics and freedom-loving conservatives: opening the borders to all foreigners who desire to live by our laws.
Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration scholar at the Cato Institute, frequent guest, and the sine qua non for this series, has pointed out that such a policy has nothing to do with granting favors or expanding government. To the contrary, open borders merely allows the voluntary movement of people to the United States.
The essays that follow offer an alternative way of looking at immigration to the tired, emotion-based, populist rhetoric that typically dominates the AM airwaves. If you enjoy logical, fact-based discussions of issues like immigration, you can find my program streaming live every Sunday morning, or listen to the podcast online at BobZadek.com.
The populists of all parties need to wake up to the reality that immigration is not only beneficial, but it’s as American as apple pie. In particular, it’s past time for the GOP to stop scapegoating illegal immigrants and return to our founding principles – offering a viable pathway toward legal residency for the poor, huddled masses around the world, yearning to breathe free.
This post is the first in a series of articles debunking the most common populist arguments against (mostly) open immigration, based on my dozens of interviews on the topics since I began broadcasting The Bob Zadek Show in 2008.