City Journal

Heather Mac Donald
Seeing Today’s Immigrants Straight
Advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform” let ideology blind them to the dispiriting facts on the ground.
Summer 2006

Selected Responses:

Sent by Dustin Dingman on 08-08-2006:

I grew up in Orange County. We would move every few years as the Mexican gang territory expanded. As a young adult I realized that I would never be able to afford a home where my children could be safe at school. I escaped to the midwest where, to my surprise, white and black Americans do those jobs that white and black Californians supposedly will not do. (I have always found that argument particularly offensive since my dad and uncle made a living hanging drywall.)

Sent by Jorge Amselle on 07-24-2006:

Mac Donald is correct and pro-immigrant conservatives are wrong. Immigrants today assimilate into the underclass of illegitimacy and welfare dependency, not the middle class. They may be socially conservative on some issues but easily fall prey to typical class warfare socialist appeals, since they were so used to hearing and agreeing with those same appeals in their home countries. Our immigration system is broken. We should end family (or chain) migration and instead focus on allowing only those with high levels or income, education, skills, and English language ability to immigrate. America's immigration policy should be based on what is best for America, not what is best for immigrants.

Sent by Colleen Coffey on 07-19-2006:

I appreciate your citing the Migration Information Source and just want to clarify a couple of points. First, the analysis of incarceration among first- and second-generation young men should be attributed to Rubén G. Rumbaut, Roberto G. Gonzales, Golnaz Komaie, and Charlie V. Morgan, who are from the University of California, Irvine. The Migration Policy Institute publishes the Migration Information Source but neither conducted the research nor wrote the analysis. Secondly, it is a mischaracterization to refer to MPI as "pro-immigrant," as we do not advocate on behalf of immigrants.

Colleen Coffey
Deputy Director of Communications
Migration Policy Institute

The immigration debate has divided the conservative movement, with each side accusing the other of betraying core conservative principles. Amnesty proponents argue that America’s best traditions require legalizing the 11 to 12 million illegal aliens already here and opening the door wide to would-be migrants the world over. Illegal immigration, these conservative advocates say, is the inevitable and blameless consequence of misguided laws that foolishly—and vainly—seek to prevent willing workers and labor-hungry employers from finding each other. Hispanics—the vast majority of aliens and the real center of the immigration debate—bring much-needed family values and a work ethic to the American polity; refusing to grant them legal status would destroy Republican hopes for a large new voting bloc. Since popular opposition to large-scale Hispanic immigration stems from economic ignorance and nativist fear, policymakers should protect America from its own worst impulses and ignore the anti-immigration revolt.

Conservative opponents of amnesty and liberalized immigration respond that the rule of law is at stake. Rewarding large-scale lawbreaking with legal status and financial benefits will spark further violations. The mass amnesty protests of the spring were part of a growing international movement challenging national sovereignty. Conservative respect for facts should encourage skepticism toward claims of superior Hispanic values. And the conservative preference for local decision making cautions against dismissing the popular backlash against illegal immigration; it is just possible that people closest to the problem know something that Beltway insiders do not.

Vexing the debate further, the popular revolt is not just against illegal immigration but against high levels of unskilled Mexican immigration per se. As political scientist Peter Skerry observes, the public dislikes the effect on local communities of large numbers of poor Mexicans and their progeny, legal or not. Some of the effects, such as crime, worsen dramatically from the first to the second generation of Mexicans, who not only are legal but are American citizens.

Since criticizing illegal immigration often draws charges of racism, few relish going further and challenging the wisdom of our current immigration flows, legal or not. Yet unless we accurately diagnose the immigration problem, any legislative fix that merely converts the current illegal flow to a legal one will fail both as policy and as politics. Herewith—in an effort to sharpen the internal debate—are the conservative principles that militate against amnesty, for immigration-law enforcement, and for a radical change in immigration priorities.

Principle 1: Respect the law. This year’s illegal-alien demonstrators put forward a novel theory of entitlement: because we are here, we have a right to be here. Protesters in Santa Ana, California, shouted: “We are here and we’re not going anywhere,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Anger at the widespread contempt for American law contained in such defiant assertions drives much of the public hostility toward illegal aliens. Conservatives, with their respect for the rule of law, and appreciation for its fragility, would ordinarily honor this gut reaction, rather than dismissing it as some atavistic tribal impulse. Poverty and other grounds for victim status do not, in the conservative worldview, create a license for lawbreaking.

The rule of law ensures that like cases are treated alike and unlike cases distinguished. But if the immigration protesters have their way, someone who ignored all the procedures for legal entry will achieve the same status and benefits as someone who played by the rules. During the Senate’s immigration debates in the spring, amnesty proponents claimed that it was unfair that people who have worked for American employers be forced to “live in the shadows.” Left out of the equation was the question of justice to people who have waited for years in their own countries for permission to enter lawfully.

Protecting one form of lawbreaking may require protecting others as well. The city of Maywood in Los Angeles County declared itself a sanctuary zone for illegal aliens this year. Then it got rid of its drunk-driving checkpoints, because they were nabbing too many illegal aliens. Next, this 96 percent Latino city, almost half of whose adult population lacks a ninth-grade education, disbanded its police traffic division entirely, so that illegals wouldn’t need to worry about having their cars towed for being unlicensed.

Principle 2: Protect sovereignty. Today’s international elites seek to dissolve “discriminatory” distinctions between citizens and noncitizens and to discredit border laws aiming to control the flow of migrants. The spring amnesty demonstrations are a measure of how far such new anti-national-sovereignty ideas have spread. The last large-scale amnesty in 1986 was not preceded by mass demonstrations by illegal aliens but was rather a bargaining chip among American legislators, negotiated in exchange for employer sanctions and a national worker-verification card. Predictably, the card never materialized, and the sanctions were never enforced; only the amnesty lived on.

By contrast, this year’s protesters spoke the language of the anti-sovereignty intelligentsia. This increasingly influential discourse was on display at a May conference of Latin American diplomats at the Library of Congress, which spun endless variations on the identical theme: migration is a fundamental human right. As Nicaragua’s minister of foreign affairs, Norman Caldera Cardenal, put it: “It is the responsibility of all nations to respect the dignity, integrity, and rights of all migrants.” (The delegations dutifully acknowledged the U.S. prerogative to decide its own immigration policy, but these ritual genuflections were insignificant compared with the invocations of migrants’ rights.) In less diplomatic language, Mexico’s bicameral permanent legislative commission calls American immigration policy “racist, xenophobic, and a profound violation of human rights,” reports George Grayson in The American Conservative.

Less than a week before the Library of Congress conference, illegal aliens on the streets of Southern California were making the identical demands: “We just want some respect and human rights,” a Santa Ana protester told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re fighting to give [immigrants] equal rights,” explained a marcher in Riverside, California, holding a “Legalize, Not Terrorize” sign.

This call for “human rights” is a clever one, for it hides its radical status in a rhetorical safe harbor. What, exactly, are the “human rights” that the U.S. is denying illegal aliens? They have unfettered access to free medical care, free education, welfare for their children, free representation in court when they commit crimes, every due-process protection during criminal prosecution that the Constitution guarantees citizens and legal immigrants, the shelter of labor laws, and the miracles of modern industrial society like clean water, the control of infectious diseases (including the ones that they bring with them), and plumbing. The only putative “right” that they lack—and that, of course, is the “human right” to which they and their ambassadors refer—is the right to legal status regardless of illegal entry.

So when the illegal-alien demonstrators and their government representatives demand respect for migrants’ “human rights,” they are asserting that U.S. immigration laws must fall before a more powerful claim. Despite the nondiscriminatory procedures for entry that Congress established, merely subjecting an illegal alien to an unequal status compared with legal migrants or citizens violates his human rights. Simply creating in his mind the teeniest thought that he may be penalized for his violation of American sovereignty is itself a callous abuse. The director of a Hispanic social-services agency in Georgia complained to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the federal government’s modest immigration arrests in April have “created a mental sickness, where people are depressed. Who wants to be thinking any minute you’re going to be arrested.” Mexico’s consul general in Austin, Jorge Guajardo, echoed this sense of outrage at the “fear” the immigration arrests had caused: “It doesn’t help society or anyone to have these people running scared,” he told the Austin American-Statesman.

The Bush administration and its conservative supporters have defended American law against international claims to override it. To the applause of conservative pundits, the administration has unsigned the International Criminal Court treaty and withdrawn from the Kyoto global-warming protocol. It refused to wait for UN Security Council approval to start the invasion of Iraq. It has claimed the right to interpret international human rights laws for itself during the war on terror, rather than defer to nonelected bodies like the UN or the International Committee of the Red Cross. Conservative pundits have supported Israel’s right to erect a security fence, despite the protestation by the UN International Court of Justice that the fence is illegal. Yet when it comes to immigration law, conservative open-borders advocates and the White House adopt the identical position as the growing anti-sovereignty movement, downplaying the violation of our border law and elevating the “rights” of the illegal migrant to sovereign status.

The illegal-alien rights movement has deployed another powerful contemporary rhetoric: ethnic victimology. As frequent as the demands during the protests to recognize illegals’ “human rights” were the demands for “respect.” “People have to learn to respect Mexicans, to respect immigrants and the work we do here,” an L.A. demonstrator told the Los Angeles Times. “Respect for the migrant is fundamental,” Costa Rica’s minister of foreign affairs told the Library of Congress conference. According to this perspective, immigration policy insults aliens by subjecting them to different statuses according to whether they obeyed the law or not. While the rhetoric of wounded ethnic pride is long in the tooth by now, what is new about today’s protests is not only the sense of entitlement with which lawbreakers strike such an attitude, but also that many conservatives back them.

If the Bush administration and its supporters believe that they can reassert the supremacy of American immigration law after yet another amnesty, they are fooling themselves. No one will take the assurance that “this time we mean business” seriously. If the executive branch is not willing to enforce the current law against violators, a new set of laws will not suddenly strengthen its resolve.

The fictions of the proposed guest-worker law are particularly self-deluded. No AWOL guest worker is going to think that he faces the slightest risk of deportation, knowing that the government won’t even penalize people who entered the country illegally from Day One. If the proposed amnesty becomes law, expect illegal immigration to explode, just as it did after the 1986 amnesty, when illegal entry increased fivefold.

Principle 3: Support law enforcement. Come-and-get-it immigration advocates endlessly assert that immigration enforcement can’t work. This claim ignores the most important demonstration of conservative principles in the last 20 years.

Elite wisdom for decades held that the police cannot affect crime. The social forces pushing criminals to break the law—poverty, racism, addiction—were too powerful; policing could at best try to solve crimes after they happened. New York’s Mayor Giuliani and his first police chief, William Bratton, rejected that fatalism. They empowered the New York Police Department to enforce aggressively laws that had long lain moribund. The targets of the new public-order push complained bitterly that it was unfair to arrest them for marijuana sales and other crimes after years of de facto decriminalization. The NYPD continued its enforcement drive anyway and brought crime down 70 percent in a decade. It turns out that the well-founded fear of getting caught changes behavior.

Conservative open-borders advocates do not explain why policing brings domestic crime down but can have no effect on border crime. Nor can they point to any evidence to support their claim, since immigration laws have never been enforced in the interior of the country. To be sure, border defenses have been fortified over the years, but the drill has been: if you can get past the border patrol, you are home free. The most important action the government could take to end illegal immigration would be to penalize employers that unlawfully hire illegal aliens, but in 2004, it issued fine notices to only three companies. With such a negligible risk of punishment, the law’s deterrent effect has been zero. Illegal aliens, for their part, know that in none of their interactions with state services will anyone check their status—including, in most cities, when they are arrested for a crime—nor, if their illegal status is obvious, will anyone report them to the federal government.

Not only is the claim that enforcement doesn’t work based on no evidence whatsoever, but in fact what evidence there is runs in the opposite direction. The merest hint of enforcement leads employers and illegal aliens to make different calculations about the advantages of breaking the law. Employers in Gwinnett County, north of Atlanta, have grown reluctant to hire illegals after highly publicized federal raids on an international pallet company in April and the passage of an omnibus Georgia law that, among other measures, punishes employers for breaking the immigration rules. The state law has not been enforced yet, but already fewer employers are seeking illegal day laborers. A Mexican from Guanajuato told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he is going back home if the jobs picture doesn’t pick up soon; others like him may be making similar plans.

Phoenix teaches the same lesson. Home Depot, on the city’s central business artery, for years tolerated the hundreds of illegal Hispanics congregating outside the store and in its parking lot. Neighboring businesses complained bitterly about lost customers and the constant littering, trespassing, and public urination. This May, Home Depot posted signs against trespassing and picking up day laborers, and hired off-duty police officers to enforce the rules. Since then, the day laborers have almost completely disappeared.

Federal agencies have designated a stretch of the Texas border a zero-tolerance zone for border trespassing since December 6, 2005. Rather than releasing illegal entrants upon capture, the feds jail them for their border crime, then deport them. One Border Patrol agent told the Washington Post that the 51 percent drop in apprehensions since the operation began are “the most dynamic results” he had seen in 19 years on the force. The Post concluded: Operation Streamline II “has shown what it takes to stop the flow of illegal immigrants: aggressive enforcement of the laws on the books.”

After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security deported 1,500 illegal Pakistanis. An additional 15,000 then left voluntarily, reports Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies. There is no reason to think that this enforcement-through-attrition strategy won’t work as well for Hispanic illegals. Simply requiring employers to verify the status of their workers would deny jobs to 3 million illegal workers, which should lead many to leave.

Immigration liberalizers wield the threat of mass deportations as the only alternative to amnesty. By now this argument borders on bad faith, since it has been refuted so many times. The attrition strategy—relying on illegal aliens to leave voluntarily as their access to American benefits diminishes—would work just as effectively, without coercion.

Many open-borders boosters are hawks in the war on terror. But since many of the methods that maintain the border’s integrity overall are essential to keeping terrorists out of the country, these boosters should explain why they think we can wink at immigration-border violations and still protect the public against foreign enemies. Either we should give up on keeping immigration lawbreakers and terrorists from entering the country, or we should remain vigilant against both, since border security is key to terror protection.

Principle 4: Pay attention to facts on the ground. If someone proposed a program to boost the number of Americans who lack a high school diploma, have children out of wedlock, sell drugs, steal, or use welfare, he’d be deemed mad. Yet liberalized immigration rules would do just that. The illegitimacy rate among Hispanics is high and rising faster than that of other ethnic groups; their dropout rate is the highest in the country; Hispanic children are joining gangs at younger and younger ages. Academic achievement is abysmal.

Conservatives pride themselves on reality-based thinking that rejects utopian theories in favor of facts on the ground. Yet when it comes to immigration, they cling, against all contrary evidence, to the myth of the redeeming power of Hispanic family values, the Hispanic work ethic, and Hispanic virtue. Even more fanciful is the claim that it is immigrants’ children who constitute the real value to American society. The children of today’s Hispanic immigrants, in fact, are in considerable trouble.

Without doubt, many Latinos are upwardly mobile. But a significant portion of their children are getting sucked into street life, as a trip to almost any urban high school and some conversations with almost any Hispanic student will verify. In the field, the conservative fact-finder would learn that teen pregnancy is pervasive and that Hispanic boys increasingly regard fathering children as the prerequisite to becoming a “playah.”

Conservatives have never shrunk from pointing out that dysfunctional behavior creates long-term poverty among inner-city blacks. But when Hispanics engage in the same behavior, they fall silent. From 1990 to 2004, the number of Hispanics in poverty rose 52 percent, accounting for 92 percent of the increase in poor people. The number of poor Hispanic children rose 43 percent, reports Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson. By contrast, the number of poor black children has declined 17 percent since 1990. The influx of dirt-poor Mexicans drives the Hispanic poverty increase, of course, but their behavior once here doesn’t help.

Our immigration policy is creating a second underclass, one with the potential to expand indefinitely if current immigration rates merely stay the same, much less treble, as they would under the Hagel-Martinez Senate bill. Given the rapid increase in the Hispanic population, the prevalence of the following socially destructive behavior among Hispanics should be cause for serious concern.

Illegitimacy. Half of all children born to Hispanic Americans in 2002 were illegitimate, twice the rate for American whites and 42 percent higher than the overall American rate. The birthrate for Hispanic teens is higher than that for black teens. In Santa Ana, California, which has the highest proportion of people who speak Spanish at home of any large U.S. city—74 percent—the teen birthrate was twice the national teen average in 2000. This predilection for out-of-wedlock childbearing among Hispanics cannot be blamed solely on corrosive American culture, since the illegitimacy rate for foreign-born Hispanics is 40 percent. The illegitimacy rate in Mexico is 38 percent; in El Salvador, it is 72 percent.

It is hard to reconcile these statistics with the durable myth of superior Hispanic family values. A random walk through Santa Ana encountered ample evidence of Hispanic family breakdown. Livia came illegally from Mexico six years ago and then bore two illegitimate children; she now sells fruit from a pushcart on Main Street. A few blocks away, a 23-year-old illegal unmarried mother from El Salvador is protesting for smaller class sizes (an irony lost on her) outside a Santa Ana school board meeting. She came to the U.S. at age ten, dropped out of high school, and had her son “really young.” He is now on welfare. This unwed mother prides herself on not having had any more children. “So many Latinas are having so many kids,” she says disapprovingly. “Kids are having kids.”

Even the mainstream media can’t help stumbling across the Hispanic illegitimacy epidemic. Reporting on this spring’s illegal-alien protests in downtown L.A., the Los Angeles Times turned up Guadalupe Aguilera, the mother of five illegitimate children. Aguilera thinks herself self-sacrificing for putting her children only on the WIC federal food program. If she had documents, she said, she could take advantage of a far greater range of welfare benefits. “I lose money that I could give my children,” she complained to the Times. Increasingly, Hispanic family values mean collecting welfare for out-of-wedlock children.

Academic failure. It would be useful for open-borders optimists to spend some time in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is 73 percent Hispanic, and where just 40 percent of Hispanic students graduate. (Nationwide, 53 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school, according to the Manhattan Institute’s Jay Greene—the lowest rate among all ethnic groups.) Of those Hispanic students who do graduate, just 22 percent have completed the course work necessary for admission to a four-year state college—which means that of all Hispanic students who enter in ninth grade, fewer than 15 percent will graduate ready for college. Immigrant advocates have fiercely opposed in court a long-deferred California high school exit exam, which would require students to answer just over 50 percent of questions testing eighth-grade-level math and ninth-grade-level English. The California Research Bureau predicts that if the exam becomes a reality, Hispanic graduation rates would drop well below 30 percent.

A recent Los Angeles Times series on high school dropouts put some faces on the numbers. Eleven male Hispanic friends entered Birmingham High School in Van Nuys together in 2001; only three graduated. Because the boys spent so much time cutting classes—usually hanging out at fast-food restaurants—most failed to log any academic progress and saw no sense in staying enrolled. Drugs, turf rivalries, and fathering children also contributed to their failure to graduate. Birmingham’s teachers despair at their students’ lack of academic commitment and at their belief that seat time should entitle them to a passing grade. Reports Ronald Fryer in Education Next, hostility toward academic achievers is even higher among Hispanics than among blacks.

Schools spend huge sums trying to improve the Hispanic graduation rate, even hiring “outreach consultants” for dropout prevention. One Santa Ana consultant’s approach is predictably multicultural. “We need to teach teachers that students need to be proud of where they are coming from,” she told me. But of course Hispanic school failure derives not from ethnic neglect—the Santa Ana schools glorify the Hispanic heritage to a fault—but from parents who don’t demand rigorous academic application and don’t stand up to corrosive popular influences. At Santa Ana High School, I spoke with a former student, Julio, who had been expelled as a troublemaker in ninth grade, then returned briefly in the tenth grade but didn’t take a single class. “Me and my friends ditched; our parents didn’t know.” It is the cultural capital that immigrants bring with them that most determines their success; the work ethic of poor Mexicans does not carry over to their children’s schooling, and we are all paying the price.

The more-immigrants-the-better proponents counter that early-twentieth-century Italian immigrants were also indifferent to schooling but eventually joined the middle class. But by contrast with the economy of a century ago, today’s knowledge-based economy values education above all else. College-educated workers have seen a 22 percent increase in real income since 1980, while high school dropouts lost 3 percent of their wages. High school dropouts will almost certainly remain poor, imposing huge welfare and health-care costs on taxpayers while lowering tax receipts. Native-born Hispanics collected welfare at over twice the rate as native-born whites in 2005; the foreign-born Hispanic welfare rate was nearly three times that of native-born whites.

Gang culture. In his prime-time May radio address promoting amnesty, President George Bush invoked a marine, Guadalupe Denogean, as the embodiment of immigrant values. Like Denogean, today’s immigrants are willing, said Bush, “to risk everything for the dream of freedom.” Many immigrants do share Denogean’s patriotic ethic. But for every immigrant soldier, there are as many less admirable counterparts. A selection of Hispanic portraits could just as well have picked out Connie Retana, a 38-year-old Anaheim, California, resident, who in February egged on her 18-year-old son, Martin Delgado, as he and his gang friends raped a 23-year-old for seven hours in retaliation against the young woman’s boyfriend. A survey of Hispanic family values might also include the Santa Ana mother who threatened in 2004 to kill her neighbors if they testified against her gangster son in a gun-assault case. Then there’s the extended family of criminals in Pomona, California, who raised Valentino Arenas: the 18-year-old sought membership in Pomona’s 12th Street gang by killing a California highway patrol officer in cold blood in April 2004. Following a sweep in May of the gang, which specializes in large-scale drug trafficking, murder, and extortion, Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley excoriated the families across the California Southland who are “aiding and abetting murders in Los Angeles County” by refusing to cooperate with authorities or curtail their children’s crimes.

Open-borders conservatives point to the relatively low crime rate among immigrants to deny any connection between high immigration and crime. But unless we can prevent immigrants from having children, a high level of immigration translates to increased levels of crime. Between the foreign-born generation and their American children, the incarceration rate of Mexican-Americans jumps more than eightfold, resulting in an incarceration rate that is 3.45 times higher than that of whites, according to an analysis of 2000 census data by the pro-immigrant Migration Policy Institute.

California, with one-quarter of the nation’s immigrants and its greatest concentration of Mexicans and Central Americans, is the bellwether state for all things relating to unbridled Hispanic immigration, including crime. The Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, conducted by sociologists Alejandro Portes of Princeton and Rubén G. Rumbaut of the University of California, Irvine, followed the children of immigrants in San Diego and Miami from 1992 to 2003. A whopping 28 percent of Mexican-American males between the ages of 18 and 24 reported having been arrested since 1995, and 20 percent reported having been incarcerated—a rate twice that of other immigrant groups. Anyone who speaks to Hispanic students in immigrant-saturated schools in Southern California will invariably hear the estimate that 50 percent of a student’s peers have ended up in gangs or other criminal activities.

Gang life—both Hispanic and black—immediately asserted itself last July when the Los Angeles Unified School District opened a model high school to ease overcrowding. Despite amenities that rival those of private schools—a swimming pool, Mac computers, a ballet studio, a rubber track, and a professional chef’s kitchen—it instantly gained the distinction of being one of the most violent campuses in the system. Shots rang out in front of the school on the second day of classes, reports the Los Angeles Times, and three days after opening ceremonies, police arrested a student with an AK-47 on the campus perimeter. Brawling students attacked safety officers and tried to grab their guns in December, while cops pepper-sprayed a dean breaking up a gang fight in March. Students sell meth in the classrooms, graffiti covers the stairwells, textbooks, and high-design umbrella-covered picnic tables, and a trip to the bathroom requires an adult safety escort.

Uncertain assimilation. Multicultural cheerleaders argue that assimilation is proceeding apace by pointing to the fact that virtually all third-generation Hispanics can speak English. Even so, linguistic and cultural segregation among Hispanics is increasing. The percentage of Hispanics living in Hispanic enclaves rose from 39 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2000, reports Robert Samuelson, and as more and more aliens from Mexico and Central America enter, the size of Spanish-speaking-only areas expands. Livia, the unmarried mother selling fruit on Santa Ana’s Main Street, says that no one she associates with speaks English. A coffee-shop owner down the block observes that it’s too easy in Santa Ana not to learn English. “It’s all Spanish-speaking here,” she says. In California, the academic achievement gap between students with little English and English speakers is widening.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are footing the bill for interpreters across a host of government functions and for the translation of countless government documents. California spends $82.7 million a year on criminal-court interpreters for those 40 percent of its residents who speak a language other than English at home. At the same time, Spanish may be developing into a language of cultural assertion and opposition. A Hispanic resident of El Paso told New York’s radio station WNYC in May that teen workers in fast-food and other retail outlets regularly refuse to answer her in English when she addresses them. At a city council meeting this March in Maywood, California, the illegal-alien sanctuary, a resident suggested that a council member was using English as a sign of disrespect. All this adds up to a significant, and accelerating, transformation of American culture.

Pro-amnesty forces promote the Ellis Island conceit that illegal immigrants “risk everything for the dream of freedom,” as President Bush put it in his May address. The president’s assessment, while flattering, is not particularly accurate. However lousy the Mexican economy, there are few if any political freedoms enjoyed by Americans that Mexico denies. It is the Yanqui dollar, not untasted freedom, that brings the vast majority of illegals here. “The dream that most of us hold on to is the Mexican dream,” Efrain Jimenez, an official with the Federation of Zacatecan Clubs of Southern California, told me last year. “The Mexican dream is to make enough money to go back and own your own business. Four-fifths of Mexicans here would say that if they had a job in Mexico, they’d go back right away.” Most Mexican immigrants do not intend to become Americans; they come wanting to return to their home country, but end up staying out of inertia. They naturalize at half the rate of Asians or Europeans. This is not a recipe for assimilation.

Mexico’s Posturing Elites

The immigration mess has produced one compensation: the pleasure of watching the blowhard posturing of Mexico’s elites. Molière’s comic buffoons never achieved the sheer perfection of hypocrisy, gall, and self-abasement on almost daily display from the Mexican diplomatic and political corps.

The obsession with the Yanqui imperialist next door is Mexico’s most serious wasting disease. Keeping the specter of Yanqui interference alive means blaming the U.S. for all of Mexico’s problems and asserting Mexico’s incapacity to solve those problems on its own. Yet this renunciation of agency does not entail humility. To the contrary, the more insistent the claim that Mexico can do nothing for itself, the louder its leaders roar, and the more aggressively they denounce their savior and nemesis.

A recent entry in this ongoing performance is a May 4 New York Times op-ed by Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican foreign minister and currently a professor of Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University. As foreign minister, Castañeda played hardball, arguing that unless the U.S. gave Mexico what he called the “full enchilada,” that is, amnesty for its illegal migrants and a much higher immigration ceiling, it would . . . it would . . . well, in truth it would do nothing but increase its furious criticism of American abuses.

In his Times op-ed, Castañeda continues his “amnesty or else” theme, but this time he has actually come up with an “or else”: the further leftward lurch of Mexico and Latin America.

Castañeda distinguishes between two kinds of leftism: the “wrong” nationalist Left and the good “progressive” Left. (We will pass over his classically Latin American belief in the good Left.) The “wrong part of the Left” is gaining ground in Latin America, Castañeda says, in the persons of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a candidate in Mexico’s July 2 presidential race. If López Obrador were to take the Mexican presidency (which as of this writing he apparently has failed to do, though he has not conceded), the “wrong” Left could end up “controlling a 2,000-mile border with the United States,” Castañeda declares.

Whose responsibility is it to prevent the bad Left from taking over Mexico? America’s, of course! After warning of a return of the “corrupt authoritarian machinery that governed Mexico for 70 years,” Castañeda follows with a non sequitur: “This is where leadership on immigration reform from George W. Bush and broad-minded Republican senators comes in.” Someone not stricken with Yanqui obsession might think that it is up to Mexicans to keep a destructive ideology out of their own house. But that hypothesis assumes agency on the part of El Norte’s oppressed southern neighbor. Castañeda knows better. Rather, it is up to the U.S. to “strengthen support for Mexico’s policies of the last decade” by passing “sensible” immigration reform and thus blocking the rise of López Obrador.

Castañeda notes more in sorrow than in anger that after Mexican president Vicente Fox “staked much of his prestige on President Bush’s commitment to fix immigration policy”—meaning, of course, opening the American border up further—”Mr. Bush left Mr. Fox empty-handed.” Castañeda is willing to forgive, however, so long as the U.S. lives up to its responsibility to “give Mr. Fox a huge boost” by granting an amnesty and liberalizing its immigration rules.

One can think of many ways in which President Fox could have given himself—and his party’s designated successor, Felipe Calderón—a huge boost. Purging corruption in the police forces and throughout government, freeing entrepreneurs from crippling regulations, ending state control of vital industries, and encouraging and protecting foreign investment are but a few. Such actions, however, would require dismantling the status quo. It is much easier to demand that the U.S. open the border safety valve further, so that millions of surplus Mexicans, unable to find opportunity for advancement in the lethargic, overregulated Mexican economy, can escape rather than revolt.

As a former diplomat, Castañeda can snarl as well as wheedle and whine. He warns that nothing could offer “better proof” to the wrong Left of “America’s not-so-benign neglect and imperial arrogance as further paralysis on immigration.” Oh, dear. Here Castañeda has been playing the good leftie to Hugo Chávez’s and Evo Morales’s bad leftie, and now it turns out that there is not much difference between them. Both kinds of leftie at heart view the U.S. as a malign imperial force, despite its billions in foreign aid and the blanket of security protection that it offers Latin America.

Like the maestro that he is, Castañeda saves his most brilliant move for the end. After a column devoted to the proposition that it is America’s responsibility to keep the bad lefties out of Mexico’s presidential palace, Castañeda pulls out that hoariest of conspiracy theories: American meddling in Mexican sovereignty! By opening its borders fully, Castañeda explains, the U.S. would encourage Mexican political “continuity . . . without interfering in its neighbor’s political process.” Just when you thought that Castañeda’s combination of chest-thumping bravado, cultivated helplessness, and hypocrisy could not get any more shameless, he tops himself. Hardly a day goes by when Mexican officials don’t hand out identification cards to illegal Mexicans in the U.S. and promote the cards as a de facto legalizing device, don’t advise their citizens about safe illegal travel into the U.S., and don’t berate American policymakers for distinguishing illegal from legal migrants. Yet here is Castañeda snappishly warning against American political interference, even as he demands that America guarantee President Fox’s political legacy.

A more economically and psychologically stable southern neighbor would benefit the U.S. enormously, but it would come at a considerable cost in entertainment value.

Principle 5: Prefer local decision makers over remote elites. Illegal immigration has prompted a powerful grassroots democratic reaction, as people in areas most affected by Hispanic immigration try to regain control of their communities. Cities, counties, and states have passed laws to regulate day-laborer sites, to push employers into compliance with immigration laws, to allow police officers to cooperate with federal immigration agents, to prevent illegal aliens from collecting welfare and from voting, and to tighten driver’s-license requirements, among other initiatives.

After appeals from illegal-alien advocacy groups, judges have struck down many of these laws. Ordinarily, conservatives would deplore such thwarting of the people’s will. When it comes to illegal immigration, however, they side with the elites in robes and on Capitol Hill who dismiss the public as know-nothing rubes. Open-borders conservatives denounce California’s Proposition 187 as vehemently as any Hispanic activist, even though the judicially overruled referendum—which denied nonemergency free health care and free public education to illegal aliens—was simply a cry for help from California taxpayers, struggling with the enormous strains that illegal aliens were putting on their state’s social welfare systems.

Conservatives have historically trusted local decision making over distant Washington solutions. The tradition of federalism holds that people closest to a problem are best able to assess and resolve it. Yet the open-borders Right waves away the fervent local lawmaking around illegal immigration as merely an outbreak of xenophobia. Would such conservative legalizers argue that the 63 cities and counties that founded the Coalition of Mayors and County Executives for Immigration Reform, a movement trying to alert Washington to the burdens of illegal immigration, have been taken over by racists? Do they really think that they themselves see matters more clearly than angry local residents whose local hospital has gone bankrupt under the strain of serving immigrants with no insurance, or than parents who no longer feel welcome in their local schools, or than business owners harmed by the crowds of day laborers on the sidewalk who scare their customers away?

Connecticut’s Greenwich Hospital recently treated an illegal Guatemalan with severe drug-resistant TB, after his local hospital in Port Chester, New York, had gone bust from uninsured immigrants. The uncompensated bill for two and a half months of in-patient treatment totaled $200,000, not including the fees for the numerous specialists on the case, which probably added another $100,000 to $150,000. One surgery alone to remove a crippling accretion on his spine—a condition unknown outside the Third World—lasted an entire day. All of the Guatemalan’s associates tested positive for TB, and all worked in restaurants, reports his surgeon, Dr. Katrina Firlik, in the Wall Street Journal. Such episodes, invisible to conservative elites, make a deep impression on local taxpayers and insurance policyholders.

Arizona and California lawmakers want to free taxpayers from the nearly $1 billion a year burden of detaining illegal criminals—and the even costlier burden of detaining those illegals’ children. In Fresno, now 45 percent Hispanic, 20 percent of the county jail inmates are illegal immigrants, as are about one-quarter of emergency-room patients. No wonder Fresno’s mayor called in November 2005 for securing the border. The county of Riverside, California, voted in April to start turning in its illegal-alien jail inmates—who make up between 12 and 25 percent of its inmate population—to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, joining a handful of jail systems now abandoning the long-standing taboo against checking criminals’ immigration status. Naturally, immigrant advocates in Southern California have branded the new policy a civil rights violation.

Lived experience fuels these citizen movements for immigration control. If conservatives dismiss them as delusional, the Republican Party will pay dearly at the polls. Rather than dismissing the public’s anguish over large-scale lawbreaking, conservatives should honor the public’s commitment to the sanctity of the legislative will.

The proponents of amnesty have manufactured an artificial crisis. They say that it is imperative to legalize the millions of illegals here now, so that the illegals can “come out of the shadows.” In reality, the minor inconveniences imposed by illegal status are nothing more than what the illegals bargained for. Illegal aliens have no legitimate claim to be legalized before the country makes sure that its border control is working. Enforcement must precede a liberalization of immigration rules—which is why “comprehensive” immigration reform (the conservative code word for amnesty and increased levels of immigration) is not the solution to our border crisis but rather a guarantee of continued anarchy. Amnesty and the impossibility of enforcing a complicated new immigration scheme will undermine border control, just as they did in 1986. The first item of business on the conservative agenda should be enforcing the law already on the books.

But the most important value that conservatives can bring to this debate is honesty. Many of the costs imposed by Mexican immigrants are a function of their lack of education, their low incomes, and their own and their children’s behavior, not their legal status. Without question, we must balance those costs against the immigrant generation’s admirable work ethic. But immigration reform that institutionalizes the present immigration mix—or, worse, increases its volume by three to five times—is certain to expand the Hispanic underclass. There are many educated foreigners patiently waiting for permission to migrate to the United States. The United States can better honor its immigrant heritage by accelerating their entry rather than by continuing to favor the most low-skilled of our neighboring populations.

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