In the Spring 2002 issue of City Journal, I wrote an essay about growing up in the central San Joaquin Valley and witnessing firsthand, especially over the last 20 years, the ill effects of illegal immigration (City Journal’s editors chose the title of the piece: “Do We Want Mexifornia?”). Controversy over my blunt assessment of the disaster of illegal immigration from Mexico led to an expanded memoir, Mexifornia, published the following year by Encounter Press.
Mexifornia came out during the ultimately successful campaign to recall California governor Gray Davis in autumn 2003. A popular public gripe was that the embattled governor had appeased both employers and the more radical Hispanic politicians of the California legislature on illegal immigration. And indeed Davis had signed legislation allowing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens that both houses of state government had passed. So it was no wonder that the book sometimes found its way into both the low and high forms of the political debate. On the Internet, a close facsimile of a California driver’s license circulated, with a picture of a Mexican bandit (the gifted actor Alfonso Bedoya of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), together with a demeaning height (5’4”), weight (“too much”), and sex (“mucho”) given. “Mexifornia” was emblazoned across the top where “California” usually is stamped on the license.
In such a polarized climate, heated debates and several radio interviews followed, often with the query, “Why did you have to write this book?” The Left saw the book’s arguments and its title—Mexifornia was originally a term of approbation used by activists buoyed by California’s changing demography—as unduly harsh to newcomers from Mexico. The Right saw the book as long-overdue attention to a scandal ignored by the mainstream Republican Party.
Fast-forward nearly five years, and the national climate has radically changed, so much so that the arguments of Mexifornia—close the borders, return to the melting pot, offer earned citizenship to most aliens of long residence in exchange for acceptance of English and American culture—seem tame today, if not passé. In 2002, when I wrote the original City Journal essay, no one thought that the U.S. Congress would vote to erect a wall. Today there is rumbling that the signed legislation entails only 700 miles of fencing instead of spanning the entire 1,950-mile border.
Deportation was once an unimaginable response to the problem of the 11 million here illegally. Now its practicality, rather than its morality, appears the keener point of contention. And the concerted effort by Chicano activists to drive from popular parlance the descriptive term “illegal alien” in favor of the politically correct, but imprecise and often misleading “undocumented worker” has largely failed. Similar efforts to demonize opponents of open borders as “anti-immigrant” or “nativist” have had only a marginal effect in stifling debate, as has the deliberate effort to blur illegal and legal immigration. The old utopian talk of a new borderless zone of dual cultures, spreading on both sides of a disappearing boundary, has given way to a reexamination of NAFTA and its facilitation of greater cross-border flows of goods, services—and illegal aliens and drugs.
So why has the controversy over illegal immigration moved so markedly to the right?
We return always to the question of numbers. While it is true that no one knows exactly how many are here illegally from Mexico and Latin America, both sides in the debate often accept as reasonable estimates of 11 to 12 million illegals—with an additional 500,000 to 1 million arriving per year. Given porous borders, such guesses about the number of illegal aliens in the United States are outdated almost as soon as they are published. It is plausible, then, that there may be an additional 3 to 4 million illegal aliens here who were not here when the City Journal “Mexifornia” piece appeared.
The result of such staggering numbers is that aliens now don’t just cluster in the American Southwest but frequently appear at Home Depot parking lots in the Midwest, emergency rooms in New England, and construction sites in the Carolinas, making illegal immigration an American, rather than a mere Californian or Arizonan, concern.
Indeed, we forget how numbers are at the crux of the entire debate over illegal immigration. In the 1970s, perhaps a few million illegals resided in the United States, and their unassimilated presence went largely unnoticed. Most Americans felt that the formidable powers of integration and popular culture would continue to incorporate any distinctive ethnic enclave, as they had so successfully done with the past generations that arrived en masse from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. But when more than 10 million fled Mexico in little over a decade—the great majority poor, without English, job skills, a high school education, and legality—entire apartheid communities in the American Southwest began springing up.
During the heyday of multiculturalism and political correctness in the 1980s, the response of us, the hosts, to this novel challenge was not to insist upon the traditional assimilation of the newcomer but rather to accommodate the illegal alien with official Spanish-language documents, bilingual education, and ethnic boosterism in our media, politics, and education. These responses only encouraged more illegals to come, on the guarantee that their material life could be better and yet their culture unchanged in the United States. We now see the results. Los Angeles is today the second-largest Mexican city in the world; one out of every ten Mexican nationals resides in the United States, the vast majority illegally.
Since Mexifornia appeared, the debate also no longer splits along liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat, or even white/brown fault lines. Instead, class considerations more often divide Americans on the issue. The majority of middle-class and poor whites, Asians, African-Americans, and Hispanics wish to close the borders. They see few advantages to cheap service labor, since they are not so likely to need it to mow their lawns, watch their kids, or clean their houses. Because the less well-off eat out less often, use hotels infrequently, and don’t periodically remodel their homes, the advantages to the economy of inexpensive, off-the-books illegal-alien labor again are not so apparent.
But the downside surely is apparent. Truck drivers, carpenters, janitors, and gardeners— unlike lawyers, doctors, actors, writers, and professors—correctly feel that their jobs are threatened, or at least their wages lowered, by cheaper rival workers from Oaxaca or Jalisco. And Americans who live in communities where thousands of illegal aliens have arrived en masse more likely lack the money to move when Spanish-speaking students flood the schools and gangs proliferate. Poorer Americans of all ethnic backgrounds take for granted that poverty provides no exemption from mastering English, so they wonder why the same is not true for incoming Mexican nationals. Less than a mile from my home is a former farmhouse whose new owner moved in several stationary Winnebagos, propane tanks, and outdoor cooking facilities—and apparently four or five entire families rent such facilities right outside his back door. Dozens live where a single family used to—a common sight in rural California that reifies illegal immigration in a way that books and essays do not.
The problem with all this is that our now-spurned laws were originally intended to ensure an (admittedly thin) veneer of civilization over innate chaos—roads full of drivers who have passed a minimum test to ensure that they are not a threat to others; single-family residence zoning to ensure that there are adequate sewer, garbage, and water services for all; periodic county inspections to ensure that untethered dogs are licensed and free of disease and that housing is wired and plumbed properly to prevent mayhem; and a consensus on school taxes to ensure that there are enough teachers and classrooms for such sudden spikes in student populations.
All these now-neglected or forgotten rules proved costly to the taxpayer. In my own experience, the slow progress made in rural California since the 1950s of my youth—in which the county inspected our farm’s rural dwellings, eliminated the once-ubiquitous rural outhouse, shut down substandard housing, and fined violators in hopes of providing a uniform humane standard of residence for all rural residents—has been abandoned in just a few years of laissez-faire policy toward illegal aliens. My own neighborhood is reverting to conditions common about 1950, but with the insult of far higher tax rates added to the injury of nonexistent enforcement of once-comprehensive statutes. The government’s attitude at all levels is to punish the dutiful citizen’s misdemeanors while ignoring the alien’s felony, on the logic that the former will at least comply while the latter either cannot or will not.
Fairness about who is allowed into the United States is another issue that reflects class divides—especially when almost 70 percent of all immigrants, legal and illegal, arrive from Mexico alone. Asians, for example, are puzzled as to why their relatives wait years for official approval to enter the United States, while Mexican nationals come across the border illegally, counting on serial amnesties to obtain citizenship.
These class divisions cut both ways, and they help explain the anomaly of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page mandarins echoing the arguments of the elite Chicano studies professors. Both tend to ridicule the far less affluent Minutemen and English-only activists, in part because they do not experience firsthand the problems associated with illegal immigration but instead find millions of aliens grist for their own contrasting agendas. Indeed, every time an alien crosses the border legally, fluent in English and with a high school diploma, the La Raza industry and the corporate farm or construction company alike most likely lose a constituent.
The ripples of September 11—whether seen in the arrests of dozens of potential saboteurs here in America or the terrorist bombings abroad in Madrid and London—remind Americans that their present enemies can do us harm only if they can first somehow enter the United States. Again, it makes little sense to screen tourists, inspect cargo containers, and check the passenger lists of incoming flights, when our border with an untrustworthy Mexico remains porous. While it may be true that the opponents of illegal immigration have used the post–September 11 fear of terrorism to further their own agenda of closing the border with Mexico, they are absolutely correct that presently the best way for jihadist cells to cross into the United States is overland from the south.
Other foreign developments have also steered the debate ever more rightward. In the last decade, the United States has clearly seen the wages of sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism abroad. The unraveling of Yugoslavia into Croatian, Serbian, and Albanian sects followed the Hutu-Tutsi bloodbath in Rwanda. And now almost daily we hear of Pashtun-Tajik-Uzbek hatred among the multiplicity of warring clans in Afghanistan and the daily mayhem among Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis in Iraq. Why—when we are spending blood and treasure abroad to encourage the melting pot and national unity—would anyone wish to contribute to tribalism or foster the roots of such ethnic separatism here in the United States?
Moreover, all during the 1990s, blue-state America offered up the European Union as the proper postmodern antidote to the United States. But just as we have recoiled from the EU’s statist and undemocratic tendencies—which have resulted in popular dissatisfaction, sluggish economic growth, high unemployment, falling demography, and unsustainable entitlement commitments—so, too, have its unassimilated Muslim minorities served as another canary in the mine. The riots in France, the support for jihadism among Pakistanis in London, and the demands of Islamists in Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands do not encourage Americans to let in more poor Mexican illegal immigrants with loud agendas, or to embrace the multicultural salad bowl over their own distinctive melting pot.
Then there were the April–May 2006 demonstrations here in the United States, when nearly half a million protesters took to the streets of our largest cities, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Previously, naive Americans had considered that their own discussions over border security and immigration were in their own hands. And while Chicano-rights organizations and employer lobbyists were often vehement in their efforts to keep the border open, illegal aliens themselves used to be mostly quiet about our internal legal debates.
In contrast, this spring Americans witnessed millions of illegal aliens who not only were unapologetic about their illegal status but were demanding that their hosts accommodate their own political grievances, from providing driver’s licenses to full amnesty. The largest demonstrations—held on May Day, with thousands of protesters waving Mexican flags and bearing placards depicting the communist insurrectionist Che Guevara—only confirmed to most Americans that illegal immigration was out of control and beginning to become politicized along the lines of Latin American radicalism. I chronicled in Mexifornia the anomaly of angry protesters waving the flag of the country they vehemently did not wish to return to, but now the evening news beamed these images to millions. In short, the radical socialism of Latin America, seething in the angry millions who flocked to support Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Mexico’s Andrés López Obrador, had now seemingly been imported into our own largest cities.
Turmoil in areas of Mexico that send many illegal aliens to the United States is especially worrisome. Recently, for example, almost the entire state of Oaxaca was in near-open revolt over efforts to force the resignation of provincial governor Ulises Ruiz. There was widespread lawlessness, vigilantism, and at times the complete breakdown of order. All this feeds the growing perception that illegal aliens increasingly are arriving not merely as economic refugees but as political dissidents who don’t hesitate to take to the streets here to demand social justice, as they did back home.
More important still, Oaxaca’s troubles cast doubt on the conventional wisdom that illegal immigration is a safety valve that allows Mexico critical time to get its house in order. Perhaps the opposite is true: some of the areas, like Oaxaca, that send the most illegal aliens to the United States, still experience the greatest social tensions—in part because of the familial disruption and social chaos that results when adult males flee and depopulated communities consequently become captive to foreign remittances.
Two further issues have persuaded Americans to close the borders: the attitude of the Mexican government and the problems with first-generation native-born children of illegal aliens.
Worker remittances sent back to Mexico now earn it precious American dollars equal to the revenue from 500,000 barrels of daily exported oil. In short, Mexico cannot afford to lose its second-largest source of hard currency and will do almost anything to ensure its continuance. When Mexico City publishes comic books advising its own citizens how best to cross the Rio Grande, Americans take offense. Not only does Mexico brazenly wish to undermine American law to subsidize its own failures, but it also assumes that those who flee northward are among its least educated, departing without much ability to read beyond the comic-book level.
We are also learning not only that Mexico wants its expatriates’ cash—and its nationals lobbying for Mexican interests—once they are safely away from their motherland; we are also discovering that Mexico doesn’t have much concern about the welfare of its citizens abroad in America. The conservative estimate of $15 billion sent home comes always at the expense of low-paid Mexicans toiling here, who must live in impoverished circumstances if they are to send substantial portions of their wages home to Mexico. (And it comes as well at the expense of American taxpayers, providing health-care and food subsidies in efforts to offer a safety net to cash-strapped illegal aliens.) So it is not just that Mexico exports its own citizens, but it does so on the expectation that they are serfs of a sort, who, like the helots of old, surrender much of the earnings of their toil to their distant masters.
But even more grotesquely, in the last five years, the Mexican real-estate market has boomed on the Baja California peninsula. Once Mexico grasped that its own unspoiled coast was highly desirable for wealthy expatriate Americans as a continuation of the prized but crowded Santa Barbara–San Diego seaside corridor, it began to reform its real-estate market, making the necessary changes in property and title law, and it welcomed with open arms cash-laden subdividers looking to come south. This is sound economics, but examine the ethical message: Mexico City will send the United States millions of its own illiterate and poor whom it will neither feed nor provide with even modest housing, but at the same time it welcomes thousands of Americans with cash to build expensive seaside second homes.
Of course, the ultimate solution to the illegal immigration debacle is for Mexican society to bring itself up to the levels of affluence found in the United States by embracing market reforms of the sort we have seen in South Korea, Taiwan, and China. But rarely do Mexican supporters of such globalization, or their sympathetic counterparts in the United States, see the proliferation of a Wal-Mart or Starbucks down south in such terms. Rather, to them American consumerism and investment in Mexico suggest only an owed reciprocity of sentiment: Why should Americans get mad about Mexican illegals coming north when our own crass culture, with its blaring neon signs in English, spreads southward? In such morally equivalent arguments, it is never mentioned that Americanization occurs legally and brings capital, while Mexicanization comes about by illegal means and is driven by poverty.
At the same time, focus has turned more to the U.S.-born children of Mexican illegal immigrants, in whom illegitimacy, school dropout rates, and criminal activity have risen to such levels that no longer can we simply dismiss Mexican immigration as resembling the more problematic but eventually successful Italian model of a century ago. Then, large numbers of southern European Catholics, most without capital and education, arrived en masse from Italy and Sicily, lived in ethnic enclaves, and for decades lagged behind the majority population in educational achievement, income, and avoidance of crime—before achieving financial parity as well as full assimilation and intermarriage. Since 1990, the number of poor Mexican-Americans has climbed 52 percent, a figure that skewed U.S. poverty rates. Billions of dollars spent on our own poor will not improve our poverty statistics when 1 million of the world’s poorest cross our border each year. The number of impoverished black children has dropped 17 percent in the last 16 years, but the number of Hispanic poor has gone up 43 percent. We don’t like to talk of illegitimacy, but here again the ripples of illegal immigration reach the U.S.-born generation. Half of births to Hispanic-Americans were illegitimate, 42 percent higher than the general rate of the American population. Illegitimacy is higher in general in Mexico than in the United States, but the force multiplier of illegal status, lack of English, and an absence of higher education means that the children of Mexican immigrants have illegitimacy rates even higher than those found in either Mexico or the United States.
Education levels reveal the same dismal pattern—nearly half of all Hispanics are not graduating from high school in four years. And the more Hispanic a school district becomes, the greater level of failure for Hispanic students. In the Los Angeles district, 73 percent Hispanic, 60 percent of the students are not graduating. But the real tragedy is that, of those Hispanics who do graduate, only about one in five will have completed a high school curriculum that qualifies for college enrollment. That partly helps to explain why at many campuses of the California State University system, almost half of the incoming class must first take remedial education. Less than 10 percent of those who identify themselves as Hispanic have graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree. I found that teaching Latin to first-generation Mexican-Americans and illegal aliens was valuable not so much as an introduction to the ancient world but as their first experience with remedial English grammar.
Meanwhile, almost one in three Mexican-American males between the ages of 18 and 24 recently reported being arrested, one in five has been jailed, and 15,000 illegal aliens are currently in the California penal system.
Statistics like these have changed the debate radically. While politicians and academics assured the public that illegal aliens came here only to work and would quickly assume an American identity, the public’s own ad hoc and empirical observations of vast problems with crime, illiteracy, and illegitimacy have now been confirmed by hard data. Ever since the influx of illegals into our quiet valley became a flood, I have had five drivers leave the road, plow into my vineyard, and abandon their cars, without evidence of either registration or insurance. On each occasion, I have seen them simply walk or run away from the scene of thousands of dollars in damage. Similarly, an intoxicated driver who ran a stop sign hit my car broadside and then fled the scene. Our farmhouse in the Central Valley has been broken into three times. We used to have an open yard; now it is walled, with steel gates on the driveway. Such anecdotes have become common currency in the American Southwest. Ridiculed by elites as evidence of prejudice, these stories, statistical studies now show, reflect hard fact.
The growing national discomfort over illegal immigration more than four years after “Mexifornia” first appeared in City Journal is not only apparent in the rightward shift of the debate but also in the absence of any new arguments for open borders—while the old arguments, Americans are finally concluding, really do erode the law, reward the cynical here and abroad, and needlessly divide Americans along class, political, and ethnic lines.