Illegal Immigration and the Left

Ryan Bonneville writes that there’s really nothing Barack Obama can do to placate the right-wing illegal immigration crowd. No matter what he does, it will never be enough. Then this:

I stewed over this for a couple days, not entirely sure what I wanted to say about it, but then I read this post by Kevin Drum this morning, and I realized that there isn’t much of anything I can say. Obama’s base is as feckless as he is, which is why he expresses no compunctions about the policy choices he makes. What do you say to Joe Klein when he claims that the “most basic fact” about illegal immigration is that it’s “down”? That the real reason we don’t need crocodiles patrolling the border has nothing at all to do with the number of people illegally crossing it? Drum isn’t much better when his response is “I don’t really have a big problem with beefing up the border patrol”. Why not, Kevin? He even links to Adam Serwer without bothering to address Serwer’s last paragraph about the human costs of our immigration regime. (And even I know it’s the opposite of irony that Serwer starts that paragraph with the phrase “what you won’t hear” right before we emphatically don’t hear anything about it.)

Well, the reason I don’t have a big problem with this is because I think the federal government should do its best to stop illegal immigration. It should do it humanely, it should do it efficiently, it should do it without trampling on civil liberties, and it should do it without mistakenly scooping up lots of citizens and legal immigrants in its net and putting them through hell. These are, obviously, all big caveats and they’re all hard things to pull off. When we fall short, we should yell about it. Like here, for example. But they aren’t impossible.

If you’re in favor of completely open borders, then fine. Make your case. But if you’re not, then no matter how liberal you think our immigration laws should be, you do think we should have immigration laws. And if you think we should have immigration laws, then you think they should be enforced.

So that’s why I don’t have an inherent problem with beefing up border patrols. My position on immigration is fairly simple: I think we should allow more legal immigration, and we should make the process of obtaining citizenship (or at least a green card) less Byzantine than it is now. At the same time, we should make it harder to come into the country illegally. I don’t think much of the fence, for both symbolic and practical reasons, but employer penalties and better border patrols are both demonstrably effective. Lower the price of legal immigration and raise the price of illegal immigration: that’s the formula. Eventually you’ll find a balance of costs that keeps illegal immigration at a low enough level that it’s not worth spending more on. Then you’re done.

UPDATE: I don’t think my position here is all that fuzzy, but a couple of responses have got me wondering. So just for the record, I’m not in favor of ruthless enforcement of every existing immigration law. I’m (a) in favor of different laws than we have now, and (b) in favor of enforcing existing laws in a humane, efficient way that doesn’t trample civil liberties etc. My broader point is simply that if you’re in favor of any immigration laws, then by definition you must be in favor of enforcing those laws. That’s different from suggesting that every existing law — or even your preferred set of laws — has to be enforced in the harshest possible way.

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