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Fair-minded Americans might not know what to make of the furor set off by Arizona’s recent law directed against illegal immigrants. The law requires state and local law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of any individual whom they “stop, detain, or arrest” and about whose status they have a “reasonable suspicion.” This new law may not prove workable or effective, and it may not pass constitutional muster. But for the benefit of those who find themselves caught between the over-heated extremes in this debate, it is worth considering that the proponents and the opponents of this law are not really competing on the same terrain or, indeed, playing the same game.

The Arizona law is only the latest phase of a long-smoldering and backward-looking popular reaction to mass migration that seeks to restore some semblance of the way things used to be. Such restrictionism is invariably out-organized by well-funded and sophisticated immigrant advocates, allied with business and others elites who benefit from on-going high levels of immigration. Grasping intuitively that deeply rooted demographic and economic forces are on their side, this expansionist coalition has for more than two decades grown accustomed to evasive and dilatory tactics. The result has been inexorably rising levels of both legal and illegal immigration, despite most Americans’ continuing unease and opposition.

Today in Arizona popular anxieties have reached a boiling point, as the uproar there now involves much more than illegal immigration. Drug smuggling has become enmeshed with alien smuggling, and the criminality and violence associated with drugs now taints immigrants. As home invasions, kidnappings, and murders spill out into the broader population, Arizonans are dealing with the consequences of what looks like Mexico’s descent into a failed state.

Urgent though these concerns may be, they do not necessarily justify the new law. Yet this is not really the point. It is not clear that immigrant advocates and their allies will accept any measures addressing the concerns of Arizonans and other Americans. For example, expansionists have also resisted attempts to control immigration directly at the border with physical or electronic barriers and increased manpower. To be sure, such policies are of limited effectiveness, but they have the virtue of being less disruptive to all Americans and therefore less controversial than the alternatives.

Expansionists have been all the more opposed to policies critically needed to exert control in the nation’s interior. Long before the present controversy, they opposed the federal government’s efforts to enlist the help of state and local law enforcement to address the problem of illegal immigrants. The “287(g) program,” passed by Congress in 1996 to encourage and formalize such cooperation, has been vilified as misguided and unworkable.

More dramatically, expansionists charge that 287(g) infringes on the civil liberties of immigrants. To make their case, they habitually cite two government evaluations of the program, one by the General Accounting Office and the other by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General. Yet neither study actually presents any evidence of civil liberties violations”only vague and unsubstantiated “concerns” expressed by unidentified “members of the communities.” Nevertheless, just last month, the New York Times repeated the charge, condemned 287(g) as a “dangerous experiment,” and called upon homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano to abolish it.

Expansionists have also fought efforts to enforce sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants. Back in the 1980s, immigrant advocates blocked legislation in Congress that would have imposed meaningful penalties on such employers, measures that would have mandated reliance on secure means of identification resistant to counterfeiting. Advocates argued that these would lead to discrimination against “all brown-skinned workers.” Ever since, expansionists have consistently opposed efforts to make sanctions effective through more reliable and sophisticated identification procedures that greatly reduce the possibility of mistakes. But again and again, innovative programs have been resisted, typically out of concern that “false positives” would lead to legal immigrants being inaccurately identified as illegal. The outcome is today’s pitiful policy, which prohibits employers from hiring illegal immigrants but effectively allows them to hire anyone who provides an array of easily forged documents.

This is not to say that the objections of expansionists have been groundless. They tapped into deeply American concerns about privacy and fairness and have forced some improvements in proposed policies. But immigrant advocates and their elite allies have also demonstrated a stubborn unwillingness to consider not only the costs of reducing illegal immigration but the benefits as well.

This undercuts the credibility of expansionist claims that Arizona’s law will infringe on the civil liberties of citizens and non-citizens alike. It might. But the critical question, given the increasing mayhem along the border, is this: At what point will expansionists be prepared to sacrifice some infringements on our liberties in order to secure our safety? Because their answer has consistently been “never,” they have less and less credibility in these debates.

Similar doubts arise about claims that the Arizona law will lead to racial profiling. It could. But once again, there is a larger point. While espousing a fervent belief in diversity, immigrant advocates and their allies have presided over a policy regime that has produced one of the least diverse migration streams in our history. One result is the growing Hispanic population, whose overall size and geographic concentration in the Southwest pose challenges that are not insurmountable but are nonetheless real.

The genuinely troubling fact is that at least three-fourths of illegal immigrants are Hispanics. And while over eighty percent of Hispanics are in the United States legally , it is hardly surprising that the public has begun to equate being Hispanic with being illegal. This stereotyping is a genuine cause for concern. But when immigrant advocates now object that efforts to address illegal immigration have racial overtones, their concerns ring hollow “ because for over twenty years they have so consistently and repeatedly condemned anyone prepared to raise questions about the racial and ethnic composition of the current influx.

Racism and elitism has long been a volatile brew in our politics. Today, the admixture of condescension and guilt among elite proponents of expansionist policies is particularly noxious. On the one hand, they condescend to ordinary Americans who express any anxieties about those policies; on the other, they feel guilty toward socially and economically marginal immigrants.

At this point, it behooves us to stop and consider what any economist will affirm about economic migrants, legal or illegal, to America or any other country: they are the clear and indisputable winners in this scenario. Mexican immigrants, for example, increase their earnings several fold by crossing the border to work here.

Of course, immigrants also undertake considerable risks, including exploitation by unscrupulous employers, and”yes”mistreatment by over-zealous or abusive law enforcement officials. In an important sense, one of the challenges posed by immigrants is that they are more prepared than most Americans to take risks”and that the outcomes of that risk-taking often generate problems for immigrants and non-immigrants alike. Nevertheless, expansionists persist in ascribing to immigrants the status of victims”heroic to be sure, but victims all the same.

This makes it all the easier for expansionists to dismiss the concerns of so many Americans. Yet the failure here is even more fundamental”a failure of moral imagination, evident in the pervasive and naive ethic of intentions routinely invoked to explain and justify the arrival of ever more immigrants. We are told over and over that immigrants “just come here to work,” which is not incorrect. But advocates and their allies neglect to mention that immigrants also typically intend not to remain here, but to work hard, save money, and then return home.

Of course, many of these, like their predecessors a century ago, end up staying” despite their intentions. In the interim, their continuing ambivalence and indecision about remaining here complicates life for them, their children, and the rest of us. One such complication is that immigrants”legal as well as illegal”are hard to organize into labor unions, community organizations, and myriad other collective endeavors. Another is that immigrants, including illegal ones, are willing to put up with hard work at several jobs and tolerate living conditions below their own standards and means. Needless to say, such complicating factors do not enter into the simplified moralism of immigrant advocates and their allies.

Moralists of course need high priests, and for immigration expansionists this is literally the case. Just about any member of the American Catholic hierarchy will fill the bill. One prominent bishop I heard at a retreat for immi gration policy analysts echoed the familiar refrain that the defense of illegal immigrants is today’s equivalent of the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. To the extent that Church leaders were on the right side of that struggle, I can understand why they invoke this analogy.

Nevertheless, the plight of today’s illegal immigrants”and make no mistake, it is a plight”is an entirely different case. The civil rights movement was all about including American citizens who had been excluded from our social and political life. Today, the controversy over illegal immigrants poses a more difficult issue about how we are to deal with large numbers of aliens we have allowed into our country but about whose future we can now find no agreement. The plight of African Americans may have been politically challenging, but morally it was straightforward. The situation of illegal immigrants is much more challenging and complex, both morally and politically.

I assume Cardinal Mahoney, archbishop of Los Angeles, would not agree. As he recently declared to a crowd in Los Angeles protesting the Arizona law, “Everyone in God’s eyes is legal.”

If a Muslim said this, he would be accused of trying to impose Sharia law on the rest of us. The cardinal had no such thing in mind. But he and his expansionist allies do need to come down to earth where the rest of us are, and join in a real debate about what kind of immigration policy will work for all Americans.

Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a co-convener of the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable, which has published Breaking the Immigration Stalemate .


Mary Anne Glendon, “
Principled Immigration

Peter Meilaender, “
Immigration: Citizens and Strangers

Michael Scaperlanda, “
Immigration and the Bishops

Michael Scaperlanda and William Chip, “
The Ethics of Immigration: An Exchange

Peter Meilaender, “
Defending the Innocent: Arizona and Immigration

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