Fantasists have hijacked the immigration debate. Here's how to return it to reality.
Immigration is a practical question, and it should be debated in practical terms in light of practical considerations
There is no issue of public policy debated in this country in such hysterical, self-serving, intentionally myopic language as immigration. Instead of having a serious conversation, our two parties posture ridiculously about the feasibility of totally open borders or fantasize Tolkien-esquely about unbuildable gigantic walls. Prudence is never allowed to intrude upon these tedious proceedings.
This is all the stranger because unlike, for example, abortion, another serious question we discuss only in code, immigration is an issue about which there can be by definition few absolutely fixed principles or positions. This is because it is not a question of right or wrong. No one believes that immigration is ipso facto wrong or even undesirable; likewise, no one outside the academic fever swamps of the dismal science would argue that absolutely anyone who wishes to do so should be able to enter and exit the United States at will, though members of both of our parties sometimes pretend otherwise for rhetorical purposes.
Immigration is a practical question, and it should be debated in practical terms in light of practical considerations. When President Obama announced the executive order that would morph into the program we now call DACA or Delayed Action on Childhood Arrivals, he was being eminently practical. He was responding to Congress' failure to pass legislation that would protect the de facto rights of persons brought to this country as children, who know no other home, and are as American as I am. It was not a perfect solution, and constitutional fetishists say it is illegal — executive orders are only good when they are halting the enforcement of ObamaCare's individual mandate — but that is beside the point. We cannot have a perfect immigration policy, only a more or less sound one. Not deporting Americans strikes me as sound.
Likewise I think President Trump is working under practical rather than absolutist assumptions when he says that it is time for Congress to take up the issue of immigration again and pass legislation that addresses the situations of those affected by DACA in a more concrete fashion. Whether his decision is actually wise is another question entirely. By imposing a six-month deadline after which DACA applicants will technically be eligible for deportation, Trump and his advisers probably think they are handing the president's enemies in Congress rope to hang themselves with if they are foolish enough. It is more likely that the noose is on the other end, and that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a procrastinator of genius and our foremost living B.S. artist, will seize upon any excuse — disunity in the ranks, other pressing legislative priorities, re-election considerations — to pass nothing. Trump will end up looking like a villain unless he does an about-face (which we already know he is willing to do).
Remote as the prospect of meaningful legislation being passed might seem, I think it's worth thinking about what a reasonable, humane immigration policy might look like. Any serious conversation about immigration must begin from a few — one hopes — obvious premises.
The first is that it is not, in fact, a wicked impulse to seek a better life for one's family. This is what poor Jeb Bush was hinting at when he said that illegal immigration was often an "act of love," a comment for which he was unfairly savaged. When it comes to welcoming those who migrate in search of safety and prosperity, it is fair to say that the United States is easily the most generous country in the world. Try walking down a street in rural Japan without having your passport on you — or better yet, inquire about becoming a Japanese citizen — if you want to see what immigration looks like in developed countries that are not commonly regarded as human rights dumpster fires.
The second is that we must not equate GDP with the common good. Row after row of economists will line up to argue that immigration provides unlimited benefits to an abstraction they refer to as "the economy," ignoring both the concrete effects of low-skilled immigration on wages and the wicked motivations of those who welcome it. The point was made very well by Bernie Sanders when he rightly dismissed open borders as a ploy to exploit cheap labor while abnegating our responsibilities toward the poor in this country. The terrible reality of illegal immigration is that in practice it is too often an end-around the just wage for employers, which is why ultimately we must have some kind of general amnesty to prevent those here illegally from being taken advantage of.
The last is basic prudence. Insofar as the government of the United States is ordered to the common good, it is tasked with providing for the well-being of its own citizens, over whom it exercises coercive authority. This is hardly to suggest that Americans should not be concerned with the flourishing of people throughout the world; rather it is a question of competence and authority. With the possible exception of Max Boot, who also supports the creation of some kind of clone army, no one thinks that it is possible or desirable for this country to right every single one of the world's wrongs. Likewise it is absurd to imagine that the common good is best served by brushing aside the well-being of the marginalized in this country in order to improve the lives of everyone outside it. On the other hand, it would be spectacularly imprudent to deport millions of people and simply wicked to send young people away from their families and friends to countries they have never known. There is a via media here, and it's probably a fairly wide one.
Prudent, humane, flexible, guided by principles everyone of good will can agree upon — this is what our immigration policy ought to look like. The specifics can and should be debated, but by working from these principles it should be possible to construct something that satisfies everyone who is not a racist or a shill for woke capital. We just have to start talking first.