Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ridiculous historical comparisons and strawmen... naturally venerable Time Magazine decides to publish this gem.

Michael Kinsley is going after the standpoint associated with right-wingers on immigration, that is to say, opposing normalization of illegals and such. He manages to brush aside or ignore any number of salient points, he makes assumptions, and he wraps it up with a hilariously bad ode to border-hoppers. Since there's only one article I'm going after I'll tackle it in full.

What you are supposed to say about immigration--what most of the presidential candidates say, what the radio talk jocks say--is that you are not against immigration. Not at all. You salute the hard work and noble aspirations of those who are lining up at American consulates around the world. But that is legal immigration. What you oppose is illegal immigration.

This formula is not very helpful. We all oppose breaking the law, or we ought to. Saying that you oppose illegal immigration is like saying you oppose illegal drug use or illegal speeding. Of course you do, or should. The question is whether you think the law draws the line in the right place. Should using marijuana be illegal? Should the speed limit be raised--or lowered? The fact that you believe in obeying the law reveals nothing about what you think the law ought to be, or why.

Another question: Why are you so upset about this particular form of lawbreaking? After all, there are lots of laws, not all of them enforced with vigor. The suspicion naturally arises that the illegality is not what bothers you. What bothers you is the immigration. There is an easy way to test this. Reducing illegal immigration is hard, but increasing legal immigration would be easy. If your view is that legal immigration is good and illegal immigration is bad, how about increasing legal immigration? How about doubling it? Any takers? So in the end, this is not really a debate about illegal immigration. This is a debate about immigration.

On its face this seems so close to being reasonable, but it really isn't. First, it ignores large numbers of people who don't have any issue with large numbers of illegal immigrants, who oppose enforcement of existing laws, and who oppose measures designed to stem the future flow of illegals. This is the position of no small number of activists and lobbyists on the issue.

Kinsley goes on to essentially say that the only sides in the debate are pro-immigration and anti-immigration, but that's not the case; there are a rainbow of possible positions. It would be like boiling down tax policy to 'pro-tax' and 'anti-tax'. The 'enforcement first' position wants the law enforced. Kinsley concedes that immigration laws aren't enforced well, but then says that enforcement doesn't matter, and it's all about where to 'draw the line'. He brings up speeding, and it's an interesting point, but it's wrong.

The debate about speed limits tends to be where to set the limit, not about enforcement. If the debate was about enforcement, we would discuss things like whether or not to put more cops on the street to set more radar traps and thus catch more speeders. Try to imagine someone saying "there should be more police monitoring the roads", and the response being "let's raise the speed limit". Not a very cogent rebuttal. Yes, raising the speed limit would reduce the number of people in violation of the law, but the limit was set there for a reason. The immigration debate has both a 'where to set the limit' aspect and a 'what's the best way to enforce the limit' aspect. Kinsley presents a false dichotomy by saying that you can only care about one aspect.

"You can't care about enforcement because some other laws aren't enforced properly" is a pitiful argument. "You can't care about enforcement because we could easily increase the number of legal immigrants" is fatuous; INS can't even properly handle the current number of legal immigrants. In a perfect world the INS would have excess capacity, and it would just be a matter of setting the quotas. In the real world, the INS mailed visas to 9/11 hijackers in 2002. Kinsley shows no sign of recognizing the potential problems involved with jacking up immigration limits. It's one thing for a theorist to try to say why he or she favors more immigration; it's another for a writer published in a major magazine to say that 'increasing legal immigration is easy'.

These lines are maybe worse: "If your view is that legal immigration is good and illegal immigration is bad, how about increasing legal immigration? How about doubling it? Any takers? So in the end, this is not really a debate about illegal immigration." Which in essence conflates favoring SOME level of legal immigration with favoring ANY level of legal immigration. To apply the speed limit debate, imagine someone saying "if your view is that going 55 miles per hour on the freeway is good, how about doubling the speed limit?". Imagine that being said in response to "there should be more radar traps". It is in fact possible to care about large numbers of people in the country illegally while at the same time being in favor of some level of legal immigration. Just because that level might not be Kinsley's preferred one doesn't change a thing.

And it's barely a debate at all. ... Now, for whatever reason, support for immigration is limited to an eccentric alliance of high-minded Council on Foreign Relations types, the mainstream media, high-tech entrepreneurs, Latinos, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and President George W. Bush. Everyone else, it seems, is agin.

Maybe the aginners are right, and immigration is now damaging our country, stealing jobs and opportunity, ripping off taxpayers, fragmenting our culture. I doubt it, but maybe so. Certainly, it's true that we can't let in everyone who wants to come. There is some number of immigrants that is too many. I don't believe we're past that point, but maybe we are. In any event, a democracy has the right to decide that it has reached such a point. There is no obligation to be fair to foreigners.

But let's not kid ourselves that all we care about is obeying the law and all we are asking illegals to do is go home and get in line like everybody else. We know perfectly well that the line is too long, and we are basically telling people to go home and not come back.

'We know that the line is too long'. There. Right there, even more than earlier in the piece, Kinsley assumes that everyone else sees things the way he does. What if someone doesn't think the line is long enough, or that it's acceptable? And for that matter, since there IS in fact thousands upon thousands of legal immigrants let into the US every year, how exactly does that equate to current illegals having no chance to return? But since "we know perfectly well", that's not up for debate. Everyone knows it. Going back to the tax analogy, "we know perfectly well that taxes are too high" would not be a compelling argument to be made in favor of cutting taxes. The fact that there is an opposing side means that the all-inclusive "we" is being improperly used.

Let's not kid ourselves, either, about who we are telling this to. To characterize illegal immigrants as queue-jumping, lawbreaking scum is seriously unjust. The motives of illegal immigrants--which can be summarized as "a better life"--are identical to those of legal immigrants. In fact, they are largely identical to the motives of our own parents, grandparents and great-grandparents when they immigrated. And not just that. Ask yourself, of these three groups--today's legal and illegal immigrants and the immigrants of generations ago--which one has proven most dramatically its appreciation of our country? Which one has shown the most gumption, the most willingness to risk all to get to the U.S. and the most willingness to work hard once here? Well, everyone's story is unique. But who loves the U.S. most? On average, probably, the winners of this American-values contest would be the illegals, doing our dirty work under constant fear of eviction, getting thrown out and returning again and again.

And how about those of us lucky enough to have been born here? How would we do against the typical illegal alien in a "prove how much you love America" reality TV show?

What's riskier: crossing the US/Mexico border in 2007, or crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1887? Which cost more for those immigrants? Or how about this: are there any illegal immigrants working and living in the kind of conditions seen in the days of the Industrial Revolution? Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was exaggerated at worst but it certainly wasn't very far off when you examine things like life expectancies and standards of living. The people Sinclair wrote about were immigrants living in urban ghettos. Harvesting produce, cutting grass, scrubbing toilets and nannying might be rough compared to accounting but not in comparison to sweatshops and subsistence farming. "Who loves America more"? It must be today's illegals! Why? Because that way anyone who opposes mass legalization or a doubling of quotas is a monster. Who loves America more? It can't be the pro-enforcement crowd, because they don't agree with Michael Kinsley.