The ‘Immigration Backlash’ Myth

By Debra Saunders
Real Clear

Of course America needs immigrants. This is a country founded by immigrants and made richer by the imprint of newcomers in search of a land that rewards their hard work and determination to make a better life for their families.

The problem is that no country — certainly, no country with a social safety net — can afford to accommodate everyone who wants in. (Or as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., put it, “We cannot be the HMO to the world.”) That’s why there are immigration policies that limit the number of people who can immigrate here legally.

The lack of an open-door policy has spawned this week’s victim class, illegal or “undocumented” immigrants, who have flouted American law and apparently believe they should not have to pay the consequences of that choice. Hence Sunday’s huge demonstration in Los Angeles, where activists carried signs that called for “Amnistia, Full Rights for All Immigrants.”

The Los Angeles Times duly reported, “Some Republicans fear that pushing too hard against illegal immigrants could backfire nationally, as with Proposition 187 (the 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny benefits for illegal immigrants that) helped spur record numbers of California Latinos to become U.S. citizens and register to vote. Those voters subsequently helped Democrats regain political control in the state.”

Call that the Backlash Myth. In fact, Prop. 187 passed with 59 percent of the vote, and GOP Gov. Pete Wilson, who championed the measure, was re-elected in 1994. In 2003, when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, he so enraged voters that he sealed his political demise. After Davis was recalled from office, the heavily Democratic California Legislature repealed the bill.

That’s your backlash.

Don’t blame racism. While some in the media may think all Latinos vote alike, the Los Angeles Times poll found that 38 percent of Latino voters in California strongly opposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

If there is a backlash, it probably will be against the demonstrators. Even before students began blocking the Los Angeles streets to protest legislation in Congress to toughen penalties for illegal immigrants and smugglers, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies told me over the telephone, “I hope they keep doing it. It just makes it less and less likely the Senate’s going to pass any amnesty.”

A bill passed by the House would make it a felony for illegal immigrants to stay in the United States. Jeff Lungren of the House Judiciary Committee explained that, while it is a crime to cross the border illegally, staying here after sneaking in or after your visa expires has been only a civil offense. The House wanted to make it an actual crime.

When members of Congress complained that a felony was too harsh, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner put forward an amendment in December to reduce the proposed penalty to a misdemeanor.

This shows what a setup the felony issue was: Only eight Dems voted to reduce the penalty, and the amendment failed by a 257-164 vote. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., announced that she opposed the misdemeanor amendment because: “In one stroke, it would subject the entire undocumented population, estimated by some to be 11 million people, to criminal liability.” So the Dems stuck with the felony language.

Rohrabacher stresses that 90 percent of illegal immigrants — if not more — are “wonderful human beings.” He notes that no one expects the government to deport all 11 million or 12 million illegal immigrants in America.

The answer is for Washington to toughen enforcement, penalize employers who hired undocumented workers and make border crossing more costly. Then fewer people will move illegally to America.

Instead, on Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill with a guest-worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship. Big mistake. If Washington passes an immigration bill that grants citizenship to illegal immigrants and includes a phony temporary guest-worker program — phony, because there is no way the government can or would remove workers after six years, as one scheme promises — then the deception will be official. The message Washington will send will resound louder than ever: Forget immigration laws. Legal, illegal, no dif.

Debra Saunders can be reached at:

6 thoughts on “The ‘Immigration Backlash’ Myth

  1. Welcome back, Gary.Very interesting. If the backlash thing is a myth, why are Capitol Hill Republicans so split on this issue?Well, the ball is in their court. If Democrats were smart, they’d do what all minority parties do: shut up, throw rocks and let the majority party walk the plank on this one. Given their own inability to do anything in concert these days, that’s what they’ll end up doing anyway, but not by design.I confess to being perplexed by this one, Gary. Even though I no longer live in LA, we’re not untouched here in Minneapolis. I’m paying special attention to this issue, and will look forward to what others have to say here and elsewhere.Thanks for your post.Howard


  2. There are no easy solutions, Howard. The first thing that needs to be done, though, is to close the border so the inflow of illegals stops. We can then figure out how to deal with the 12 to 15 million who are already here.


  3. Gary, You know from my past postings that I make an effort to read many points of view. I offer here a conversative thinker whose ideas I respect, and whom I’ve quoted on your blog before: New York Times columnist and PBS commentator, David Brooks, from his op-ed piece in today’s Times. I post it here because I’m very interested in your reaction, and anyone else’s, too. I’ve confessed the difficulty I’m having with this issue, and am sincerely trying to work out my thinking.HowardMarch 30, 2006Op-Ed ColumnistImmigrants to Be Proud OfBy DAVID BROOKSEverybody says the Republicans are split on immigration. The law-and-order types want to close the border. The free-market types want plentiful labor. But today I want to talk to the social conservatives, because it’s you folks who are really going to swing this debate.I’d like to get you to believe what Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas believes: that a balanced immigration bill is consistent with conservative values. I’d like to try to persuade the evangelical leaders in the tall grass to stop hiding on this issue.My first argument is that the exclusionists are wrong when they say the current wave of immigration is tearing our social fabric. The facts show that the recent rise in immigration hasn’t been accompanied by social breakdown, but by social repair. As immigration has surged, violent crime has fallen by 57 percent. Teen pregnancies and abortion rates have declined by a third. Teenagers are having fewer sexual partners and losing their virginity later. Teen suicide rates have dropped. The divorce rate for young people is on the way down.Over the past decade we’ve seen the beginnings of a moral revival, and some of the most important work has been done by Catholic and evangelical immigrant churches, by faith-based organizations like the Rev. Luis Cortés’s Nueva Esperanza, by Hispanic mothers and fathers monitoring their kids. The anti-immigration crowd says this country is under assault. But if that’s so, we’re under assault by people who love their children.My second argument is that the immigrants themselves are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic. Immigrants work hard. They build community groups. They have traditional ideas about family structure, and they work heroically to make them a reality.This is evident in everything from divorce rates (which are low, given immigrants’ socioeconomic status) to their fertility rates (which are high) and even the way they shop.Hispanics and Hispanic immigrants have less money than average Americans, but they spend what they have on their families, usually in wholesome ways. According to Simmons Research, Hispanics are 57 percent more likely than average Americans to have purchased children’s furniture in the past year. Mexican-Americans spend 93 percent more on children’s music.According to the government’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, Hispanics spend roughly 30 percent more on gifts than non-Hispanic white Americans. They’re more likely to support their parents financially. They’re more likely to have big family dinners at home.This isn’t alien behavior. It’s admirable behavior, the antidote to the excessive individualism that social conservatives decry.My third argument is that good values lead to success, and that immigrants’ long-term contributions more than compensate for the short-term strains they cause. There’s no use denying the strains immigration imposes on schools, hospitals and wage levels in some markets (but economists are sharply divided on this).So over the long haul, today’s immigrants succeed. By the second generation, most immigrant families are middle class and paying taxes that more than make up for the costs of the first generation. By the third generation, 90 percent speak English fluently and 50 percent marry non-Latinos.My fourth argument is that government should be at least as virtuous as the immigrants themselves. Right now (as under Bill Frist’s legislation), government pushes immigrants into a chaotic underground world. The Judiciary Committee’s bill, which Senator Brownback supports, would tighten the borders, but it would also reward virtue. Immigrants who worked hard, paid fines, paid their taxes, stayed out of trouble and waited their turn would have a chance to become citizens. This isn’t government enabling vice; it’s government at its best, encouraging middle-class morality.Social conservatives, let me ask you to consider one final thing. Women who have recently arrived from Mexico have bigger, healthier babies than more affluent non-Hispanic white natives. That’s because strong family and social networks support these pregnant women, reminding them what to eat and do. But the longer they stay, and the more assimilated they become, the more bad habits they acquire and the more problems their subsequent babies have.Please ask yourself this: As we contemplate America’s moral fiber, do the real threats come from immigrants, or are some people merely blaming them for sins that are already here?


  4. When Brooks fails to differentiate between illegal and legal – two almost entirely different types of immigration – he reveals that he’s just shoveling it and hoping you’ll buy.The reason there’s a split is because most politicians are on the take: they get donations from those companies that profit off illegal immigration and they in turn do what those companies want.I guess corruption is part of Brooks’ revival.As for Minneapolis, how’s that brand new < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Mexican consulate in St. Paul<> working out for you? I think that’s their 44th or so, more consulates in the U.S. than any other country has.That too is no doubt part of Brooks’ revival.


  5. Brooks may be right about the good values that immigrants have, but that is irrelevant. The fact is that we have immigration laws and those who came here in violation of those laws are here illegally.There are good reasons to have laws which restrict immigration. How much immigration is too much? Shall we allow a hundred million people to come in illegally? What about 500 million? Where do we draw the line?Those who come here illegally have circumvented laws for their benefit. How is that different than someone who steals? A large illegal immigration population means that employers are able to hire those people at below market wages, which eliminates opportunity for Americans to hold those jobs at reasonable wages.The fact is that there is an American elite (both Republicans and Democrats)who want a servant class who will mow their lawns, watch their children, clean their houses and pick their grapes. I don’t for one minute believe that if we got rid of all illegals Americans wouldn’t do that work.It is just a case that employers can hire cheap labor and make higher profits. I have nothing against corporations making profits, but not with people who are here illegally. I think we ought to fine employers who hire illegals, and if they are repeated offenders, charge them with a felony. Enforcing existing laws are all that is needed.The problem is that the administration is part of the group that wants a cheap servant labor pool and is unwilling to enforce our immigration laws.Until we have an administration that is willing to enforce the law, the illegal immigration will continue.


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