It looks as if a deal is in the works to grant legal status to at least some illegal immigrants: those working in agriculture. The President is prepared to go much further, at least rhetorically, talking of the need for “an immigration policy that helps match any willing employer with any willing employee.”
I’m not actually sure I’d want to go that far: there are presumably lots of people in Guatemala who would be willing to be employed here, and lots of employers who would be happy to pay them the minimum wage. But the principle that our immigration laws need to be sustainably enforceable in the face of market pressures is a crucial one, and (given the political realities limiting enforcement against employers) current policies simply don’t pass that test.
Mickey Kaus suggests (see Friday, December 12) that Howard Dean try to get to Bush’s “right” on the issue: i.e., engage in the restrictionist demagogy of supporting the current laws without saying how they can be enforced, meanwhile keeping a group of several million illegals as an easily exploitable labor force, a socially marginal group, and (due to their lack of valid documents and the mechanics of alien smuggling) a security vulnerability. Kaus suggests that doing so would be helpful in mobilizing African-American voters.
I don’t doubt that immigration restriction is popular among African-Americans, as it is among others who have to compete with immigrants in the labor market. (Which raises the question of why being against immigration is the “right” as opposed to “left” position: if I were on the political right I’d be offended by the notion that the position hostile to the interests of outsiders is automatically associated with my side.)
But I doubt that it’s a powerful voting issue in the black community. And of course any such move would sacrifice the Mexican-American vote, which is growing in size and unfixed in its party affiliation. (Ask Pete Wilson and the Republicans who were once a majority in the California legislature.) No doubt Dean and the rest of the Democrats will decline Kaus’s offer, as they should on both substantive and political grounds.
With any luck, we could wind up with an immigration policy somewhat less restrictive than would be optimal from the viewpoint of those currently in the country — and especially from the viewpoint of low-wage workers — but much better for everyone (except the sleaziest employers) than the mess we have now. That would be very much to Mr. Bush’s credit.