May 28, 2010

This Tuesday evening I attended a function arranged by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Dr. Stephen Steinlight gave us a lucid and witty address on “Exploring Jewish Attitudes towards Immigration.” The address was a condensed version of a fine long piece Dr. Steinlight wrote up for the CIS last year, which you can read in full on their website. I urge you to do so.

Dr. Steinlight, a veteran of establishment-Jewish organizations, believes that those organizations are declining in strength, and that younger Jewish-Americans are more conservative, and more receptive to immigration restrictionism, than their elders. He quoted a wealth of surveys and studies to support his case.

It was a pleasant and instructive evening; yet I always come away from these things under a cloud of gloom, hearing in my mind’s ear the voice of Basil Fawlty: What’s the bloody point? The audience at Tuesday’s event was high quality. It included an ex-ambassador and at least two academics. The venue, a room at one of New York City’s private clubs, was well-appointed, with a nice buffet and bar. What we had in quality, though, we lacked in quantity: the audience numbered just 16, not counting CIS staff.

It’s a lonely furrow the immigration restrictionists are plowing. The thing I most often ask myself about their activism, in fact, is whether progress in this area is merely zero or actually negative—unable, that is, to keep pace with the increasing narrowness, authoritarianism, and intolerance of what one political scientist delicately refers to as “the dominant interpretation of reality.” It has been astonishing these past few weeks, following the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, to see the strenuous efforts by ideological enforcers to de-legitimize discussion of illegal immigration. How many years, or decades, will it be before we can have a calm public debate about legal immigration?

Legal immigration is so far from being a political issue that our politicians do not even bother to inform themselves about it. I was given a striking illustration of this recently. Together with some other journalists, I was in the presence of a well-known conservative politician and commentator—one of the smarter ones, with a shelf full of books and countless TV appearances to his name. He talked much about the economy, of course. I took the opportunity to ask: “With unemployment stuck at ten percent, is it smart to be bringing in a million people a year for settlement?”

The VIP shrugged. “Immigration is very good for the economy. That’s been empirically proved.”

He had apparently never heard of the researches of George Borjas. His other responses on the topic were even more clueless.

“That’s politicians for you. I’m not unsympathetic. If you’re in that line of work you need to keep a steady focus on votes and donors. Politically speaking, legal immigration is Tibet.”

I noted that he was on record as calling for a “guest worker program.” Surely he was aware that there are already twelve* categories of guest worker visas, covering everything from fruit pickers to brain surgeons? Why did he think we need a thirteenth? He: “Because those others are not working.” But if our government can’t make twelve programs work, why should we think they will do any better with a thirteenth? He: “I wouldn’t give the new program to the government. I’d outsource it to, oh, American Express to administer.”

I recognized what I think of privately as a Tibetan moment. This is a thing you sometimes hit when talking to a politician. I first hit it a quarter century ago when I was doing some work on behalf of the Tibet Society in London. I was also a Conservative Party activist, and in that capacity used to get occasional face time, in invited groups, with Conservative government ministers at the House of Commons. At one such with a senior Foreign Office name, I took the opportunity to get in a question about government policy on Tibet. The minister looked at me blankly for a couple of beats, then rattled off a few sentences of gibberish his politician’s brain recalled from somewhere, the content of the sentences—insofar as there was any content—ignorant and self-contradictory. A colleague remarked afterwards that: “He might as well have answered in Tibetan.”

That’s politicians for you. I’m not unsympathetic. If you’re in that line of work you need to keep a steady focus on votes and donors. For a British politician in 1984 there were no votes and no donors in the Tibet issue, so why waste time informing yourself on it? Why clutter up your brain with niche issues of zero political weight?

Just so with my VIP the other day. With even illegal immigration a fringe issue, to speak of which with any vigor puts you under suspicion of being a twitchy Birchite nutcase, there is, as professional pols see it, no chance that they will ever have to engage seriously with the topic of legal immigration. So why study up on it?

Politically speaking, legal immigration is Tibet. The deft pol need only memorize a handful of cant phrases about “guest workers” and immigrant Nobel Prize winners (oh yes, our VIP trotted out that one, too: compare and contrast, Tables 4 and 5). On the very rare occasions anyone brings up the fool topic, he can regurgitate those phrases in random order, then hasten on to Improving Our Schools! or some other well-tested vote-getter.

Hopeless, therefore, to observe that today’s immigration policy shapes the nation our children will inherit from us; that this should be a matter of consequence to us; and that a sensible nation would debate immigration policy keenly and often in its political forums. Hopeless too, probably, to engage in work like that of the CIS, pegging away year after year in the teeth of a hostile commercial, intellectual, and academic establishment whose control of the public discourse is as seamlessly total as Kim Jong Il’s.

“The truth is great, and shall prevail,” the poet assures us, “when none cares whether it prevail or not.” Let’s hope this will be some consolation to late 21st-century Americans in the nation we have left them. In the meantime, the Tibet Society can always use some volunteers.


*Depending which government website you consult. I got my twelve from the Bureau of Consular Affairs. The Customs and Immigration Service, on the other hand, lists twenty!


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