Want to fix illegal immigration? Fix ourselves first

During Utah’s immigration debate this year, some people argued that tightening controls on America’s southern border and strictly enforcing immigration laws in Utah would solve our problems associated with illegal immigration. In a fascinating article in the newest edition of the Claremont Review of Books, Angelo M. Codevilla makes a strong counterargument that attempting to control the border is “an illusory surrogate for upholding the rule of law and good citizenship.”

Photo credit: Tomas Castelazo

Codevilla asserts that in order to truly fix illegal immigration we first need to fix ourselves – by taking citizenship more seriously, dismantling the entitlement mentality of the welfare state, reviving the rule of law in our modern administrative state, and eliminating America’s drug culture. In other words, we are as responsible for our immigration problems as anyone else, and controlling the border and strictly enforcing immigration laws are not a panacea for those problems.

You can read an excerpt of Mr. Codevilla’s article below.

Why do so many Americans demand further militarization of the Mexican border when such militarization cannot protect us from terrorism or criminals, does nothing to stop the flow of drugs, turns good labor-seekers into bad imitations of immigrants, and turns a friendly neighboring state into an unfriendly one? So-called border security is attractive because it lets Americans imagine that someone other than ourselves is responsible for several of the country’s biggest problems, and that the U.S. government can deal with them in a value-free, politically neutral manner.

Yet even if our southern border were completely closed off and there were no Latin America on the other side, it would do nothing to change the fact that mind-altering drugs have become morally and politically acceptable to mainstream American society. As a society, we have recoiled from the only alternatives for sorting out drug users from the rest of us: either total legalization, meaning an unfettered cheap supply of the deadliest, most debilitating stuff, which would sort out in a Darwinian manner those who gorge on it; or serious criminalization of possession, Singapore-style, which would send users to prison for years of hard labor and corporal punishment, or to the gallows. America’s assumption that restricting supply can somehow make it safe for us to tolerate widespread drug use has itself proved to be a habit-forming narcotic that has reduced our sensitivity to moral rot.

Nor would somehow magically eliminating Mexico renew American society’s appreciation for manual labor and those who perform it. After all, the presence of Mexicans among us eased but did not cause our national revulsion to getting our hands dirty. Something deeper had to be at work to reverse the reverence for labor that used to be the hallmark of American life. Benjamin Franklin described America as “the land of labor,” and even John C. Calhoun, in the course of an apologia for slavery, reminded his listeners (including John Quincy Adams) that he, like his father, had put his hand to the plow. Almost certainly the change in our habits of the heart has less to do with any racist feeling toward Mexicans than with the spreading myth that Americans are special, privileged persons, entitled to the good things of life without much sweat. We don’t have to make things or fix them or clean them. More and more of today’s Americans feel entitled, period, and when they don’t get what they want, demand it of someone else.

Republicans and Democrats vie to give the impression that, if America’s schools, hospitals, and social services were available only to legal residents, our welfare state would be solvent, or at least closer to solvency. The evidence? “Illegals don’t pay taxes.” In fact, although illegal laborers seldom pay federal or state income taxes they inevitably pay sales taxes, social security, and Medicare taxes—for which they receive zero benefits—on all but occasional labor. Even if low-income illegal laborers were to file returns, few if any would be liable to income taxes, just as half the legal population is no longer liable to them. They would be eligible for our tax system’s various income redistribution programs. No, the welfare state is another problem made in America, by and for Americans.

Controlling the border is also an illusory surrogate for upholding the rule of law and good citizenship. In the modern administrative state, the rule of law is an increasingly hazy memory, and citizenship is confined to obeying rules that come down from unaccountable bureaucrats. The Congress and state legislatures, alongside such private “stakeholders” as they choose, pass so-called laws that are hundreds, even thousands, of pages long, which authorize administrative agencies to make such detailed rules as they like. Judges make up and strike down these rules as pleases them and their friends. Our schools teach increasingly that the American people have always been a blight on the planet because they have distinguished themselves from other nations. It is nonsense to think that cracking down on “illegal immigration” will renew the respect for law that mainstram American society has cast aside.

Not so long ago, our unguarded Mexican border was a sign of security and friendship. Not so long ago, the United States did not have a drug problem. Because we did not, Mexican drug cartels did not exist. Americans by and large did our own work. That may be why we did not feel threatened by Mexicans who came and went as seasonal work forces. Americans didn’t start to worry about foreigners exploiting our welfare state until citizens had already done so. Nor did Americans worry much about foreigners flouting the rule of law here until our officials, high and low, had shown the rest of us how to do it for fun, profit, and prestige. Within living memory, true citizenship, complete with flag-waving patriotism, was something that Americans expected of each other and of anyone who came to live here.

Were Americans once again to take citizenship seriously, to dismantle the welfare state’s bureaucratic and psychological culture of entitlement, to dismiss the image of themselves as white-gloved administrators, and to banish America’s drug culture, then Americans could safely stop worrying about our southern border.