Our Feckless Discourse About Immigration

Just a quick followup on Tod’s post about the debate.

As has been widely reported for several days now, Obama set a new deportation record in the last fiscal year (narrowly edging out the previous record, which also belonged to his administration). This is, no doubt, the latest in his myriad attempts to co-opt the right and burnish his bipartisan credentials heading into the upcoming election.

Given this background, one of the things that really struck me while I was watching the debate (and I only watched about 20 minutes of it) was the bit where Michele Bachmann went after Obama about his “illegal” aunt and uncle being allowed to remain in the country. At the time, I noted on Twitter the irony (I’m not sure it’s really irony – I hate that word) of Obama continuing to try to placate these people and failing so spectacularly. Any time he moves to the right, they are going to move further to the right, and their base is going to move with them. There is nothing Obama can do to alter the political calculus here.

I stewed over this for a couple days, not entirely sure what I wanted to say about it, but then I read this post by Kevin Drum this morning, and I realized that there isn’t much of anything I can say. Obama’s base is as feckless as he is, which is why he expresses no compunctions about the policy choices he makes. What do you say to Joe Klein when he claims that the “most basic fact” about illegal immigration is that it’s “down”? That the real reason we don’t need crocodiles patrolling the border has nothing at all to do with the number of people illegally crossing it? Drum isn’t much better when his response is “I don’t really have a big problem with beefing up the border patrol”. Why not, Kevin? He even links to Adam Serwer without bothering to address Serwer’s last paragraph about the human costs of our immigration regime. (And even I know it’s the opposite of irony that Serwer starts that paragraph with the phrase “what you won’t hear” right before we emphatically don’t hear anything about it.)

Instead of the fine, self-righteous rage I was working up about what a failure Obama’s presidency has been, I’m left mostly with disappointment. I don’t want to imply that there aren’t any voices doing great work on this (Serwer is one of them, most of the time), but more and more it’s becoming clear that Obama is right about what liberals want, and I’m wrong. That’s not infuriating; it’s crushing.

UPDATE: Drum responds.

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114 thoughts on “Our Feckless Discourse About Immigration

  1. “more and more it’s becoming clear that Obama is right about what liberals want, and I’m wrong”

    I’d argue that at the end of the day, liberals (at least those invested in the political process) want the same thing their conservative counterparts do: To be in power.

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    • That’d be because the “in thing” for Retardican presidents to do in their outgoing couple of years is slacken up on border enforcement so that their racist base can scream “OMG the brownies are coming in, elect us or your kids might marry one!” during the election cycle. Don’t believe me? Compare Reagan (passed an amnesty), Bush the First, and Bush the 2nd.

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  2. Tod

    I disagree. The attempts by the left to manipulate and disenfranchise the right in voting pales in comparison to the blatant nonsense happening in conservative circles. The constant implosions from the democratic side of the fence shows that what the left wants is to be heard.

    E.D.

    I live in a parliamentary system (Canada). When we have a majority government, it is said we elect a dictator for 5 years. Honestly I have had this discussion before and I believe that this system in America would be disasterous and grant way too much power to the President (Prime Minister). Every time someone suggests this i think back to the FLQ crisis and shudder to think how an American Prime Minister would have handled an emergency like this.

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  3. As has been widely reported for several days now, Obama set a new deportation record in the last fiscal year (narrowly edging out the previous record, which also belonged to his administration). This is, no doubt, the latest in his myriad attempts to co-opt the right and burnish his bipartisan credentials heading into the upcoming election.

    This is what bipartisanship means: The government gets more power, and ordinary people lose.

    The two wisest words in immigration policy are “benign neglect.” They can’t be said aloud in ordinary political discourse, however.

    The runner-up phrase? “Birthright citizenship.”

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      • Clearly I should have kept going.

        What’s the third-wisest phrase in immigration policy? “Upward mobility.”

        The single most profitable decision a typical Mexican can make is often to immigrate to the United States. Which means you’re the one cheering for greater poverty, not me. Immigration enriches poor, low-skilled workers tremendously relative to where they were.

        If you want to offer immigrants something better than farm labor, then get out there and offer it. I’ll be happy when you do. It’s either that, or stop complaining, because otherwise they’d be doing the exact same farm labor in Mexico for a fraction of the pay.

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        • … okay, we’re on two different pages here.
          You’re talking farm labor (presumably unionized. got grapes out front to prove it — boycotts, you know?).
          I’m talking “people in serflike conditions working at your local mall’s chinese restaurant.”

          Just goes to show that your anecdotes are different than mine.

          Still in favor of as much legal immigration as is sensible. Even the shmucks like some of the older Hmong. Give ’em a generation, they won’t be freeloaders no more.

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          • bubble bubble, toil and trouble.
            may you have pustulent boils that leak green and gold,
            and within each, a cyst containing a worm, to grow strong on your flesh, eating rivulets beneath your skin, until you grow bold enough to cut it out. And when you hold that knife suspended over your blackened, rotting wound, may you slip and fall into a pit of pigshit, coating yourself in feculence, until everyone runs from you screaming, including your wife and children.

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          • Surely you’ve seen the statistics showing that first and second generation immigrants in the current wave (ie, people from “third world cesspools”) are significantly less less likely to commit crimes than the average American?

            Also, too: what would you have called Poland (sorry, Austrian Galicia, South Prussia, and the Russian Kingdom of Poland), Italy, etc. around 1900 or so if not cesspools? Because I’m pretty sure that my great grandparents didn’t come over here because the Galician countryside in 1913 (and thank FSM they didn’t wait until 1915!) was a lovely and peaceful place to live.

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                  • This is false. That’s one of the major problems here. Just these crazy assertions – immigrants take jobs, immigrants lower wages, we can’t afford immigrants – without a single piece of evidence backing them up.

                    We can show you any number of studies that clearly contradict your position, and it won’t matter. You will continue asserting that you’re right because you just have to be. But you’re not.

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                    • “Just these crazy assertions – immigrants take jobs, immigrants lower wages, we can’t afford immigrants – without a single piece of evidence backing them up.”

                      If you don’t think that there’s real evidence backing up proposition that immigration lowers native wages, you are horrendously deluded. Jason would call it a true rejection problem.

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                    • And then what? That’s where Jason’s true rejection business comes in.

                      I forget exactly how Jason’s reference describes it, but it’s essentially bad faith argumentation to ask the other party to establish some disputed point, and they do but it doesn’t change your opinion anyway, ie, it’s not your “true rejection”. Kinda like Lucy pulling the football away.

                      So, if I cite such a study will you support a restrictionist immigration policy? If the answer is yes then I’ll find one but I don’t think either one of us expects that to be the case.

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                  • Do you see how this is a more effective statement of your position than your original comment?

                    I happen to disagree that we can’t accept every immigrant who wants to come here, but since this is an entirely normative/value-laden question, I can’t prove that point any more or less than you can.

                    What it allows us to do, though, is to then move on to having an actual dialogue in which you may have a reasonable chance of persuading me.

                    So I ask:
                    1. Why do you think we can’t accept everyone who wants (and is able on their own) to come here.

                    2. What costs can’t we afford?

                    3. What is the basis for your belief that we must accept fewer illegals?

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                    • Okay…..and what is the basis for their belief? Saying that more Americans want a policy a particular way than not may tell me why policy is the way that it is, but it doesn’t tell someone who wants the policy a different way anything about why they should believe differently.

                      Majority arguments that rest on nothing other than “we’re the majority, and you’re not” tend to end, in the long run, with the majority arguments no longer in the majority. Minority arguments tend to be especially persuasive when the only factually accurate counterargument is “there’s more of us.” Every time someone is persuaded, that majority becomes less so.

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                    • “Okay…..and what is the basis for their belief?”

                      For the most part to improve cultural cohesion in America and increase wage rates among native born Americans, especially unskilled or marginally skilled.

                      Btw, the strength of this argument is not merely majoritarianism and people who think that it is are severely deluded (to be fair, I don’t think that you are among them).

                      But it’s an important point nonetheless because the refusal of the Establishment to accept the plain will of the American people has created many policy distortions, and nowhere more than wrt immigration policy. The roughest edges of immigration policy could be a lot smoother if the Establishment were willing the accept the propietary interest of the American people wrt it.

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                    • the refusal of the Establishment to accept the plain will of the American people…

                      …is sometimes altogether wise. I don’t imagine for a moment that the American people would actually enjoy it if their will on this issue were taken seriously, which would entail hundreds of billions of dollars in expense and probably tens of thousands of people shot, East-German style, in trying to cross the border.

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                    • Sorry Jason, that’s just a bad establishmentarian rationalization.

                      The American people do not want to shoot thousands of Mexicans, East German style. That’s just a convenient dodge for the Establishment to do what it wants to do anyway, and a horrible calumny on top of it.

                      I don’t know if you’ve followed this too closely, but one medium-sized subplot in the whole immigration thing has to do with the “virtual fence”, a combination of satellites and imaging technology to see and stop border crossings in real time.

                      I’m not completely sure of the timelines but under W, I believe, this was thought to be a dodge away from real border enforcement. Then under Obama they figured out that it actually worked, so they scrapped it. I think Mickey Kaus has cites if you care. In any case, the idea propagated by some open borders advocates that we can’t stop all border crossings is a distraction that from the reality that we can clearly stop most of them. The refusal of open borders and LaRaza-style activists to engage in good faith advocacy has created most of the antagonism and rough edges of the issue.

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                    • Sorry Jason, that’s just a bad establishmentarian rationalization.

                      No, it’s not.

                      You are not truly defending populism on this issue, and I’m not truly defending the establishment, either. In neither of our cases is “[establishment/popular opinion] changes” a true rejection of our position.

                      If the majority wanted open borders, we both know for a fact that you would be out there telling them they were wrong and that they needed to change their views. Populism is a sideshow for you.

                      And siding with the establishment is, for me, a little bit the same, although I would certainly not do things exactly as they are being done right now. I would not agree with all of the deportations under Obama (or Bush for that matter).

                      The difference is that I make my case on humanitarian terms — open borders minimize suffering. This remains my true rejection whether the establishment believes it, whether the majority believes it, or whether I’m all alone in believing it. Convince me that closing the border will cause less misery overall, and I will promptly change my mind.

                      Note that I don’t go around saying “the establishment is right.” Because, simply put, it’s not. And also because if it were even more wrong, it wouldn’t change my views an iota.

                      In brief, spare me the populist hooey.

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                    • Uhhh, no. First of all, I like your general idea of true rejections but I suspect you’re using it too narrowly. In any case, it’s misapplied here because the citizenship angle (I would characterize it that way instead of populist) actually is my true rejection. If the American people felt differently about immigration, then I would too. I’m a little surprised you would guess otherwise, I think I’ve written here (probably more than once) that before we get to the immigration policy I want, we have to get to the immigration policy the American people want.

                      If somehow the American people supported an immigration policy that I couldn’t live with, which is not a contingency I anticipate happening, I would address my advocacy to them, not you. In any event, I would expect that the Congress and the Executive would be able to pursue a different policy over my objections.

                      Or in your case, it’s not so much that your humanitarian concerns are wrong (though that can be debated back and forth), it’s the fact that framing the issue that way is an illegitimate premise in the first place.

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                • MarkT: Your cited study seems in good faith, but has holes a mile wide. The question of course is illegals, but the study admits

                  The major difficulty with the study’s evidence is that while prisons have an easy time gathering ethnicity data, determining the immigration status of convicts is far more difficult, and is generally based on self-reporting.

                  Further, you lump first and second-generation immigrants together but

                  almost every ethnic group, Hispanic or otherwise, immigrant generations have lower rates of criminal behavior than their American-born children.

                  But my objection to yr comment was simply epistemological, it just didn’t smell right. For the record, illegal immigrant crime is about 60th on my list. It’s more about displacing native-borns, and I’m not sold on the studies that claim illegal immigration is a net positive.

                  For the record, in my 30 years as a California resident, unlike uncountable whites and blacks, I have never been asked for a handout from a Hispanic-appearing person, only for work, or to sell me some oranges or peanuts or some roses for the missus.

                  So I ain’t about any of that.

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                  • Yeah, the lumping of first and second generations was incorrect or at least misleading. I was going off of memory at that point (though IIRC the greater increase is from second to third generation).

                    On the issue of displacing native-borns, I think I’ve mentioned in other contexts that I can see that being a legitimate issue, though one that has to be addressed very carefully. There’s a cultural conservation element involved which kind of parallels my point in my post the other day.

                    At least as applied to the US, I disagree with that position, mind you, and even if I agreed with it, I’d still think it outweighed by the humanitarian concerns. But it’s a position that is indubitably a good faith position.

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                  • For the record, in my 30 years as a California resident, unlike uncountable whites and blacks, I have never been asked for a handout from a Hispanic-appearing person, only for work, or to sell me some oranges or peanuts or some roses for the missus.

                    I second this. I’ve lived in a couple very Hispanic places, but all of the panhandlers were either black or white, never Hispanic or Asian. That jumped out at me.

                    On the larger point, I share your skepticism that illegal immigration (or legal, for that matter) is ever and always a net positive. I think it depends a lot on circumstances and volume.

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  4. The administration is not, for the most part, deporting people who are merely working here without authorization. It is deporting people who are in jail for committing crimes. This is rather a different thing, particularly in a country with overcrowded, expensive prisons such as our own. Don’t keep them locked up, send them home.

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  5. This tendency of the powerful toward prohibition in the face of a black market is a tendency that you’d think I’d have gotten used to by now.

    If people want to live here, that’s a good thing.
    If people want to work here, that’s a good thing.

    People are a positive good. We should have more of them.

    We should put more emphasis on the crimes that actually have victims than the stuff like “they talk funny” and then, after the fact, finding reasons to get rid of such folks.

    But I repeat myself.

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    • Two families want to move out of Improvished Nation X. Both are struggling to feed, clothe and provide medicine for their children.

      Family A files the paperwork to immigrate. They are told it will take about a year to process. In that time a child is killed in unrelated violence.

      Family B breaks the law and crosses the border illegally. They are surviving better than A.

      Illegal Immigration is a victimless crime.

      The only way that works is if NO one bothers to immigrate legally. But everytime someone jumps the line, there ~Is~ a victim, and it’s the honest ones who follow the rules, work hard and believe in the Rule of Law.

      Ya know, the kind of people that should be at the head of the line.

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      • Family A was not hurt by Family B in this example, unless the country of emigration has a number of slots available that can be filled by either legal or illegal immigrants (which is an odd way to structure a regime).

        Also, I believe you mistake our support for a more liberalized immigration regime with support for the kind of legal immigration regime that we already have, which is… odd. It shouldn’t take a year to tell someone whether they can move to a new country. It should take about 10 minutes.

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        • Point of clarity:

          I support immigration reform.
          I believe, however, that continued amnesty for people who immigrate illegally is not sustainable. You can’t offer amnesty, then reform laws and then offer amnesty again. At some point we must enforce our laws.
          I would support amnesty one last time.
          I also believe that some assimilation is necessary: Learn how to read our signs, how to do business with our government, learn functional English.

          My primary reason for comment was the classification of Illegal Immigration as a Victimless Crime.

          I don’t put it in the same moral boat as running a red light in the middle of the night with no traffic.

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          • We’re always going to have an illegal immigration problem as long as Mexico is a poor country when compared to the US. When a family can improve their livelihood by ten times just by crossing an arbitrary line in the desert, then you will not stop people short from setting up Herman Cain’s electric fences and Tom Tacrendo’s machine guns at the border.

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            • “you will not stop people short from setting up Herman Cain’s electric fences and Tom Tacrendo’s machine guns at the border”

              Those measures didn’t keep East Germans from escaping to West Germany. They don’t keep Palestinians out of Israel, either, where there is a fence.

              They will not keep drug tunnels from being dug, or illegal immigrants from getting on a boat, or taking a plane to Canada and crossing the 3x longer border there, either.

              Any dollar-per-foot measure of cost for a border fence ought to lead anyone to the conclusion that it isn’t cost effective to try and wall off a country.

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              • “Those measures didn’t keep East Germans from escaping to West Germany. They don’t keep Palestinians out of Israel, either, where there is a fence.”

                Oh blllsttt. How many East Germans escaped to the West, and how many didn’t? The Israeli fence doesn’t keep all the Palestinians out of Israel because Israel chooses to let some in. But because Israel gets to choose which Palestinians to let in and which to keep away, the incidents of terrorism like suicide bombing have gone way down as is widely known.

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              • Word.

                One of the reasons The Wall didn’t work is because there were so many folks on this side of it trying to undermine the folks trying to keep people from crossing.

                If we didn’t give a crap, I suspect that the East Germans would have been a lot more successful.

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        • Indeed, but in their furor to DO SOMETHING!, politicians have made it more, not less, difficult for a doctor/lawyer/engineer to immigrate (and these are folks who have options).

          Meanwhile, the SOMETHING! the politicians have DONE have not really put a dent in the amount of day labor immigration.

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        • Then let’s assume all things equal.

          Family A and B are identical in all ways, only that Family A has to wait a year to immigrate legally, while Family B skips.

          Family A is a victim of “something”, if not Family’s efforts (perhaps due to a quote) then a victim of a system that Family B ignores. I still fail to see this as a Victimless Crime.

          We can agree that legal immigration isn’t Easy, otherwise there’d be no illegal immigration from people who truly want to just come here to work and provide. So it must be hard. Yet people are willing to do the work, and those people aren’t beneficiaries of the immigration as soon as the other families.

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      • A Teacher:

        “Illegal Immigration is a victimless crime.”

        BS. It is well documented what illegals cost states like CA. I’m sure they feel like a victim when they see their tax bill or feel the effects of their state’s budget crisis. Not to mention the victims of violent crimes committed by illegals, like Chandra Levy.

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  6. Somewhere in the criticism of what O has done there should be a discussion of what he could have done. Its not like there weren’t other slightly heated debates going on in the last three years. Exactly which R’s would support more open immigration. Ron Paul is busy pushing to get rid of the USGS and NOAA. Is there enough support on the D side since 10 to even put forward a bill loosening immigration. It would be great if we could move forward on this but there is a lot more furor and heat then support or consensus for opening borders.

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    • He could have… not deported 400,000 people. There’s a weird discourse surrounding the Obama administration that acts like he is constitutionally obligated to enforce any and all laws the exact way a hyper-conservative Republican would. But the very fact that he is setting deportation records should clue everyone in to the fact that he’s doing enforcement differently from his predecessors. He is choosing to do the things he does. He could instead choose not to do them.

      See also marijuana and wars of choice.

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    • I think implicit in this specific criticism is that his alternative was to literally do nothing to change the status quo ante, or – even better – reduce the priority placed on immigration enforcement, which is entirely, 100% within his control and discretion. But instead, he seems to have made enforcement of illegal immigration laws a significantly higher priority than it had previously been. That, again is entirely, 100% within his control and discretion. Point being that none of the relevant decisions involved any need to argue with Congress. There are more laws to enforce in this country than can ever be enforced uniformly with the relevant resources in the Executive Branch’s control (however large those resources may be). That means that the executive branch has to make decisions about where to place its resources and which laws to prioritize for enforcement purposes. That Obama’s Administration is deporting people in record numbers (and cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries and online poker to boot!) thus says a lot about where their interests and priorities lie, none of it good.

      Seeing as he seems to have made it a higher priority than it was and is still being ripped by the Right/GOP Congress as if he’s made it a lower priority, it can’t even really be said that he had to make it a higher priority in order to help his efforts on other fronts.

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      • But instead, he seems to have made enforcement of illegal immigration laws a significantly higher priority than it had previously been.

        Is there evidence for this, or is it deduction? Because it could be that illegal immigration has increased by a huge amount, and the administration’s new policies deport a lesser percentage of undocumented residents than Bush’s policies did. This infographic suggests I may not be off-base.

        Another potential factor is that it is relatively easy to deport prisoners, but Bush’s policy may have been not to deport prisoners, possibly because they were good money for the prison industry. Even if they served the sentence for whatever crime they did, they still were held until the slow immigration process caught up to them. The current administration has explicitly prioritized deportation of convicted criminals.

        There may be other factors: maybe the Right is correct and Obama really is inflating his numbers, in which case the OP is pretty justified in its tone.

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      • ‘O’ arbitrarily enforcing some laws and not others??? Say it ain’t so ‘O’, say it ain’t so! Like for instance coming down hard on Continental Resources for killing, hold your breath here, this is important, ONE BIRD? This while his pet industry, wind, which is documented in killing thousands of birds per year, including endangered condors and migratory fowl, gets a free pass?

        But I digress, clearly ‘O’ would NEVER engage in picking on specific industries for political reasons.

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    • How about nations that have been living under an iron-fisted, brutal, dictator for the past 30 years. Nations that have had thousands of their citizenry–women, children, the elderly, the infirmed, butchered, maimed, dismembered, tortured, killed by poisonous chemical weapons. It would be impossible to walk the streets of Baghdad and not notice the price these people have paid just trying to live their lives, just trying to exist–feet cut off, tongues cut off, arms, legs, ears, eyes gouged out, bodies flung off roof tops to their deaths, bodies flung over fences to be mauled to death by packs of dogs. When is enough, enough? Stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons was NEVER the pretext for going to war. Rather, it was the clear and defiant behavior of Saddam’s regime to violate yet another security UN Resolution, Resolution #17. It was clearly stated in that last and final Resolution, that non-compliance would result in war. That was his choice, not ours. And because of it, we have a very grateful, liberated nation that has, at the very least a reasonable chance of living in a peaceful, democratic country.

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  7. I’d like to show Ryan the research on what illegal immigration has done to African-Americans – not just on working class unemployment but on decreasing voting power, education opportunities, and empowering white racism. I’d like to see him try that “we’re a nation of immigrants” line on people whose ancestors were not immigrants in the willful sense. Other liberals (Nick Kristof, Paul Krugman, Thom Hartman) have called for pretty much the same thing Kevin Drum does. Feckless my ass – it’s called patriotism: putting our citizens first.

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    • Jeff, welcome aboard. I don’t think the specific issue is “immigrants” but “illegal” immigrants. You might be an immigrant or the child of same (or like me the grandchild) but at some level they were legal methinks. Other than that Americans born here are certainly beneficiaries of the “lucky gene”.

      Your other point is fine. Of course being here legally makes it a simple matter to go home (the old home).

      The question that begs to be answered is what level of immigration (legal) is sufficient while not being deleterious to our society? That question gets niggled around above but not directly addressed.

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      • Jeff, welcome aboard. I don’t think the specific issue is “immigrants” but “illegal” immigrants. You might be an immigrant or the child of same (or like me the grandchild) but at some level they were legal methinks.

        A number of people are the descendants of illegal immigrants. Or the descendants of legal ones from a time when legal immigration was more permissible. Under a different set of laws, many who came here legally might have come here illegally, or vice-versa. It’s not just a question of whether or not they chose to break immigration law, but what immigrations laws are.

        The status of an immigrant is partly determined by a willingness to break the law, of course, but also what the laws are. I would have more sympathy with the “but it’s illegal” argument if there were a realistic, legal alternative. Since there isn’t, they’re refusing to play a game with the deck stacked against them. I’m not sure how much I can really fault them for that.

        (In the interest of both-sides, attitudes like Jeff’s “Why should nth-generation Americans have any more right to be here than someone that walks across a desert” pushes me in the nativist direction.)

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        • Will, I couldn’t agree more that the immigration laws are a clusterfish. Those politicos who push the “issue” gloss over and completely ignore that component instead placing the focus on those who have been /made/ illegal by the system.

          It doesn’t really help those who feel they’ve been cheated by following the rules (bad as they are) being lumped in with those who didn’t.

          So our job is simple. I ask you to write up an OP wherein you talk about thoroughly revamping the immigration laws (immigration lawyers will object – it’s quite the profitable business) and we all focus on replacing the bad laws first, rather than replacing the fences. QED

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