The WSJ Tirade Against Retreat on Immigration 'Reform'

As noted in my weekend column at National Review Online, last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal editorial on the IRS scandal was stellar. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for last Wednesday’s editorial on immigration – a rant against the Republican establishment’s sudden retreat from plans to push for immigration “reform” this year.


A number of conservative commentators, myself included, were baffled by the GOP’s apparent embrace of “amnesty first, enforcement (maybe) later” proposals. Those initiatives, while preferred by the Journal, the Chamber of Commerce, the Obama administration, and congressional Democrats, are anathema to Main Street – including the GOP’s conservative base, which must be turned out if the party is to succeed in what, thanks to Obamacare, is a promising midterm-election year. Still, even when I find myself opposed to the Journal’s bottom line on some issue or other, the editors’ take is nearly always smart and worth considering. Last Wednesday’s was neither.

The editors whine, for example, that “Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and the Heritage Foundation,” who oppose the current reform effort, “might as well share research staffs with the AFL-CIO.” And … so what? It could just as easily be said that the WSJ editorial board seems to be strategizing with La Raza, the Center for American Progress, and the Obama White House. Such claims may be worth remembering the next time the Journal complains about smear tactics and guilt-by-association arguments, but they shed no light on the merits of the immigration controversy.

The Journal ruefully concedes that President Obama’s lawlessness, particularly in the implementation of the “Affordable” Care Act, has left him without credibility “on any other law he signs” – which, of course, would include the enforcement component of any immigration overhaul. That’s true, but as even Senator Chuck Schumer must know, it’s just a fraction of the problem. It is not just Obama but the federal government – Republican leadership as well as congressional Democrats – that cannot be trusted when it comes to policing illegal immigration.


The Paul Ryans and Marco Rubios chant the mantra that the “enforcement system is broken.” Yes … but it is broken because administrations of both parties have been reluctant to enforce the law – indeed, downright hostile to its enforcement. Washington does not need new laws to enforce (or, more likely, not enforce); it needs to enforce the laws currently on the books.

Reform advocates demagogue that suggestion as a call to “round up” millions of people. But that is absurd. A “round up” is neither possible nor desirable. Illegal immigration should be managed like other crime problems: sensibly target resources at the worst offenders and thus discourage the rest. Still, whatever you may think the right enforcement model is, if enforcement is to be a component of any proposed reform, it would be ridiculous to negotiate a deal until we had both a president and a government that had built up a reservoir of credibility. That would take considerable time and effort.

Putting the question of law enforcement aside, the Journal continues to belittle legitimate apprehensions about granting legal status to double-digit millions of illegals when we have such a tough labor market, low wages, and no growth. On Wednesday, the editors groused that “the populist wing of the [Republican] party has talked itself into believing the zero-sum economics that immigrants steal jobs from U.S. citizens and reduce American living standards.” To read the paper’s frequent immigration editorials, moreover, one would think immigrants are a homogenous class, each prepared to be a net-positive contributor and fill the gaps that citizens are leaving in our economy.


It is simply a fact, however, that while many immigrants do possess needed skills, millions of them do not. As the Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet notes, of Mexican migrants in particular, unskilled “workers are already in such oversupply in America that they have a higher rate of unemployment than other workers and are pushing down one another’s wages.”

Myron, an incomparable historian and journalist, penned that observation in his introduction to The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s, a compilation from three of our nation’s brightest and best informed scholars on immigration (and much else): Heather Mac Donald, Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Malanga. (And if you haven’t done so already, read Victor’s hair-raising post, “An Immigration Morality Tale,” here at PJM.) The Journal writes as if it is nutter stuff to conclude that unskilled immigrants exacerbate the employment crisis befalling citizen laborers, depress wages, and severely tax state and federal social services (especially education, food stamps, housing, healthcare, and the criminal justice system) – costing American citizens thousands of dollars per year in additional taxes. Yet, just this conclusion has been drawn by several of the best writers regularly featured on the Journal’s own op-ed pages.

I am not doctrinaire on the question of amnesty for immigration law-breakers. Indeed, I’ve contended that we were better off when immigration enforcement was not primarily a federal responsibility. I’d be inclined to give the states much more leeway in deciding who is welcome in their territories – provided that they paid for their own hospitality without passing costs and other problems along to other states.


For the foreseeable future, nevertheless, I assume we are committed to the primacy of federal immigration enforcement. That being the case, I’d target the finite federal enforcement resources at immigrants who commit state and federal crimes once they’ve gotten here and at employers who hire illegal aliens. I would not pursue illegal aliens who are otherwise law-abiding – though I would make clear that this is an exercise of discretion, not a grant of immunity.

Nor would it be a “de facto amnesty,” the term the Journal and GOP “reform” enthusiasts apply to the government’s current non-enforcement policy – as a salve to make their de jure amnesty proposals seem more palatable. Distinguishing between more and less severe outlaws is standard law-enforcement practice, the commonsense way in which widespread crime problems are managed. To take an analogous example, the FBI and DEA focus on narcotics traffickers, essentially ignoring illegal drug users. That does not mean the latter have been given amnesty. We still disapprove of their conduct; we just judge it not worth diverting limited prosecutorial attention over, and we calculate that targeting the worse offenders will discourage the lesser ones.

The enforcement focus on employers should be complemented by requiring legal status for social welfare benefits except emergency medical care and elementary education – the latter of which is required by the Supreme Court’s wayward ruling in Plyler v. Doe (1982). (Again, if I had my druthers, the states would have more discretion over what benefits they chose to open to illegal aliens – as long as they could not spread the costs on to other states.) Besides tending to border enforcement, we should, as Mark Krikorian argues, be pushing employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that alien applicants are legally eligible to work. We should be tracking the border exit as well as the border entry of aliens. And I would adopt Steven Malanga’s proposal to reduce family “chain” migration and shift toward “skills-based” immigration.


The point is that, although we should not gratuitously harass illegal aliens, neither should we encourage them. In the vast majority of cases – i.e., excepting children brought here through no fault of their own by their illegal alien parents – they made a willful choice to enter and remain here in violation of our laws. It is their responsibility to conform their behavior to our laws, not ours to conform our laws to their behavior.

In any event, I’m not saying I’d never consider some kind of legal status – though certainly not citizenship – for some categories of illegal aliens. I’m saying get back to me in five or ten years, after bipartisan Washington has proved (a) it is serious about enforcing the immigration laws; (b) it has substantially reduced the population of illegal aliens; (c) it is cooperating with, rather than punishing, states that enforce the law; (d) it is prioritizing assimilation; and (e) it is decidedly favoring immigrants who will help our country flourish over those who will be a burden.

The Journal’s editors, who are very smart guys, have a very different position. I can respect it, and even see some valid points in it, without dismissing them as lunatics. I don’t understand why it seems so hard for them to reciprocate.


Image illustration courtesy /  Gunnar Pippel


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