A Big Obstacle to Immigration Reform


According to an old jazz tune, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way how you do it.”

It is good to keep this principle in mind various areas of human conduct.  Imagine a couple of businessmen who have concluded a deal.  Suppose they have have the contract drawn up and have both examined it carefully.  Both are convinced that it is mutually beneficial.  But suppose further that when they show up to sign the contract, one of them says: “Man, are you a sucker!”  The other might well hesitate to sign.  He might think there is something funny in the contract that had escaped him.  He might at least doubt that his potential partner was going to execute his part of the bargain in an above board way.  In cooperative endeavors, the way one side talks about the thing to be done can have a big impact on whether it gets done at all, regardless of what anybody says or thinks about the merits.

We see this all the time in politics–for example, in relation to taxation.  It would be hard to raise taxes under any circumstances, because people naturally resist having to pay more than they do.  But when they argue for tax increases, Democrats make it harder to do by the way they talk about it.  It would be one thing to say that taxes need to be increased because we need to close the deficit, or to pay for  some pressing public need.  But Democrats typically cannot leave it at that.  They also have to say that it is “right” to raise taxes to make sure that everybody is paying their “fair share.”  Thus they imply that those whose taxes they want to raise are currently not doing their fair share, as if they are deadbeats or shirkers.  This, of course, is offensive to many people whose cooperation would be necessary and makes tax increases even harder.  (I’m not saying, by they way, that we should raise taxes.  I’m only making a point about how the wrong kind of rhetoric can be self-defeating.)


This brings us to immigration.  Currently a number of leading figures in both political parties are trying to win support for a Senate bill enacting one version of comprehensive immigration reform.  The plan includes a kind of double-amnesty for people who have entered the country without proper permission.  Its first stage grants them a provisional legal status, and a later stage opens up the possibilty of permanent legal status and then, even later, citizenship.

Whatever you think about the merits of this plan, there are certain obvious reasons why it would be hard to enact.  Any amnesty tends to undermine respect for the law, and this makes it hard for many Americans to accept.  This concern is heightened by the fact that nation just did an amnesty in 1986.  That reform was supposed to lead to better enforcement, at which task it obviously failed.  If it had succeeded there would be no need to talk about a further reform now.  So if one amnesty makes many people uncomfortable, amnesty after amnesty tends to make them think that we are making a joke of the rule of law, and that there will be no successful enforcement even after the new reform.

And this brings us back to my original point.  These concerns about respect for law and the possibility of ongoing uncontrolled unlawful entry are naturally going to occur to a lot of people whose support would be necessary to get an immigration reform enacted.  And many of the people who most want to enact such a reform actually make it more difficult by speaking as if unlawful entry is not really a serious transgression.  They are animated by a worthy impulse: a humane concern for people who have already entered.  But some who support amnesty seem unable to bring themselves to condemn unlawful entry as such.  They present it as a victimless offense.  This kind of rhetoric is poisonous to the trust that would be necessary to winning the support of people whose primary concern is seriousness about future enforcement.

Of course, if you aim to get some kind of amnesty you can’t speak about unlawful entry as if it were one of the greatest crimes.  If it were, an amnesty would make no sense; and in any case unlawful entry, though an infraction of law, is not one of the greatest crimes.  Nevertheless, the paradoxical truth is that immigration reform would be easier to accomplish if the left’s rhetoric about illegal immigration were tougher.  In trying to show resolve, President Obama often lectures us to “make no mistake” about this or that.  Imagine if, as part of his pitch for immigration reform, the President put everyone on notice that future enforcement will be very effective and those who attempt unlawful entery will be apprehended.  Such rhetoric would cause much opposition to amnesty to vanish.  But I don’t think the President could bring himself to speak that way.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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