What can any sensible American citizen do about the present political climate? (Wait... not "climate." Let's use a less divisively fraught word. "Environment?" Aw hell.)
Rebuilding an optimistic, pragmatic, problem-solving, scientific, brave and world-valuable United States will be hard. The skill I'm paid for is looking at things from quirky angles - perspectives that hardly fit our tiresome cliches. So here's the first of several "political idea-bombs."
== The Immigration "Debate" ==
So where does all the anger come from? Consider that the "white" category became a minority group, for the first time ever, in U.S. census figures. Sure, it's the largest minority, by far. Even so it is inflated by the fact that many Americans of Hispanic background check "white." Hence, the image of a multi-colored United States has millions writhing in discomfort, even if it delights liberal intelligencia.
One visceral root of culture war, then, is understandably psychological.
What is the biggest driver of this rapid change in the makeup of the U.S. citizenry? Listen to the rage, and you'd think that it was an invasion, a veritable tsunami of wetback illegals. But facts speak otherwise. The driver of demographic change in America, over the last generation or so, has been legal immigration.
When ethnic quotas on immigration were removed in 1965, the number of first- generation immigrants living in the United States quadrupled, rising from 9.6 million in 1970 to nearly 38 million in 2007. In 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which resulted in an increase in legal immigration to the United States by 40%.
The United States admitted more legal immigrants in the most recent decade -- ten million legal immigrants settled in the U.S. Still, this represents an annual increase of only about 0.3% as the U.S. population grew from 249 million to 281 million. A lot of people. But remember this isn't new. By comparison, the highest previous decade was the 1900s, when 8.8 million people arrived, increasing the total U.S. population by one percent every year. Specifically, "nearly 15% of Americans were foreign-born in 1910, while in 1999, only about 10% were foreign-born.
So why has the lion's share of attention gone to the smaller flow of undocumented aliens coming to the U.S., many of whom are only here temporarily? Well, part of it is a purely visceral matter of fairness and perception of equity. Take this, from The Public Agenda web site:
"In surveys, the public consistently makes a sharp distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. In general, the public looks more favorably on immigrants perceived as "playing by the rules." Illegal immigrants are viewed with much less sympathy. Half of those surveyed by Public Agenda say giving the government the power to detain legal immigrants indefinitely in the war on terrorism "goes too far," but six in 10 say illegal immigrants who are detained "don't deserve such protections because they are here illegally." What's more, six in 10 also say illegal immigrants should be deported immediately after being caught, without recourse to the courts. The distinction is strong enough that caution should be taken in reporting survey questions that do not distinguish between legal and illegal immigration or those that combine these elements."
Part of the fixation on illegal immigration, then, comes from the simple fact that it is disreputable and potentially embarrassing - even racist-sounding - to go after the larger flows of legal immigrants. Railing against illegals is more than sufficient. In a movement whose goals are purely emotional, never practical, culture warriors spare nary a thought for the legal variety.
== A Pause for Perspective ==
Besides, the United States has so clearly benefited from immigration across the last 200 years that anyone who thinks otherwise must either be very ignorant or... well... a Native American. (Can't blame them, after all.) Indeed, together with Canada and Australia, three countries account for nearly all of the legal migration around the world, a fact that (among other things) should give us a certain moral cushion, when outsiders complain about some of the mistakes made by Pax Americana. Study after study has shown that our vigor as a nation grew out of this tradition.
Indeed, there is a sci-fi kind of eugenical twist to all of this. Since we are all descended from people who came... albeit some of those ancestors arrived involuntarily... might that restless spirit underlie some of America's accomplishments? And its continuing potential for the future?
== Ironies Abound! ==
I'm not here to give a lengthy analysis of immigration law and its consequences. I am no expert and don't claim to be. What gets my dander up, though, is the way that partisanship causes people to glom onto positions that often bear no relationship at all to facts.
For example, the notion that Republicans are harsh defenders of the border, while Democrats are wimpy pushovers. In that case, how does one explain the fact that one of President Obama's very first acts in office was to boost the number of "boots" at the national boundaries and to demand a major rise in funding for the Border Patrol? This is no anomaly. Remember Operation Gatekeeper? It got a lot of play, back in 1993, when Bill Clinton virtually doubled the Border Patrol and began constructing new barriers along our then-porous borders?
In contrast, President George W. Bush, cut the BP in his first year. (Though, in fairness, Congress restored that funding in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, leading to a rise in staffing across the last ten years.)
These facts provoke cognitive dissonance, because they don't fit our preconceptions of left-versus-right. But there really are logical reasons, if you pause and manifest that greatest human gift -- curiosity.
For some years, I thought the explanation was pure and simple. Why should Democrats like illegal immigration? No reason at all! Sure, touchy-feely niceness to newcomers can play well to the left wing of the party. Moreover, kindness and investment in kids who already live here makes sense, both morally and in purely practical terms.
But after saying all of that to the Democratic base, the politicians have to think about their top constituents - labor unions and urbanites. And those core groups have no reason to like floods of cheap labor. They prefer legal immigration - people with green cards who can join unions and who have good prospects to become new voters.
Supporting evidence: since 1986, Congress has passed seven amnesties for illegal immigrants, converting one kind of immigrant into the other.From the kind that are easily exploited by predatory employers to those who might vote and pay labor dues.
This explanation still seems pretty valid, even after qualifying it with this inconvenient fact: that Republican President George H.W. Bush signed that 1990 immigration law, accelerating legal immigration. Moreover, in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed immigration reform that gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants in the country. Clearly, my pat division of motives merited some qualifiers, and I am willing to learn from facts.
Still, Democratic Congresses played a large role in boosting legal immigration, and they have always gone along with hikes in the Border Patrol. Those facts won't go away.
What about Republicans? They go on and on, endlessly complaining about illegal immigration as a horrid betrayal, because that kind of red-rhetoric speaks to their base. But please dig it: they controlled the United States of America, top to bottom and every branch of government all through the first decade of the 21st Century, and nothing much was done.
Why? Because the folks who actually pay the GOP's bills have their own agenda. And a cynic can quickly see how many of them benefit from floods of immigrants who cannot complain or join unions or demand the minimum wage.
Can I prove these ironies? Only circumstantially; but shouldn't they provoke you to ponder? The parties are rife with situations like this -- in which the public stance of dems or goppers can differ markedly from the actual policies that the party enacts, when it is in power.
(But this should come as no surprise. The Republican values-base has never received anything that it really wanted, other than lip service, from the GOP. Again, the Republican Party had complete and absolute mastery of the Presidency, Congress and the judiciary, and gave the base nothing during all that time, about abortion or any other hot topic. Only the aristocracy got what it wanted. Every time.)
== University America ==
Americans tend to self-flagellate over our "horrid education system." Elsewhere I ask - "if our schools are so bad, why do we have 85 of the 100 best universities on the planet?
The answers (several of them) are rather complex and never discussed in public... but the one reply I always get is "the best students are all foreign!"
In fact that answer is wrong. But even if it were true... so? Just think about that flood of foreign kids, flooding our colleges. Swarming in to learn, to better themselves and their homelands, and then - 90% of them - returning filled with new, wider values. What a deal! Especially when you note that they are paying for the privilege! It is the greatest investment in future peace and ensuring that the world's leaders are generally friendly to their second home - America.
But it goes deeper. That 10% who remain here consists often of the very best, skimmed off the top and given visas, then citizenship. Envision this scam in its awesome majesty! Draw the world's best over here, teach them, infect them with new values, and keep the best? And they pay us for this? (Chuckle; hand-rubbing glee...) Of course this has changed a bit. Chinese and Indian scholars now scurry back home because there's vast money to be made there. But the overall program still works.
It's an example of a win-win-win game. We used to be really good at finding them, before culture war imposed zero-sum thinking. This particular one suggests some new directions for immigration policy.
== More Surprises? ==
Actually, there are issues that run beneath issues here, and they merit your consideration. Take the criteria that the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department have been required to follow, when doling out legal immigrant visas.
For decades, the top consideration went to re-uniting family members. And at first sight, that does seem a compassionate and just basis to allow people into the country, instead of keeping folks separated from those they love.
Except... isn't that just rewarding the lucky with more luck? And when you admit a legal immigrant's brother, then does the brother's son come along? Of course the son's mother (his wife) is next. And then... her brother too? And that brother's kid and wife... and so on... Isn't it clear that there is no place to clearly draw a line?
There should be a way to say: "This here clan has had a lot of luck. Let's pause for a while and let some of that good fortune go to the millions of others out there, who have their faces pressed against the glass."
Indeed, shouldn't we try for a positive sum game here? If we're limited in the number of people we can absorb per year, and can only take a small fraction of those who are both deserving an eager, then why not have a fair number of those slots go to those whose arrival will benefit us all, in clearcut and immediate ways? Are they any less deserving, just because they happen to be instantly useful?
Indeed, won't the increased prosperity they help generate here allow us to be more generous to others, in the future?
Canada and Australia and the U.S. all issue a certain number of Employment-Based visas. And a strong case can be made for increasing this number, along with slots for inventors and company builders and major investors. It has even been proposed to solve our current housing crash by giving a green card to anyone who immediately buys a home with $500,000 or more in cash.
(All right, that's rewarding the lucky, and it won't play well on the left. But those of you who follow my "contrary" swings know that I am perfectly happy aiming jabs in that direction! Sure, the right has gone completely bonkers with its War on Science and every other knowledge profession. But that doesn't mean their opponents are always correct, not by a long shot.)
== Listen Up, Rick Perry! ==
In fact, let me couch this as advice to a man I don't especially admire, and dislike in many ways... but a fellow who on occasion has actually intrigued me with the unconventional words that slip out of his mouth, from time to time.
(Example: the Texas Governor is the only other person I know who has publicly declared an obvious fat -- that the first phase of our ongoing American Civil War began in 1851, with southern oppression of northern states! Okay, I admit it; I'd buy him a beer, because to me interesting compensates for many sins, and I enjoy challenging disagreement more than I like parroted sameness.)
Okay, so right now Rick Perry has a problem regarding immigration. So crazed has the Republican base become that he must backpedal furiously from actions and positions that were completely mainstream in the GOP, during the era of Ronald Reagan. It should be blatantly obvious to anyone with a mix of compassion and practicality that immigrant kids need health care and education... and we need them to be both healthy and educated. Duh? Well, the obvious becomes deniable, in times that Robert Heinlein called "The Crazy Years."
(Perry reminds me of the "good German" Oskar Schindler... who was a low-life scoundrel by the standards of a normal-calm nation, but who, when all his friends and neighbors went mad, refused to sink below a certain level of insane turpitude. Who then exhibited surprising heroism. We'll see if my comparison proves apt.)
Is there a way out for Perry? Well, I can suggest one. Turn the focus toward legal immigration. A judo move. Get people talking about the larger flow, instead of the smaller. Get them talking about fresh ideas, like visas for investors and home-buyers and inventors. Take a lead there, making people talk. Heck, even blame the democrats for something they actually did for a change! (Increasing legal immigration.)
And lay it out as a bipartisan given that the border will be better policed, with new technology. Indeed, make technology a topic for optimistic talking points. (Remember Reagan? Optimism can be good politics!)
Who knows, maybe some Republicans will even respond if you defy the Fox-propelled mad-lemming rush and actually say something good about science! Yes, that may be too brave to ask of any GOP candidate. Still it would set you aside from the pack...
== Shake it up! ==
What's my real point here?
Immigration, like most other policy issues, is far more complex than the simpleminded politics of this benighted-lobotomized era. An era when the sheer notion of the positive sum game is anathema... and so are people of the kind who use words like "anathema."
We could negotiate positive sum, win-win solutions, to this and a myriad other vexing dilemmas. But it would have to start with accepting that complexity ain't evil. And neither is negotiation. And that is why I'll keep tossing these "idea-bombs."
Because some of you out there really want to live in a civilization that's worthy of the name. And together, maybe we can persuade enough of our neighbors to want it, too.