At first glance, passage by the Arizona legislature of the country's most stringent crackdown on immigration would appear to be a clear victory for Republican and conservative ideals. At second glance, it's exactly the opposite. It's not only a frontal attack on bedrock principles of free market capitalism, it's also a desperate move to expand the power, reach, and spending of Big Government.
The stereotype of the rugged, self-reliant frontiersmen and women who tamed the inhospitable Wild West, thanks in large part to their own ingenuity and the hard work of migrant laborers, is being replaced. The old-fashioned, tough guys have saddled up and ridden their horses off into the sunset, only to be replaced by a new breed of fearful Arizonans who, afraid of change, and anxious about the future, feel the need for protection by hard-nosed lawmen and aggressive posses. A can-do attitude and a spirit of individualism have been supplanted by helplessness and a need for authority.
On other political and social matters--health care, policing of private industry, environmental issues, regulation of financial institutions, to name a few--conservatives generally adhere to the maxim that "the government that governs least governs best." Conservatives who regard the mighty power of the state to be intrusive and overreaching in other realms, are now desperate to have Big Government insert itself into the immigration issue, which, at its heart is a social and economic matter--driven in large part by the desire of people to better themselves.
Despite protestations, supposedly core political articles of faith have been abandoned in favor of visceral reactions that pit "us" against "them." How else to explain the rage and the often hateful outpourings of emotion? Supporters of get tough-immigration enforcement generally deny that their views may be inspired by racism or hatred. The immigration issue, they say, is all about the rule of law. There's a border. Step over it without permission and you pay the legal penalty--arrest, prosecution, deportation. Work without authorization and face the consequences. "What about 'illegal' don't you understand?" I am often asked.
If only it were that simple: an immutable and sacred law which, in its wisdom speaks to eternal values of justice, fairness, and economic prosperity. In fact, legislation is situational, subject to reinterpretation and change. "The law in its majestic equality," wrote Anatole France, "forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." Laws may try to address political and economic ills, but don't always resolve them. In particular, immigration laws have changed over the centuries in response to prevailing political sentiment and economic conditions.
With his autograph on 1986 legislation, the iconic conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to some three million migrants, changing their legal status with the stroke of a pen. (Yes. Conservative Ronald Reagan). The act followed a long tradition of historical ambivalence about immigration issues. The United States once welcomed Chinese laborers, only to later pass laws excluding them. Mexicans have been alternately embraced and rejected, depending on whim, labor needs, and the influence of the employer lobby. Europeans likewise, depending on their ethnic backgrounds were sometimes needed by the United States, and other times shunned. Across the Atlantic, European nations followed the same pattern. They once recruited Muslim workers, and are now trying to restrict them.
Even though we may true to reduce the immigration issue to a strictly legal matter, that just isn't the case. Yesterday, I interviewed a high-ranking U.S. immigration official whose job it is to deport illegal immigrants. He sounded like an immigrants' rights activist, telling me that he and the people he works with know that the main reason people come to the U.S. illegally (and legally) is to improve their lives. He's right. Some people walk across the street to find work; others cross city boundaries or state lines. Others cross national borders. Immigration can't be reduced to a legal matter, and the issues that surround it are not simply resolved by pulling out the six guns, saddling up the Broncos, and rounding up the "bad guys."
Arizona's Barry Goldwater, the quintessential conservative, knew that. His family had employed illegal immigrants on a citrus farm. Goldwater opposed employer sanctions, knowing they are "inevitably discriminatory." He was also against amnesty and favored a temporary worker program. But significantly, Goldwater realized that at the root, the U.S. needed "increased cooperation with the countries that are sending illegal aliens." He believed that U.S. businesses should work with those abroad to "[h]elp providing economic incentives to encourage residents to remain in their native lands."
In wanting to get at the causes for immigration, Goldwater had it right. At the very least, today's conservatives would do well to learn that lesson from the old Arizona firebrand. And there are others: Big Government won't resolve the issue. Immigration is governed more by the laws of supply and demand than government statutes.
Even conservative die-hards have told me time and again, that if the shoe were on the other foot, they would also cross borders and do what was necessary for the welfare of their families. Family values. And, while we're on the subject, for religious conservatives who respect Judeo-Christian principles above all, here's another maxim to keep in mind: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."
Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. He is the author of Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley).