RALEIGH – Immigration issues will play a significant role in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, like it or not.
There are groups of activists and voters on all sides of the issue who definitely fall into the “like” category. They believe that their take on the issue, whatever it is, is destined to prevail. They see themselves as applying common sense to a political controversy while their opponents (call them PC-addled liberals, greedy capitalists, irresponsible populists, troglodytic nativists, whatever) are just gushing emotion.
The political salience of immigration was evident over the weekend with the appearance of major news stories in The Charlotte Observer, News & Observer of Raleigh, and Greensboro News & Record, all looking at key aspects of the issue. The first two packages attempted to provide an accounting of the costs and benefits of immigrations for various groups, in part using data from a study by the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The third piece may indeed contain the most potent theme: the heart-rending story of Faye Coleman, killed January 21 in Hillsborough by a chronic drunk driver who is here illegally from El Salvador. Like a similarly tragic story out of Charlotte a few months ago, it will provoke public rage. Whatever one thinks of the economics of immigration – whether an influx of foreign workers is a net plus or minus for American families, who both compete for some jobs with them but also benefit from lower-priced goods and services – it is exceedingly difficult to defend the current porosity of the borders on safety grounds. Does a republic not have the right and duty to ensure that criminals, deadbeats, disease carriers, addicts, and terrorists are blocked from entering the country?
Advocates of free markets, who are led (by an invisible hand, one might say) to defend the free flow of labor and capital across international borders, are prone to downplay the significance of the immigration issue. They point out that few candidates running on a full-throated, anti-immigrant platform have prospered in recent elections across the country. True enough. But who says the only way to run a campaign against immigration is to be coarse and clumsy? There will be successful candidates in 2006 and 2008, I submit, who find the right rhetorical mix. They will demand more border security and enforcement of existing laws while also favoring reforms that make it feasible for workers legally to enter the country as long as they are not obvious risks to public health and safety.
That’s approximately what President George W. Bush has proposed in the immigration arena, but approximate has not proven to be sufficient. Restrictionists don’t believe that Bush is serious about investing the time and effort in border security and enforcement. Meanwhile, those who prosper from the current system are nervous that the administration will, indeed, make the investment, inconveniencing or displeasing them.
I do not believe that voters in North Carolina or the rest of the country will reward politicians who appear to play on racial or ethnic prejudices. That kind of politics, fortunately, is largely behind us at this point. But no one should kid themselves about this: most voters do think that current immigration policies are broken, unfair, and dangerous. Candidates who find ways to appeal to that sentiment will be well-rewarded on Election Day.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.