"Remember the immigration debate of the '90s?" asks National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru in an article on immigration policy in the magazine's April 2 issue. No, I'm afraid I don't, actually. What I remember was not a debate so much as a smear campaign to label anyone who favored restricting immigration as a "racist," a "xenophobe," a "nativist," and any other nasty epithet that seemed to fit.
Mr. Ponnuru's article is ostensibly an effort to reclaim the case for immigration restriction from those into whose smudgy hands he claims it fell in the last decade. He himself, he assures us, is one "who finds that case compelling," but not of course for the essentially "racist" reasons he accuses the old restrictionists of offering. It's most peculiar that a National Review senior editor should put it that way, since Mr. Ponnuru himself acknowledges that the "chief intellectual force behind the restrictionist movement of the 1990s" was another National Review senior editor, Peter Brimelow.
Essentially, Mr. Ponnuru is accusing his own former colleague and his own magazine of promoting what he calls the "racialization" of the immigration issue — that is, arguing against immigration by appealing to race. The fact is, however, that neither Mr. Brimelow nor most other supporters of immigration restriction really did that. All Mr. Brimelow did was point out that if non-white immigration continued unchecked, it would result in a non-white majority nation by the middle of the present century and that the American people ought to have a chance to decide whether that's the future they want.
Yet aside from his innuendoes about his own colleague, Mr. Ponnuru wants to start up his own immigration restriction movement, this time one that is not only "anti-immigration" but "pro-immigrant." The way you do that, he tells us, is to abandon the major policy goal of the old restrictionists, a moratorium on all legal immigration.
The moratorium idea, according to Mr. Ponnuru, was a bad one because among other reasons it "struck many voters as a sign of blanket hostility to immigrants." In its place, Mr. Ponnuru is pushing more modest proposals, such as simply reducing the number of immigrants but not terminating immigration totally for a period of years, as a moratorium would.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ponnuru's analysis is a leaky boat. In the first place, a moratorium was never presented to voters, so it never left voters with any impression of "blanket hostility to immigrants." A moratorium has been repeatedly proposed in congressional legislation and was endorsed by Pat Buchanan in his presidential campaigns (not to mention National Review as well, in pre-Ponnuru days), but the public at large really doesn't have much impression of what it is at all.
Secondly, a moratorium has advantages that reductions lack. For one thing, it's simple and clear and satisfies all the many arguments against immigration without necessarily endorsing any of them: arguments about cultural and political consequences, national balkanization, and the impact on the economy, population growth, the environment, welfare, jobs. These different arguments reflect different ideological and political positions, and a moratorium avoids having to pick one or some at the expense of others. It's a policy around which a coalition could be — and was — built.
By contrast, the argument for merely reducing immigration numbers runs into lots of problems. How many immigrants should we take? Where should they come from? What should be their qualifications as to language, education, job skills, etc.? Since much of the political pressure for mass immigration comes from labor-intensive businesses (agriculture, construction), mere reductions in numbers would probably wind up letting in the least skilled, least educated immigrants available, those most suitable for digging ditches and slinging burgers. Moreover, any legislation that merely tried to reduce numbers would almost surely wind up being amended to let in some politicians' favorite foreign constituencies.
Nor would a mere reduction in numbers be received as any less "blanket hostility" to immigrants than a moratorium or the almost milquetoastish Proposition 187, California's modest 1994 ballot initiative that merely tried to deny public benefits to illegal aliens. Despite its moderation, anyone who supported 187 was promptly denounced — as a "racist," a "xenophobe," and a "nativist." So cheap and easy is it to yell "racist" today and so frightened of being called one are almost all politicians and public figures that the pro-immigration lobby really doesn't have to make much of an argument about anything else. That's why there never was much of a debate in the 1990s.
Mr. Ponnuru seems to be the sort of conservative who thinks you make real progress when you surrender territory to your adversaries. It will be interesting to see how many troops he'll persuade to march in his cleaned-up crusade for "pro-immigrant" restrictions on immigration.
COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
March 29, 2001