Earlier in the week, you may have heard a small, distant voice, speaking as from the bottom of a well. It was President George W. Bush, addressing the nation Monday night on immigration, from the vantage of his poll ratings, which lie in the low 30’s.
His subject and his inglorious position are related. Mr. Bush’s numbers dropped below 50 percent because leftists, liberals and faint-hearts turned against the war in Iraq. That was their fault. Mr. Bush then highlighted his immigration policy, which displeases (distresses? enrages?) much of his base. That was his fault.
The war in Iraq is a proactive defense of American security, taking the fight to thugs who would otherwise have plotted behind a cushion of miles and international do-nothingism. Mr. Bush’s immigration policy is a shrug of the shoulders, allowing the laws of the land and the southern border to be mocked in the name of sentiment. It is as if Mr. Bush were two Presidents—himself abroad, and his anti-self at home. Maybe John Kerry did actually win Ohio after all, or at least some of its electoral votes, since he seems to be running immigration policy.
The proposal to use the National Guard along the Mexican border has been creeping up on us for a long time. Six years ago, I was filming a documentary on another President George (Washington), and I went to the Army War College to shoot a seminar discussion of the Whiskey Rebellion, an 18th-century tax revolt in Pennsylvania that was suppressed by 12,000 militia. The Army War College, which grooms hotshot colonels for higher things, was interested in that episode because the military was turning its thoughts to domestic defense. This was before 9/11, when 19 foreigners struck like modern Caesars: They came, they saw, they killed and they died. Now we are talking about 11 million (or 16 million, or who knows how many) foreigners who have come, without permission, and who are staying, for who knows how long.
The threats are as asymmetrical morally as they are numerically. We may thank God that we share our border with Mexico, not the Maghreb. Profound differences divide the cultures of the United States and Mexico, and Chicano radicals talk of the Southwest in irredentist terms, as if hoping to refight the battle of Buena Vista. But they are not suicides or homicides or innocent-killing, virgin-craving holy men. Even as the illegal aliens among us are many times more numerous than our terrorist enemies, so they are many times less dangerous.
Still, there is a danger to unchecked immigration (and illegal immigration is by definition unchecked). America’s immigrant experience has been a success; one of the reasons is the rhythm at which it has unfolded. Like a beast of prey, we gorge, we slumber, we gorge again. In the past, our periods of digestion were supplied by external events, chiefly European wars that interrupted trans-Atlantic travel. As time passed, we took a hand in the process, engineering pauses by means of restrictive laws. Racism and nativism played a role in these efforts, which makes us feel guilty now. Tell that to the rest of the world today, which maintains similar policies (Mexico does not allow unrestricted immigration). The net result of our systole and diastole was to give an opportunity for the newcomer who hoped to become an American, or hoped only to make a buck or to flee the cops, actually to become one.
Assimilation is a mighty engine, doing its work whether we pause for it or not. You see it pounding away in Queens, or in any story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. “Over the rooftops an airplane thundered past, flashing a string of lights and roaring ferociously. Young men yelled, young women giggled. Above the cinemas, blazing lights shone on posters of monsters, harlots, cutthroats …. So this was America.” Fight that, you Mexicans. But when immigrant communities are continually refreshed with new faces, and when many of those faces have begun their lives here by breaking the law, the process of assimilation does slow down.
Mr. Bush calls for increased border security, which we certainly need, but then he undermines his own proposals by talking about the need to offer illegals who are already here a pathway to citizenship. But there is a pathway to citizenship: Go home and apply to enter legally. If home is Mexico, or Central America, it isn’t that far. The illegal immigrant is already sending remittances back (the Mexican economy depends on them). It is not beyond possibility to send himself back for a time.
Mr. Bush obfuscates matters by speaking as if his critics want to track down and deport all illegals—an operation more onerous than lining the border with the National Guard. But his responsible critics have no such intention (which is why he doesn’t engage them). Illegal immigration is a constant flux. People come; they also go (often because they have made their stake). Their calculations depend on the willingness of employers to hire them and on the risk they run of being caught. These decisions can be affected at the margin. If employers of illegals face crackdowns, and if some illegals are deported, word will get around. The rate of inflow will fall, and over a few years we will approach equilibrium.
A grand federal program, on the other hand, such as Mr. Bush and the Senate want, giving illegals a path to citizenship, is a get-out-of-jail-free card. Once we start handing out those, the world will all the more eagerly sneak over our borders, however many National Guardsmen we have posted there, expecting that new get-out-of-jail-free cards will come in 10 or 12 years.
Mr. Bush knows that Iraq is more than a military problem; it is an information war, and a courtship among the country’s political groups. He does not know this about immigration, which means he will hand the same problem on to Hillary Clinton, or her successor.