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Editor's Corner: Where Ruy Went Wrong on Immigration

October 12, 2023 (3 min read)

Daniel M. Kowalski, Oct. 14, 2023

Substacker Ruy Teixeira, a.k.a. The Liberal Patriot, posted The Democrats' Immigration Problem on Oct. 12, 2023.  I think Ruy went wrong in three ways.

First, Ruy asserts that "it is simply a fact that many more people want to come here than can possibly be accommodated."  No, it's not a fact, but rather a chauvinist  supposition based on unexamined American exceptionalism.  To find out who wants to come to America one would have to poll every living human on the planet.  No one has done that, least of all Ruy.  Migration is a rich field of study.  Detailed theories abound, such as Understanding aspirations to stay: Relative endowment within a time–space perspective, by Simona Vezzoli, Migration Studies, Volume 11, Issue 2, June 2023. And in the end, polling is woefully inexact: people lie to pollsters.  The truth is that no one really knows how many foreigners would migrate to America if they could.  Just as important, no one knows if said migration would be temporary or permanent.

Second, Ruy assumes that the border can be "controlled."  It can't. Combine geography, human nature, history, economics, war and climate change, and you end up with a matrix of forces that can only be regulated, at best, on the margins.  Think for a minute about alcohol, tobacco and firearms.  Combined, they kill hundreds of thousands of Americans annually, and we have layered local, state and federal bureaucracies devoted to "controlling" them.  They are not controlled.  They are regulated, at best, on the margins.  Whether it is migration or drug use or gun control, the fiscal and political costs of true "control" would be unthinkably prohibitive.

Finally, Ruy posits the problem as belonging to the Democrats.  In fact, it has persisted, perennially, across all parties, all administrations since (checks notes) 1924, when Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, the first piece of federal immigration legislation establishing numerical quotas for visas.  All artificial limits, whether speed limits on highways or visa quotas at the border, will be violated.  And punishing violators has fiscal and political costs and practical limits: Do we execute speeders?  No.  (For a deep dive, please read Impossible Subjects by Prof. Mae Ngai.)

I get it.  Folks are worried about uncontrolled migration, for fiscal, cultural and political backlash reasons.  But if you get to know migrants, you find them to be assets, not, not destroyers.  (In case you don't already know, unauthorized migrants have "substantially lower crime rates than native-born citizens and legal immigrants across a range of felony offenses.")

What's the solution?  As I stated back in 2004, comprehensive immigration reform will require a perfect storm with the following elements: presidential leadership willing to stand up to the restrictionist Right; congressional compromise demonstrating a preference for action over posturing; and an educated public willing to accept a more rational immigration system as the price for abolishing what is, in effect, a national “plantation” system, with millions of unauthorized migrants acting as our less-than-equal servants.  Put bluntly, we need more immigrants, not fewer, and our immigration laws and policies need radical simplification.

We humans appear to be hardwired for "Us vs. Them" tribalism, but in the end, there's only one Us.  Will we be governed by fear or facts?  The choice is ours.

- Dan Kowalski has been practicing immigration law exclusively since 1985.  He is the Editor-in-Chief of Bender's Immigration Bulletin, Revision Editor of Immigration Law and Procedure: Desk Edition, and Online Editor of the free daily blog, , all published by LexisNexis.