The Social-Liberal/Economic-Conservative Mirage — Immigration Edition

Dozens of asylum-seeking migrants from Central America walk north before surrendering to the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande River into the United States from Mexico in La Joya, Texas, May 7, 2021. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

You may recall that graph of 2016 Clinton and Trump voters, plotted on X and Y axes showing economic and social conservatism. Clinton voters were huddled in the socially and economically liberal quadrant, with Trump voters socially conservative and clumping slightly right of center economically. The social-conservative/economic-liberal quadrant had lots of voters of both sides.

The quadrant that was virtually empty was the one favored by much of our professional-managerial leadership class: Social-liberal/economic-conservative. While such a combination is theoretically possible, this libertarian perspective enjoys virtually no electoral support. What’s more, politicians who describe themselves this way almost always end up actually voting liberal on both axes, with the economic-conservative part basically a smokescreen.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial called to mind a similar dynamic in immigration policy. The piece decried the Biden administration’s continuing legal effort to end the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program, which proved so effective in curbing bogus asylum claims by border-jumpers. The line that got my attention was this: “The Administration will need ways to control the border if it wants to have any hope of building enough political support for the kind of immigration reform the country needs.”

In other words, the Journal‘s editorial board is upset, not because mass lawlessness is bad, but because it undermines the political prospects of passing “comprehensive immigration reform” – i.e., amnesty and de facto unlimited immigration. The reason the four-quadrant Clinton-Trump graph came to mind is that you can plot out something similar on immigration, with the horizontal axis representing views on enforcement, going from loose to tight, and the vertical axis representing the preferred level of legal admissions, from low to high.

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The Journal piece was essentially arguing for one of those quadrants: tight-enforcement/high-numbers. The problem is that this perspective — put forward by business lobbyists, many establishment-friendly conservative writers, lots of Republican politicians, and the handful of remaining Democratic “moderates” — is a mirage. Voters are concerned about the consequences of excessive immigration (on the economy, government benefits, assimilation, security, etc.) that stem from too much immigration of either kind, but enforcement issues are easier to talk about in polite company and in any case are the most immediate problem, since if the laws aren’t enforced it doesn’t much matter what they are.

But the tight-borders/high-numbers perspective isn’t even supported by those who profess it, any more than the economic conservatism of the social-liberal/economic-conservative crowd.

George W. Bush was positively giddy in his support of illegal immigration, viewing it as a Darwinian selection mechanism; as governor he was reported to have said, “Hell, if they’ll walk across Big Bend [an arid and remote part of West Texas], we want ’em.”​ Only after the spectacular collapse of his years-long amnesty push in the Senate in June 2007 did the Bush administration, in its last 18 months or so in office, apply itself to serious immigration enforcement. And even that was purely instrumental; DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff petulantly told immigration hawks something to the effect of “We’re going to give you enforcement good and hard and see if you like it then.” (We did.)

Obama continued in that vein, seeming to lean in to enforcement to persuade people that he could be trusted to enforce the law going forward after an amnesty, à la the recent Wall Street Journal editorial. Even that involved sleight of hand in order to maintain the appearance of “record deportations,” as Obama himself sort of admitted. But when his amnesty push (the Gang of Eight effort) also failed, enforcement tapered off, no longer worth pursuing.

Whatever distinctions one might make in an undergraduate seminar, in the real world mass legal and illegal immigration are two sides of the same coin. Supporters of mass immigration who profess support for tight borders implicitly acknowledge this when, faced with having to make an actual policy choice, they turn away from the steps needed to operationalize that professed preference.

Our leadership class still clings to the fiction of Legal Sí, Illegal No, but that’s going the way of its other discredited nostrums.

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