Immigration Politics: Wishful Thinking? | Opinion

All politics have consequences. But few political issues are as consequential as immigration because it alone raises that all-important question: "Who are we?" Immigration policy determines whether America exists as a coherent political unit, a home to a people sharing an identity and national destiny, or as "only a geographical expression" in the fashion of pre-unification Italy, where principalities and powers vied over a space known incidentally as the Italian peninsula.

Rending Italy from the hands of petty princes formed an essential part of Niccolò Machiavelli's life work, for only a unified Italy could resist evils from within and without. Thus, he reconceived political affairs when he distinguished the "effectual truth" from the "imagination of it"—that is, the difference between how things really are versus how men imagine them to be. For Machiavelli, the first step toward decisive action is removing the blinders from one's eyes.

The 20th-century political theorist James Burnham reintroduced Machiavelli's framework to distinguish between "formal meaning" and "real meaning." The "formal meaning," Burnham explained, "should not explicitly state but only indirectly express, and to one or another extent hide and distort, the real meaning." Thus, he added, "the real meaning is thereby rendered irresponsible, since it is not subject to open and deliberate intellectual control; but the real meaning is nonetheless there."

Burnham, like Machiavelli, did not merely state the obvious: People lie. Instead, the disguise exists independently of any intention to deceive—though Burnham does grant that deception, including self-deception, often occurs.

What does any of this have to do with current events? The immigration debate is profoundly affected by a disconnect between what is formally said and written and proposed, on the one hand, and the realities behind those things, on the other hand. Peel away the myths and idealistic abstractions—whether they originate in cynicism or delusion—and immigration, as a contemporary political issue, is about power and profit. The recent case of H.R.1044, the so-called "Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act," is illustrative.

Formally, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) proclaimed that the "legislation lives up to our founding principles by ending nationality discrimination in our nation's employment-based green-card system." With great solemnity, he affirmed few ideas "are more central to who we are as Americans than the notion that people should be judged based on their own merits as individuals, and not on their race or nationality."

Lee may seriously believe Republicans stand on moral high ground with this bill—though that raises the question of why he convened the GOP away from the scrutiny of public hearings to secure unanimous consent. However, in the real world of space and time and history, H.R.1044 amounts to a subsidy for powerful interest groups that exploit foreign labor and investments, disproportionately benefiting India and China.

Contra Lee's ode to merit, H.R.1044 would not ensure workers are highly skilled, nor does it explicitly prohibit employers from replacing American workers with visa holders. A renewable work permit would act as a de facto permanent residency with a green card, thus fundamentally altering our immigration system and eroding the salience of citizenship. "It does not increase the total number of green cards," explains Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, "but certainly will increase the number of 'temporary' visa workers who expect to stay, and will encourage more employers to lower their labor costs by hiring foreign workers who gain access to the labor market by obtaining a temporary visa." So much for the GOP's realignment into a "working-class coalition."

Regardless of how Republicans conceive of themselves or their aims and ends, virtually every move they make redounds above all to the fortunes of foreign and domestic oligarchs.

Democrats, on the other hand, may sincerely believe they are engaged in humanitarianism when they propose hyper-liberalized immigration policies. Not so different from Republicans, they claim America's moral obligation is to invite in all the world with warm and welcoming arms. However, the reality of mass immigration is not humanitarianism—it is mass proletarianization. Consider California.

U.S.-Mexico border fence in Arizona
U.S.-Mexico border fence in Arizona ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images

The Golden State is the Democratic Party's policy flagship, and a place where lax immigration has helped the local Latino population grow tremendously. California's present, Democrats and their allies say, is and ought to be America's future. But the promise of progress belies some brutal realities.

In 2019, Oakland's Insight Center for Community Development reported that 52 percent—or 1.6 million total—Latino households in California struggle to afford basic expenses like food, housing and electricity. That's up from 49 percent in 2014.

California is home to the highest child poverty rate in the country. A 2018 analysis by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation revealed that among all impoverished children under six years old in California, 71 percent are Latinos. The Public Policy Institute of California reported in 2017 that Latino children with immigrant parents are much more likely to be poor across the state. In 2017, The Education Trust-West, a progressive nonprofit, shockingly revealed that there is not a single county in California where the majority of Latino students are proficient in math or English/language arts. Latinos also continue to have the lowest rate of college completion of any racial or ethnic sub-group in California.

These realities stand in stark contrast with the Democratic Party's Potemkin village of progress. California Latinos and immigrants cluster in low-wage industries, disproportionately serving a mostly white liberal upper crust and thus effectively replicating the kind of inequality some left behind. The gap between the rich and poor in Los Angeles, for instance, is comparable to that in the Dominican Republic.

The sad reality is that the ethnic divisions created by constant waves of inequality-exacerbating mass immigration are a barrier to forging a common culture between immigrant and native-born groups—the very fabric of social solidarity—as Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen documents in Making a New Deal, a study of Chicago workers during the interwar period. That this kind of "diversity" hinders the solidarity necessary for worker unionization is a dirty secret in Corporate America.

Setting aside the Democratic Party's broken promises of hope and change, its policies maintain one concrete constant: electoral power through demography. Immigration overwhelmingly favors Democrats. It also makes possible the luxury economies of progressive citadels like New York and San Francisco, where recent immigrants disproportionately fill urban service jobs with high turnover rates. This is a revolving door of inequality sustained only by a constant infusion of fresh blood from abroad in the service of a mostly white overclass elite. Republicans, of course, are happy to provide the human cogs for this miserable machine, singing praises to our "founding principles" all the way. Far from humanitarianism, this scheme is fundamentally dehumanizing for all involved.

Burnham announced in the preface of his study of Machiavellianism "that only by renouncing all ideology can we begin to see the world and man." Looking behind the veil of "principles" and "progress" put on by Republicans and Democrats alike, it becomes clear that neither party wants to create immigration policy that elevates people—Americans and immigrants alike—above profit and power. For that to change, the formal framework in which debates over immigration occur must be deconstructed, penetrated and discarded.

Pedro L. Gonzalez is assistant editor of American Greatness and a contributor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.