Jose Antonio Vargas’s riveting story about life as an undocumented immigrant has been taking the Internet by storm. It powerfully illustrates the contrast between our nation’s professed ideals of equality and opportunity and the actual, shameful results of the laws we have allowed our government to enact.
As I’ve written before, I think the fundamental problem is that most American voters don’t understand our own immigration system. Though few undocumented immigrants succeed as spectacularly as Vargas has, there are millions of undocumented Americans who, like him, have been hampered in their pursuit of freedom and opportunity by our immigration laws. Many American voters angrily demand that immigrants “get in line” for their green cards, ignoring the fact that for many undocumented immigrants, there is no line they could wait in that will get them a green card in the foreseeable future.
It’s interesting that Vargas mentions coming out of the closet because I think many immigration advocates could learn from success of the gay rights movement. Ignorant anti-immigrant beliefs are driven by the same kind of intellectual laziness people always display when thinking about people different from themselves. Go back to the 1970s and you’ll find millions of people who didn’t consider themselves to be bigots but harbored fundamentally bigoted beliefs about gay people. Go a little further back and you’ll find millions of whites who didn’t consider themselves racists but who would readily repeat crude stereotypes about blacks and tacitly supported America’s system of racial apartheid.
The same basic dynamic is at work in modern immigration debate. Hardly anyone considers himself an anti-immigrant bigot, but a large majority of Americans tacitly endorse ridiculous, discriminatory immigration laws that make it virtually impossible for people like Jose Antonio Vargas to become full-fledged members of our society. They demand a level of law abidingness from undocumented immigrants (even those who have been here since childhood) that they would never tolerate if applied to themselves.
Eradicating racism from polite society wasn’t simply a matter of evidence and argument. Rather, it was accomplished through a consciously ideological project to stigmatize bigotry. Making prejudicial comments about black people doesn’t just get you a strong counter-argument, it can lose you friends and even your job. A similar ideological project, typified by Seinfeld‘s “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” is making rapid progress on the gay rights front.
People don’t really think about immigration debates in these terms. Even most liberals talk about immigration in terms of economic efficiency and citizen self-interest. During the 2007 immigration debate, my friend Ezra Klein actually complained that business interests were trying to weaken “employer verification” laws that would have made it even harder for people like Jose Antonio Vargas to find a job. Whatever else you might say about this position, it’s not one that treats undocumented immigrants as human beings deserving compassion and fair treatment.
More to the point, this kind of transactional politics—give us a guest worker program and we’ll support beefing up the surveillance state—isn’t going to work. Once established, an “employer verification” system will be with us forever, whereas the next Congress can easily scale back or cancel the guest worker program. At the same time, advocacy for such a bargain reinforces the basic restrictionist worldview that the interests of Americans and immigrants are fundamentally opposed.
What’s needed, instead, is a serious effort to get people to think of immigrants as human beings who deserve to be treated fairly. You don’t have to be an open-borders zealot to think that we’ve been terribly unfair to Vargas and Eric Balderas. We should change the law to allow people like them earn a living not because doing so would be good for the American economy (though it would) but because we’re a country founded on the proposition that all men are created equal.
Congress is poised to pass “e-verify” legislation that will make life much worse for people like Vargas, as well as seriously inconveniencing a bunch of citizens. Libertarians like my friend Jim Harper have been beating the drum about this issue for years, and the ACLU has also been active in opposing it. But it hasn’t gotten much focus on the left more generally. And the few critiques I’ve seen have focused either on the system’s poor accuracy or the losses it would inflict on the agriculture sector.
These are both valid arguments. But I’d like to see more people—and especially more liberals—questioning the whole concept of constructing a massive surveillance system so the government can more effectively prevent people like Jose Antonio Vargas from earning a living.