The loud fight over what will happen to America’s “Dreamers” isn’t what it seems. For both sides, it’s a fig leaf used to mask their true intentions.
In his first term, Barack Obama admitted that he had no constitutional authority ("I'm president, I’m not king") to grant amnesties. Yet during his campaign for reelection in 2012 he created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which conferred a temporary reprieve from deportation to young people brought to this country as minors.
Now Democrats are demanding the preservation and institutionalization of the DACA program. One day soon, they will likely demand its expansion. They do not control either house of Congress or the presidency. They do not enjoy a majority of state legislatures and governorships. To get their way, they are counting on either favorable public opinion or threats to shut down the government.
Democrats are so focused on the 800,000 Dreamers — less than 10% of the undocumented population — because they’re politically photogenic and for now seen as the easiest group to exempt from efforts to control illegal immigration. In blanket fashion, the media consistently report that they are model youth, fulfilling their proverbial “dreams” of finishing college and achieving upward mobility.
That narrative lacks subtlety, if it’s not outright deceptive. The average age of DACA participants is now 24. Few after entering adulthood sought to address their known illegal status. Surveys suggest that most are not in school; fewer than 5% have graduated from college. Those employed earn a median hourly wage of $15.34, which means they are forced to compete on the lower end of the wage ladder. Only about a tenth of 1% of DACA youth serve in the U.S. military — fewer than 900 total.
Setting aside the reality of the Dreamer pool, the Democrats’ method of fighting for DACA suggests that they are broadly in favor of letting immigration dysfunction continue apace. Why else would they refuse to give President Trump any significant concessions in the DACA negotiations — no wall, no end to chain migration, no cessation of visa lotteries?
They know that if this generation of Dreamers gets a pass without broader reform, it will be followed by another and another, all expecting the same eventual exemptions.
Democrats once used to talk about ending outright illegal immigration. They worried that it put downward pressure on wages. They thought it eroded union efforts and sapped political support among Democrats’ blue-collar base, while overtaxing finite social services to the detriment of the American underclass.
In the current age of identity politics, a new generation of progressive Democrats has recalibrated mass illegal immigration as a godsend. Over the last 20 years, it has vastly expanded the Latino vote as well as empowered ethnic tribunes. Immigration has galvanized minority registration in general and encouraged bloc voting. One tangible result is that the American Southwest is slowly turning blue, or at least purple.
Many pre-Trump Republicans favored illegal immigration too, although for different reasons: They worried more about obtaining workers rather than future constituents and voters. The Chamber of Commerce/Wall Street wing of the GOP thus ignored the issue for the last half-century.
Inexpensive industrious workers were welcomed by the construction, landscaping, agriculture, hotel and restaurant industries. The social costs of providing parity for these workers and their dependents from the poorest regions of Mexico and Latin America — arriving for the most part without legality, English, or high school diplomas — were always passed on to the taxpayer.
Now, however, a newly ascendant conservative base objects to illegal immigration for many of the same reasons Democrats did historically. One exception, of sorts, is that even most hard-liners do not wish suddenly to deport all 10 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, at least those who have not committed crimes, are not on public assistance, are fully employed and are willing to pay fines and to learn English to obtain green cards.
The Dreamer debate is therefore an easy one for the many Beltway Republicans not truly committed to fixing our immigration system. They’re all too happy to extend de facto amnesties and won’t face much backlash for doing so; they just have to appease their constituents by championing, say, some kind of border security in exchange. The result will be a reprieve for Dreamers, a few security agreements — and no real answer for how to deal with the more than 10 million immigrants living illegally in the United States, or for how to prevent millions more from following in their footsteps.
On these larger issues of immigration, mythologies continue to dominate the conversation.
The United States is hardly a xenophobic country. Much less is it anti-Latino. As of 2015, 46.6 million people living in the United States were not born here. That is the highest number in American history — about four times greater than the number of immigrants living in any other nation on Earth. One of four California residents was not born in the United States.
Immigration is not especially diverse. About one in four immigrants in the United States arrived from one country: Mexico.
Identity politics largely governs relative immigration enforcement. Yet the current liberal idea of a sanctuary city or state in which federal immigration authorities cannot easily deport convicted alien felons is hardly progressive. The concept of defying federal laws harkens back to the antebellum nullification efforts of defiant state governments that seceded to form the Confederacy.
Certainly, California or New Mexico would resent bitterly any other state that likewise nullified the authority of federal laws. California Gov. Jerry Brown would grow irate if Utah or Alabama followed suit in defiance of Washington, declaring elements of national environmental legislation, gun registration statutes or safety standards null and void in their local and state jurisdictions.
Forgotten also are historic truths about immigration. In the past, immigration has proven a great boon to a host country — if it was legal, measured, meritocratic and diverse. That way, assimilation, integration and mastery of native languages and customs were enhanced by immigrants who in turn enriched their adopted country.
The opposite holds true of massive, illegal and nondiverse influxes of foreign nationals. The results are too often tribalism, political manipulation and factionalism, as the current multicultural and multiethnic turmoil in the Balkans, Middle East, Africa — and now Europe — attest.
Illegal immigration flourished because Democrats wanted future constituents, and Republicans sought inexpensive labor. But an irate public has had it with open borders — and both parties are scrambling to hide their past and present agendas for now by focusing on the idealized Dreamers.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is author of the “Second World Wars.”