A border bonfire smolders


THERE ARE two obvious ways to save the bankrupt liberal radio network Air America: Get Al Franken some new, funny material and hire a Lou Dobbs. I say “a Lou Dobbs” because the CNN host himself is probably too expensive, but his limousine populism is pretty easy to rip off: “Blah, blah, blah. Corporations are out to get you, Washington has sold you out, the fat cats have declared war on the little guy” and so on.

The only hitch for liberals is that the “and so on” deals with illegal immigration, the issue that serves as the glue for American populist anger today. But liberals and Democrats refuse to say anything serious on the topic. I’m rooting for the conservative Republicans, but they have a hitch of their own: The leadership of their own party stands in their way. As a result, neither party is able to own the issue, for now.

This weird logjam, as the word implies, has a lot of logs to it. The first log is corporations, which like illegal immigrants. Corporations generally support Republicans and centrist Democrats, and that makes the pols wary of tackling the issue head-on.


Then there’s a whole set of logs on the left. Identity-politics fanatics have welcomed the undocumented as the Coalition of the Oppressed. Major universities, the editorial pages of the leading newspapers, some Christian denominations, Latino activists and various allied groups have bought into the idea that there’s something fundamentally illegitimate or icky about trying to stem the tide of immigrants who come here illegally.

There are other random logs. There are libertarians who think that the principles and benefits of free trade apply to the unrestricted movements of workers just as surely as to wheat and transistors. There are neoconservatives of Jewish or Irish Catholic descent who believe that the heroic narrative of the United States as a nation of immigrants will be desecrated if the U.S. actually performs one of the minimal requirements of a modern nation-state and controls its own borders.

Jam all the logs together and you have campus leftists aligned with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Nancy Pelosi with George W. Bush and with the Wall Street Journal, all standing shoulder-to-shoulder to block serious immigration reform.

With the important exception of working-class Latinos (legal and illegal), one thing that unites all of these people is that they are members of the economic and social elite. It doesn’t matter that most of them can’t stand each other on most issues. When it comes to immigration, they have settled on a marriage of convenience.

The worry is that this leaves a lot of room for populists, rabble rousers and opportunists to exploit immigration — as Jean-Marie Le Pen and his ilk have done across Europe. This vacuum is unsustainable. More than anything else, politicians like popular issues. Eventually someone will figure out how to claim the emotional power of the immigration issue, for one party or the other.

Dobbs gets good ratings, so CNN — normally a home to lily-livered moderate liberalism — gives him free rein to do his blow-dried populist act. A politician with a similar act can’t be far off.

That’s why I hope the GOP will succeed at heading off the slide into demagoguery. The political incentive is clearly there. Already, most congressional Republicans are running essentially on the motto coined by David Frum: “Stop the Bush amnesty plan — vote Republican.” And just this week, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), an immigration hard-liner who coauthored the 700-mile border fence bill, announced that he’s running for president. If immigration weren’t such a huge issue, it’s inconceivable that the idea would have even occurred to him.

Hunter is dismissed by liberal critics, but a responsible political class would recognize the danger that the kindling of immigration could become a bonfire if ignored.

That’s one reason why I reluctantly came out in favor of a fence on the border. Sure, the symbolism to the world is bad. But it would send Americans the message that elites are serious about an issue millions of Americans care about, and justifiably so.

The conservative argument against illegal immigration is grounded mostly in civics: What kind of nation should we be? Who gets to be a citizen and how do we decide such things? The liberal argument is enmeshed largely in statist and egalitarian economics. As with Dobbs’ rants, it’s of a piece with protectionism and economic populism. If the GOP takes the issue off the table, conservative economics is less likely to be poisoned by such thinking. If the Democrats seize the issue, populist economic policies will be the price Americans pay for border security.

Conservatives can plausibly argue for increased legal immigration even as we clamp down on illegal immigration. Economic populists can’t because their whole argument hinges on immigration’s alleged negative effects on wages. Democrats would benefit from turning right on immigration, but the result would be a Dobbsian nightmare.