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IMMIGRATION/ He Who Is Without Sin

Mexican immigrants march for more rights Mexican immigrants march for more rights

While it is easy to focus penalties on undocumented workers, moral responsibility for their trespasses is much more widely shared. When it is time to enjoy lower wages for unskilled workers, and the lower prices these wages make possible, we are almost all happy to share in the benefits. (Low-skilled U.S. citizens are an unhappy exception to this otherwise universal tendency.) However, when it is time to throw stones at those who have violated our laws, our anger is focused almost exclusively on the immigrants, the weakest participants in the economic web of undocumented migration, and the least able to defend themselves. Tacit support for illegal immigration spans the political spectrum. Republicans rally to defend commerce when there is a serious threat to undocumented immigration, while Democrats see each undocumented worker as a future source of electoral support. Moreover, the workers with whom the immigrants compete most directly are not unionized, limiting the adverse impact of immigration on a core constituency of the Democratic Party—if anything, the presence of undocumented workers may increase the union relative wage differential, making workers more eager to join a union. (Yet another consideration is that the low-wage U.S. citizens who are most adversely affected by undocumented immigration are already core supporters of the Democrats, unlikely to shift allegiances over changes in immigration policy.)

What does this mean for policy? On the moral plane it means that we share responsibility for a status quo in which millions, and perhaps tens of millions, of those living within our borders are here in contravention of our laws. In many cases these people have been living in our midst for decades. We are collectively complicit in this state of affairs—had the world’s premier military power wanted to control its border and prevent undocumented crossings, it would have long since done so. On moral grounds we share responsibility for violating our laws with the people we have paid to break them. We ought to share in the costs of resolving the situation.

On political grounds, blaming undocumented workers for the current immigration debacle with Mexico tends to alienate Hispanics. Make no mistake, immigrants from the Hispanophone world arrive as Mexicans, Cubans, and Salvadorians, but their children are increasingly assimilated as “Hispanics,” and a party that is perceived as opposing their interests will not enjoy their support. Thus far the Democrats have hugged the Republicans’ left flank on the issue, being just a bit softer on concrete policy, and delivering much more pro-immigrant rhetoric when it suits them. The status quo favors the Democrats and hurts the Republicans. As the Hispanic voting bloc grows, the benefits and costs of this dichotomy will weigh more heavily.