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Don’t Blame the Immigrants. It’s Our Laws That Are Criminal.

Our immigration problem is that we’re not politically capable of fixing the broken system.
September 21, 2022
Don’t Blame the Immigrants. It’s Our Laws That Are Criminal.
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

America needs more immigrants, but we seem determined to shoot ourselves in the foot. Before addressing that self-sabotage, permit a small digression.

Not so very long ago, in the 1980s, Venezuela was the wealthiest country in Latin America. Did the country have problems? Of course. What country doesn’t? But sitting on about 18 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, Venezuelans enjoyed higher living standards than their neighbors, and seemed to have a stable democracy. Looks were deceiving. When the price of oil plummeted in the 1990s, the country was plunged into instability. In 1999, they elected a charismatic military officer, Hugo Chavez, who promised to redistribute the nation’s wealth and proceeded to befriend Fidel Castro and destroy the nation’s economy. He nationalized companies and farms, crushed labor unions, put opponents in prison, and seized the assets of foreign oil contractors. To tame rampant inflation, he imposed price controls, which only fueled a black market and drove the middle class from the country. Chavez succumbed to cancer in 2013, but by then Venezuela was a basket case. Today, one in three Venezuelans doesn’t get enough to eat, malnutrition among poor children is rife, and more than 75 percent of Venezuelans live in extreme poverty. It is the most abrupt collapse of a thriving nation not at war on record and a cautionary tale about what can happen when people make bad political choices.

This brings us to the United States. We are not in danger of a Venezuela-style collapse. For one thing, our economy is diversified, not dependent on one big industry, as Venezuela’s was and is. But we are flirting with populism, which means imbibing fantasies instead of rationally considering policy options. There was more than a little overlap between the appeals of Chavez and Trump.

Here’s the other Venezuela connection. Most of the 50 immigrants Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped on Martha’s Vineyard were Venezuelans who had made an arduous 2,000-mile journey. “No one leaves home,” wrote poet Warsan Shire, “unless home is the mouth of a shark.” More than 6 million Venezuelans have fled the country since Chavismo began to destroy it, finding shelter in 17 countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Around the time that Venezuela was a prosperous country, the Republican party was guided by leaders who sympathized with the plight of those fleeing oppression, and took pride in the fact that so many aspired to come here. But today’s GOP is in the grip of populists who portray desperate asylum seekers as hostile invaders. The Democrats, in this telling, are part of a conspiracy to flood the nation with immigrants who will “replace” the current dominant groups and reliably vote Democrat forever. (It’s ironic that Republicans are actually increasing their share of the Hispanic vote.)

Many on the right portray illegal immigrants as criminals who are “breaking into our house” and deserve to be treated as such. So a word about the law. Under U.S. statutes, if a migrant comes into this country, turns himself in to a border guard or other authority, and asks for political asylum, he is entitled to a hearing. Asylum seekers are not “illegal” immigrants. They are simply following the law we enacted. There are some kinds of attempted entry that are illegal. These include using a fake passport, attempting to cross the border anywhere other than a border inspection point, or attempting to enter on false pretenses. The Venezuelans that DeSantis treated so shabbily were guilty of none of those things. They were simply desperate people hoping for a better life. DeSantis didn’t see suffering human beings. He saw props. He saw Fox News coverage. (Fox, unlike the governor of Massachusetts, was tipped off in advance). And he saw the chance to show the GOP base what a jerk he could be.

The DeSantis justifiers object that border states are being flooded with illegals and that it’s unjust that red states are bearing all of the burden. But the border states are not handling it alone. The federal government has spent roughly $333 billion on border security and immigration enforcement in the past 19 years, with much of it targeted on the southern border. As for the burden of immigration, it’s debatable that immigrants represent a burden at all. Many studies show that they pay more in taxes than they cost in social services and they are more likely to work, start business, and seek patents than the native born (and less likely to commit crimes).

In any case, southern states have no monopoly on immigrants. In Texas, 17 percent of the population is foreign born. That’s about the same as Massachusetts (16.9 percent), and only somewhat higher than the District of Columbia (14 percent), another city that has been the recipient of special delivery immigrants courtesy of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. While protesting the cost of handling immigrants, Abbott has spent $12 million in taxpayer funds busing immigrants to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City. New York, as it happens, has a higher percentage of foreign born residents (23 percent) than Texas. While the typical image of an illegal immigrant is a person desperately scaling a fence or fording a river from Mexico, a large proportion—in some years, an outright majority—of illegal immigrants are those who overstay their visas.

Those who believe the propaganda that immigration is destroying America should ponder our neighbor to the north. Is Canada a hellscape? The proportion of foreign born there is 21 percent, compared to the American average of 13.7 percent.

In truth, the vast majority of would-be immigrants have done absolutely nothing wrong. It is our own laws that are the problem. Because our political system is so steeped in bile and demagoguery, we can’t adapt to changing circumstances. We desperately need workers, yet the wait for legal immigration options is years long. People ask, “Why can’t illegal immigrants wait in line?” But there is no line. We resolutely decline to accept guest workers in large numbers, who could fill jobs and return home (without affecting voting patterns, by the way). And so the only way to gain entry is to put feet on American soil and ask for asylum. Clearly, not all of those pleading for asylum meet the criteria (a well-founded fear of persecution based on being a member of a subgroup), but the system is short of courts and judges and wait times for hearings are very long. Some never show up for their hearings. And so the word has gone out around the world that if you can manage to get to the United States and present yourself to a border guard, you have at least a shot of remaining in the country either because your asylum claim will be granted or you will melt into the country and avoid deportation.

We are fortunate that so many hard-working people want to come here. If we had our act together, we would reform our laws to take many more legal immigrants (who would begin the application process in their home countries) and hire more immigration judges to hear asylum claims while clarifying that only severe cases will be eligible for that status (not economic migrants). We are an aging population with a declining birth rate. Our national spirit needs the infusion of energy and dynamism that immigrants provide. If our laws are clear, we can reduce the crush of hopefuls at the border. With more legal immigrants, our economy will thrive. Our tax receipts will increase. We’ll have the nurses, truckers, teachers, cooks, train conductors, and construction workers we desperately need. And we will be thanked and strengthened by people whose lives we save.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].