Sunday, May 21, 2006

From last Friday’s edition of The Washington Times: “The Senate voted yesterday to allow illegal aliens to collect Social Security benefits based on past illegal employment.”

Well, I think that’s the kind of moderate compromise “comprehensive immigration reform” package all Americans can support, don’t you? Some mean-spirited extremist House Republicans had proposed illegal aliens should receive 75 percent of the benefits to which they’re illegally entitled for having broken the law.

On the other hand, President Bush had proposed illegal aliens should also be able to collect Social Security benefits for any work they had done in Mexico (assuming, for the purposes of argument, there is any work to be done in Mexico).

On the other other hand, Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Ted Stevens of Alaska had added earmarks to the bill proposing that the family of Mohamed Atta should be entitled to receive survivor benefits plus an American Airlines pilot’s pension based on past illegal employment flying jets over the Northeast corridor on Tuesday mornings in late 2001.

Fortunately, the world’s greatest deliberative body was able to agree on this sensible moderate compromise.

Meanwhile, from the Associated Press: “Mexico warned Tuesday it would file lawsuits in U.S. courts if National Guard troops detain migrants on the border.”

On what basis? Posse Comitatus? It’s unconstitutional to use the U.S. military against foreign nationals before they’ve had a chance to break into the country and become fine upstanding members of the Undocumented-American community? Or is Mexico taking legal action on the broader grounds that in America it’s now illegal to enforce the law? Which, given that Senate bill, is a not unreasonable supposition.

Whatever. Under the new “comprehensive immigration reform” bill (Posse Como Estas), a posse of National Guardsmen will be stationed in the Arizona desert but only as Wal-Mart greeters to escort members of the Illegal-American community to the nearest Social Security Office to register for benefits backdated to 1973.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, in a quintessentially McCainiac contribution to the debate, angrily denied the Senate legislation was an “amnesty.” “Call it a banana if you want to,” he told his fellow world’s greatest deliberators. “To call the process that we require under this legislation amnesty frankly distorts the debate and it’s an unfair interpretation of it.”

He has a point. Technically, an “amnesty” only involves pardoning a person for a crime rather than, as this moderate compromise legislation does, pardoning him for a crime and also giving him a cash bonus for committing it. In fact, having skimmed my Webster’s, I can’t seem to find a word that does cover what the Senate is proposing, it having never previously occurred to any other society in the course of human history. Whether or not, as Mr. McCain says, we should call it a singular banana, it’s certainly plural bananas.

The senator raises an interesting point. In Confucius’ Analects, there’s a moment when Zi-lu swings by and says, “Sir, the Prince of Wei is waiting for you to conduct his state affairs. What would you do first?” And Confucius say, “It must be the rectification of characters.” By “characters,” he doesn’t mean lovable characters like Arlen Specter and Trent Lott, but “characters” in the Chinese-language sense — i.e., words. Confucius means that, if the words you’re using aren’t correct, it becomes impossible to conduct public policy. If you’re misusing language, your legislation will be false — or, as Confucius puts it, your “tortures and penalties will not be just right.” When the “torture and penalty” for breaking U.S. law over many years is that you get a big check from the U.S. government that would seem to be an almost parodic confirmation of Confucius’ point.

This is not an “immigration” issue. “Immigration” is when you go into a U.S. government office and there’s 100 people filling in paperwork to live in America, and there are a couple of Slovaks, couple of Bangladeshis, couple of New Zealanders, couple of Botswanans, couple of this, couple of that. Assimilation is not in doubt because, if you’re a lonely Slovak in Des Moines, it’s extremely difficult to stay unassimilated.

This is not an “illegal immigration” issue. That’s when one of the Slovaks or Botswanans gets tired of waiting in line for 12 years and comes in anyway, and lives and works here and doesn’t pay any taxes, so the money he earns gets sluiced around the neighborhood supermarket and gas station and topless bar and the rest of the local economy, instead of being given to Trent and Arlen and Co. to toss into the great sucking maw of the federal budget.

But a “worker class” drawn overwhelmingly from a neighboring jurisdiction with another language and ancient claims on your territory and whose people now send so much money back home in the form of “remittances” that it’s Mexico’s largest source of foreign income (bigger than oil or tourism) is not “immigration” at all, but a vast experiment in societal transformation. Indeed, given the international track record of bilingual societies and neighboring jurisdictions with territorial claims, it’s not much of an experiment so much as a safe bet on political instability.

By some counts, up to 5 percent of the U.S. population is now “undocumented.” Why? Partly because American business is so overregulated there is a compelling economic logic to employing illegals. In essence, a chunk of the American economy has seceded from the Union. But, even if you succeeded in reannexing it, a large-scale “guest worker” class entirely drawn from one particular demographic has been a recipe for disaster everywhere it’s been tried.

Fiji, for example, comprises native Fijians and ethnic Indians brought in as indentured workers by the British. If memory serves, currently 46.2 percent are native Fijians and 48.6 per cent are Indo-Fijians. In 1987, the first Indian-majority government came to power. A month later, Col. Sitiveni Rabuka staged the first of his two coups.

Don’t worry, I’m not predicting any coups just yet. But, even in relatively peaceful bicultural societies, politics becomes tribal: loyalists vs nationalists in Northern Ireland, separatists vs federalists in Quebec. Sometimes the differences are huge — as between, say, anything-goes pothead bisexual Dutch swingers and anti-gay anti-drugs anti-prostitution Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands.

But sometimes the differences can be comparatively modest and still destabilizing. Pointing out that America has a young fast-growing Hispanic population and an aging non-Hispanic population, The Washington Post’s Bob Samuelson wrote, “We face a future of unnecessarily heightened political and economic conflict.”

The key words are “unnecessarily heightened,” In Europe, the political class sowed the seeds of massive social upheaval for the most shortsighted reasons. If America’s political class wants to do the same, it could at least have the integrity to discuss the issue in honest terms.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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