- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009




The specter of terrorism and tough economic times, have brought the immigration debate to the forefront of American politics in a big way. The average citizen sees the flood of immigrants entering the country as a symbol of the lack of border security in the midst of a particularly dangerous time for America.

In addition, the growth in illegal immigration is seen as diluting the value of citizenship, cheapening the labor pool, and leading to a lower standard of life for actual citizens. Some of the rhetoric surrounding the debate has unfortunately resorted to anti-ethnic bigotry, but the fundamentals come down to jobs and security. Thus, the reaction to the current wave of immigration has been similar to those of prior waves of migration: the new lumps in our stew froth and steam, and sometime bubble over, in the melting process that is American society.

The schizophrenia over how to act on this issue has resulted in the government agencies overseeing immigration becoming so bogged down in bureaucracy and politics that they have lost both the capability and the willingness to carry out the basic immigrations laws.

Thus, for illegal immigrants seeking jobs in this country, there is actually a disincentive to playing by the rules. They know that if they report voluntarily, their applications for work permits, etc., might become eternally ensnared within the system, putting them in limbo as they await their fate.

Many would much rather take the chance of detection and possible deportation rather than place their livelihoods in the hands of some intractable government bureaucracy. On the other hand businesses, which increasingly rely on immigrant labor, have struggled to come up with a way to comply with the law while meeting their bottom line. It is a frustrating situation all the way around.

In a very interesting way, the immigration quandary poses a deep question about the nature and viability of American democracy as we know it. On the one hand, Americans continue to view citizenship within the nation-state as a prerequisite to the full enjoyment of the rights, privileges and responsibilities that have come to characterize the American way of life.

On the other hand, the basis of our economic system seems to require labor input at conditions of less than perfect liberty. Whether in the form of outsourcing jobs abroad, or the tacit agreement between government and corporate America to turn a blind eye to undocumented workers, we find ourselves deriving a large part of our livelihoods and consumer goods from cheap labor.

As it plays abroad, we attempt to break down the door to markets such as China, and open our markets to goods from these countries, yet find ourselves compromised when it comes to demanding that these countries respect the labor rights of its citizens.

We are loathe to insist as a precondition of trade that China adopt minimum wage, maximum work week, and worker safety, because we are attracted to the price at which we can purchase labor and the goods that only semi-slave labor can afford.

We have made the pragmatic decision in the past to form relationships with repressive regimes and therefore secure oil and other resources, only to have it bite us in the rear later on down the road.

At home, we have a tough time speaking with one voice about illegal immigration and its potential pitfalls because we are in love with the strong work ethic and skills we can employ at cheap wages - wages depressed because undocumented workers have few options and cannot complain about low pay and poor working conditions without fear of deportation.

What are the long-term implications of such a disjointed practice on the American polity? If measures are not taken soon to resolve this discrepancy, the problems will continue to get out of hand as immigrants have children who, by virtue of their American birth, have citizenship and can vote when they become old enough. And these children will grow up in a world in which their parents’ labor and civil rights are disrespected.

These children born here of illegal immigrants eventually will realize the game being played and resent it. When they come of age as a population, especially in an America that will be a nation in which minorities will constitute collectively a new majority, how will the state react? Will this spell an end to democracy as we know it?

The question comes down fundamentally to who we are as a nation. Are we capitalists at the core, who happen to enjoy a democratic-styled government geared to the elite, or are we really a democracy that upholds democratic principles first, and encompasses under these principles a market-based economy? The bottom line is that capitalism is not a fundamental virtue, whereas liberty, and its political ally, democracy, really are. Any steps we take now to reinforce the democratic process will ultimately help, not hinder, our country as we move to a future with people of all backgrounds sharing the American space.

Armstrong Williams’ column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.

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