The collapse of Iraq and the slow-burning Islamic civil war managed to push one of the most important stories so far in the midterm election season off of the front pages. As you may have heard, on Tuesday, June 10, Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader, was defeated in his primary contest by economics professor David Brat. Cantor became the first sitting majority leader to be defeated since the position was created in 1899. And before losing interest and moving on to bigger and better things, the Beltway press called the defeat a “genuine electoral earthquake.”
There were, of course, several causes for Cantor’s defeat, and attributing it to one factor obscures the genuine, large-scale problems that face the GOP establishment and the ruling class more broadly. Still, one critical issue highlighted by Cantor’s meltdown is the current state of U.S. immigration law. For a variety of reasons, over the past couple of years, Cantor, more than any other Republican politician, has come to be associated with the push for “amnesty.” Whether this is a fair assessment of the Majority Leader’s position is largely irrelevant. The GOP establishment supports immigration “reform” that would deliver de facto amnesty, and Cantor is one of the most prominent faces of the GOP establishment.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said that it supports a “comprehensive” solution to the illegal immigration question for a variety of reasons. Specifically, the Conference’s Migration and Refugee Services/Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs put it this way last year:
The Catholic Catechism instructs the faithful that good government has two duties, both of which must be carried out and neither of which can be ignored. The first duty is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, especially financially blessed nations. . . .
The second duty is to secure one’s border and enforce the law for the sake of the common good.
This is a decent and fair position. It is also, unfortunately, rather platitudinous. We’d suggest, in fact, that all sides in the current policy debate agree with this position, or at least they’d describe their positions in similar terms. The bishops’ basic premise is, by and large, unobjectionable.
Indeed, we’d suggest that Eric Cantor’s position – the position that helped lead him to the unemployment line – was precisely in line with the bishops’ statement and therefore was also by and large unobjectionable. So why, then, did that position help cost him his job?
At the risk of being platitudinous in our own right, we would begin the discussion by noting that in the case of public policy, the devil is in the details, which is to say that the implementation of an unobjectionable idea in theory is often quite objectionable in practice. And so it is with immigration reform.
The biggest mistake that both Cantor and the Conference of Bishops make in their assessment of the immigration problem is one of the classic mistakes in the formation of policy, namely ignoring the incentives the policy creates. Consider, if you will, what the Conference says about the cause of the illegal immigration crisis:
Survival has thus become the primary impetus for unauthorized immigration flows into the United States. Today’s unauthorized immigrants are largely low?skilled workers who come to the United States for work to support their families. . . .
In light of all of this, many unauthorized consider the prospect of being apprehended for crossing illegally into the United States a necessary risk. [sic] Even after being arrested and deported, reports indicate that many immigrants attempt to re?enter the United States once again in the hope of bettering their lives.
Again, this is a fair and decent point, but it is also one-sided in that it completely ignores the incentives that American immigration policy creates and the impact that those incentives can have on potential migrants. As it turns out, the contemporary evidence indicates American policy and its attendant incentives have a far greater impact than almost anyone – Cantor included – has heretofore been willing to acknowledge. A recent report written by Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector of Texas, based on interviews with some 230 immigrants, distilled the incentives question rather clearly:
The main reason the subjects chose this particular time to migrate to the United States was to take advantage of the “new” U.S. “law” that grants a “free pass” or permit (referred to as “permisos”) being issued by the U.S. government to female adult OTMs traveling with minors and to UACs. (Comments: The “permisos” are the Notice to Appear documents issued to undocumented aliens, when they are released on their own recognizance pending a hearing before an immigration judge.) The information is apparently common knowledge in Central America and is spread by word of mouth, and international and local media. A high percentage of the subjects interviewed stated their family members in the U.S. urged them to travel immediately, because the United States government was only issuing immigration “permisos” until the end of June 2014 . . . The issue of “permisos” was the main reason provided by 95% of the interviewed subjects.
(For those unaccustomed to the alphabet soup of immigration, OTM and UAC are border guard shorthand for “Other Than Mexican” and “UnAccompanied Child.”)
Now, to be fair, this doesn’t mean that immigrants aren’t leaving their homes in Latin America for the reasons that the Conference of Bishops enumerate. Not by any measure. It does mean, though, that the current and prospective policies of the American government need to be predicated on the impact that they will have on prospective immigrants, particularly on their willingness to endure what the Conference rightly calls the “dangerous nature of crossing the [American] Southern border.”
In a political context, it also means that anyone who ignores this impact, who discounts the incentives created by American policy, will be held accountable for the adverse effects that said policy fosters. Eric Cantor found this out the hard way. One presumes that a great many more members of the political establishment will find this out as well, over the next few years, if they continue to discuss immigration reform while patently ignoring the incentives created by the reform proposal.
It almost (almost!) goes without saying that everyone involved in the immigration debate wants to arrive at a policy solution that permits the United States to accommodate the human rights of men and women to better their lives, to provide for their families, and to migrate to this country in pursuit of these ends. It should also go without saying, though, that such an accommodation is hardly a simple matter and, more to the point, that the current efforts to create the same have proved wanting, both from a policy perspective and from a moral perspective.