Hiding in the 40-page wasteland of paranoia and conspiracy theories that the Texas Republican Party published as its platform is a strange gem. On page 38, wedged between a recitation of Republican delusions about Benghazi and newly draconian language on immigration sits this:
The Republican Party of Texas endorses and supports the Proposed Congressional Apology to the Chinese Americans for governmental actions that denied equal rights to and adversely harmed the Chinese in America.
How that immigration “apology tour” plank made it into the platform one can only guess. Clearly, the platform itself is less a statement of the party’s core proposals than a collection of sweepings from the convention floor. There were bound to be some anomalies. That said, this little ignored provision may be surprisingly timely, even prescient.
The last time we updated our immigration scheme Reagan was in the White House. Nearly half the world, including Nicaragua, was controlled by Communists. Guatemala and El Salvador were battling Communist guerrillas. You still needed a border stamp to cross any European national boundary. We lived in a world in which both capital and labor faced serious constraints when they attempted to travel the world.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was a good idea, but it was largely a failure. The Act sought to limit the incentives to illegal immigration, impose an appropriate set of punishments on those who had flouted immigration laws, and along with those punishments, establish a path to legitimacy for those who deserved it, described as “amnesty.”
It did not make any attempt to create credible paths for legal immigration, a step desperately needed then and even more critical now. More importantly, the only really effective component of the Act was the path to citizenship. Efforts to create meaningful deterrents to hiring illegal workers were watered down beyond enforceability. Criminal penalties on employers could only be imposed under standards impossible to prove. As a result, the Act functioned as nothing more than a one-time amnesty, deferring our immigration policy challenges.
Beneath all the paranoid rancor over illegal immigration from Latin America sits an uncomfortable fact – there is no organized method of legal immigration to the US. Unless you have family here or you can get an increasingly precious corporate sponsorship, you are not coming to America without breaking the law. That is a problem and that problem is not close to being addressed.
The 1986 reforms did not even attempt to create any paths to legitimate immigration. It was an issue too contentious to address. We are still living under a bizarre, racist and ultimately pointless regimen of immigration quotas first devised as an anti-immigration tactic in the 1920’s. In 1990 we raised the cap on annual legal immigration to a whopping 700,000. That’s it. A nation of more than 330,000,000 million people with the most dynamic economy on the planet permits fewer than a million people to immigrate here legally every year.
We need immigrants. Immigration is fuel for a dynamic economy. We need doctors, scientists and computer programmers, but that’s not all. Skilled immigration will not meet all our needs.
We need the kind of people willing to trek across a desert to make a better life for their families. No one started their life as a doctor or scientist. This country was not built on boutique immigration. It was built by tough, sometimes desperate people who would work hard in pursuit of a dream. We will do ourselves a terrible disservice trying to cherry-pick immigrants.
To benefit from immigration we need a system that extends legal protection to migrants and accepts enough of them to meet our economic demands. Without access to the protections and accountability that comes from legal, documented status, immigrants undermine our labor markets and strain public services. With the right levels of accountability and without nativist efforts to hold down numbers, a freer system of documented immigration could bring massive economic improvements.
How many immigrants can we absorb each year? Ask yourself how many new businesses and taxpayers we can absorb. How much economic growth can we absorb? The logical flaw is embedded in the question itself. The assumption that immigration is somehow dangerous and destabilizing is one of the most maddening falsehoods that still lingers in our political ecosystem.
Won’t immigrants “take” American jobs? We set a fixed annual quota on the number of people we will accept as immigrants each year, but there is no fixed number of jobs in our economy. Jobs are created by ambitious people, many of whom create their own work. Republicans tend to be remarkably optimistic about the power of markets to regulate themselves until the subject pivots to immigration.
If we had a system that made it very difficult to hire illegal migrants and made it very easy for ambitious people to come here, why wouldn’t markets decide the right level of immigration? The answers people give to this question can tell an interesting, sometimes dark story.
We cannot muster the political willpower to build a sensible, pro-immigration legal framework because our talk about American principles too often outruns our faith in them. In their platform, Texas Republicans are finally ready to apologize to the Chinese for the ways we punished their efforts to come here and help make us rich and powerful. The same document seeks to impose a similar regime on Latin American migrants, driven by the same delusions, catering to the same racist fears.
What will the 2080 Texas Republican Party platform say about Rick Perry’s trip to the border? Lo siento, amigos.
We do not have to wait for history to judge us. We could decide to do something now.