To Be an American
For many, illegal workers are a rebuke to dutiful citizenship.

Thursday, June 7, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

People tend to regard the idea of "democratic" politics with high reverence, when in practice it consists most of the time of the right of any citizen to describe one's opponent as an idiot, or worse. With the illegal immigration debate, this sacred right is being exercised with uncommon vigor. Standing at the center of this democracy of accused dunces, the elected politician serves as the punching bag for all. So it is almost touching, even archaic amid the current political culture, to see the lengths to which these politicians go, as in the current immigration debate, to remain outwardly civil in public.

At the Republican debate at St. Anselm's College the other night, much of it about the immigration bill in Congress, Sen. John McCain spoke of his immigration legislation as an attempt at common purpose: "We've done exactly what you expect us to do, my friends, and that is come together." After Mr. McCain took a mild shot at Gov. Mitt Romney's fluid positions on immigration, Mr. Romney chose to be, well, civil: "He's my friend. He campaigned for me two times."

The truth is that if Gov. Romney's public stance on "temporary Z visas" for illegal workers has migrated from support to opposition, it has little to do with civility and a lot to do with the blowtorch of opposition from Republicans to anything--from A to Z--having to do with illegal workers from Mexico or Latin America.

Indeed the proprietor of this column was released from the burn ward just days ago after arguing last week in this space that some 12 million illegal workers employed by seven or eight U.S. industries across numerous states was an important market signal and that it was not in the interests of conservatives to dismiss market forces as irrelevant.

One of the first of many emails to breach the asbestos shield around our Outlook Inbox stated the author's opinion of my views with unsurpassable democratic eloquence: "I am shocked, shocked that the U.S.'s last great conservative rag would have a blind spot big enough to drive a Mexican truck through when it comes to the issue of immigration!" A reader from Illinois said: "It is not a balance between respect for the law and respect for work as you suggest. It is about fixing broken systems that currently demote both values."

What do these folks want?

They want the borders secured, the laws obeyed, English spoken, taxes paid, costs raised on employers of illegal workers, welfare payments suppressed, enclaved Spanish neighborhoods broken up and a very, very long path to citizenship. In the current debate, these complaints pour forth almost randomly, based on whichever datapoint needs to be refuted.

To those of us on the other side of the argument, a lot of this often seems unsupported, contradictory, impossible to achieve or confused. Wherever the truth lies, whenever a political movement like this erupts and takes root in most regions of the country, some primary American nerve has been touched. What we've hit here is the country's central nervous system--the idea of citizenship.

When the largest national debates emerge, such as this is one, it seems necessary to roll out the biggest cannons in the American arsenal; and so no surprise that the Potomac is alight now with the booming retorts of "sovereignty" and "the rule of law." Grand ideas, so grand that nothing our politics produces can possibly measure up, certainly not this immigration bill.

"Citizenship" is the better path to arriving at an understanding of what animates the opposition and allowing the political system, as Sen. McCain said the other night, "to act."

The word "citizen" is everywhere in the immigrant discussion, but it blows by as if its full meaning were obvious. But it is not obvious because it's a lot more than just an idea. For many people, being born in the United States is just the beginning of citizenship. Genuine American citizenship is about a lot more than that. It's doing what's required to maintain all the communities, large and small, that constitute the 50 states.

This is what former House Speaker Tip O'Neill really meant when he said "all politics is local." It's about being willing to put in the time to deal with local tax issues, zoning fights, school-board controversies, battles over utility rights of way, traffic lights--all the stuff that runs beneath the Big Media radar but is what really constitutes the bedrock of American politics for most people. This is what citizens do. The problem for many people with the illegal workers, no matter how hard they work, is that they exist entirely outside the complications of civic life for an American citizen. And they appear to do so more or less permanently. For many, this makes the illegal-worker status quo a rebuke to the idea of dutiful citizenship.

That is an understandable and even defensible point of view. What remains is what to do about it. The American "community" taking matters into its own hands, the vigilantism of the Minuteman Project, went out of fashion in the U.S. about 50 years ago. Nor is there any chance, as some Republicans desire, that a Congress in our time is going to enact an employer hiring ban whose implicit goal is to force many millions of people to leave the country.

There are at least 12.5 million illegal Hispanic-origin workers in the U.S. now. If the opponents want at least 6 million of them out of the U.S., they should write up legislation that will achieve that goal, tell the American people that this is indeed the explicit purpose and then let voters convey their desires to the Members of Congress.

If expulsion is not the goal but if "unearned" citizenship remains intolerable (and politically, that may well be so), then the one feasible option is for the political system to create a temporary guest-worker program that rises and falls with the tides of the U.S. economy.

There can't be too many people in this debate more upset with the status quo than those who emailed me about last week's column. What galled these readers, often small businesspeople, was the feeling of rank unfairness; they incur costs for liability and workers comp, which they believe the hirers of illegals evade. However angry, most of these Journal readers want to move forward, not back, as summarized here: "By the way, this doesn't make me anti-immigrant or a racist, either. If labor shortages are that big of an issue then lobby to adjust our legal immigration and work visa policies." Agreed.