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Immigration And Incentives, Redux

If you dig through the archives of this blog, you’ll note that little over a year ago, I penned a piece [1] about Eric Cantor, then the House Majority Leader, who had just lost the right to defend his seat in last November’s midterm election, having been beaten in the Republican primary by college professor David Brat.  There were many reasons why Congressman Cantor, the second-most powerful House Republican in Washington, lost in such an historic fashion.  But as I wrote at the time, “one critical issue highlighted by Cantor’s meltdown is the current state of U.S. immigration law.”  I continued:

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 implicit point of that blog post – and, more to the point, of Cantor’s stunning primary defeat – was to warn the leaders of the GOP that their policy on immigration was woefully inadequate.  And if they didn’t fix those problems, if they didn’t address them forthrightly, decently, and in keeping with the principles of this nation, they would suffer the consequences.

As Donald Trump solidifies and expands his lead in Republican presidential primary polls, they are suffering now.

Whatever else he may be, Donald Trump is the Republican voters’ collective response to their party’s inability to address the question of immigration.  They told pollsters for years that they were unhappy with the way the party establishment handled most issues, immigration especially.  They tried their very best to send the party leaders a message.  They knocked the sitting House majority Leader out in a primary contest, for crying out loud.

But their pleas fell on deaf ears.  When the Inside-the-Beltway crowd addressed immigration at all, it was to support a “comprehensive” plan that the voters hated.  So when Donald Trump came along and said that he’d not only fix the problem but would make someone else pay for it, he found a ready and willing constituency.  And he has also found himself evolving from a joke candidate to the front-runner, a guy who suddenly looks like a legitimate threat to upend the entire Republican Party and perhaps the entire political establishment as well.

In many ways, Donald Trump is the most fascinating and exciting thing to happen in American politics in years.  He is blunt.  He is brash.  He speaks his mind and is unwilling to bow before the gods of political correctness.  He is quick-witted.  He is lively and engaging.  He is the opposite of what we have come to think of as the stereotypical politician.

The problems with Trump’s candidacy, however, are manifold.  It is devoid of nuance.  It is devoid of concrete or workable policy solutions.  It is devoid of any understanding of economics or the limitations of the chief executive in a constitutional republic.  Worst of all, perhaps, it is devoid genuine human compassion.

As I noted last year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had expressed its support for a comprehensive solution to the immigration problem in this country by citing the Catholic Catechism and its specific references to basic human dignity.  To wit:

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.  Sovereign nations have the right to enforce their laws and all persons must respect the legitimate exercise of this right: “Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption.  Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.”

Again, as I argued last year, this is specific enough to demand action, but vague enough to allow politicians considerable leeway.  Almost every proposal made by any politician anywhere could have been molded to fit the Bishops’ appeal.  Or at least every proposal made before Donald Trump’s.

The American people have told pollsters over and over and over again that they support a wall, a fence, or some sort of border barrier to restrict illegal immigration.  They also support deporting illegal immigrants who are convicted of committing felonies.  All of this is, or at least could be, consistent with the Bishops’ letter and the Catholic Catechism.  Unfortunately, nobody in either party offered such a solution; nobody provided the American people with a plan that both satisfied their concerns and advanced sound public policy.  And so instead, Donald Trump filled the void, proposing a solution that goes far beyond the public’s expressed desires, advances disastrous public policy, and, at the same time, makes a mockery of the human dignity the Bishops sought and seek to protect.

Last week, Trump released his long-awaited policy proposal on immigration.  It was, to say the least, a disheartening document.  Although the proposal contains no mention of mass deportations, Trump himself told NBC’s Chuck Todd that he would try to keep immigrant families together, but only by deporting citizen-children along with their illegal-immigrant parents.  “They have to go,” Trump declared.  Add to this fact that Trump wants to round up and re-process (at the very least) all 11 million-plus illegal immigrants in this country, his “plan,” such as it is, is little more than a recipe for the creation of a massive police state.

Most estimates for the cost of the Trump plan – in dollars, resources, and personnel – indicate that we, as a nation, will have to spend some $100 to $300 billion over ten to twenty years with the creation of some 10,000 new federal law enforcement positions dedicated exclusively to the “hunt” for illegal immigrants.  If all of this sounds absurd, consider that it is all IN ADDITION to clear violations of the 14th Amendment, mass invasions of privacy, and painfully regressive economic actions.  There is a reason, in short, that the columnist David Harsanyi called the Trump plan “hardcore porn for nativists.”

Last summer, when I wrote here about Eric Cantor and his incredible fall from political grace, I did so in the context of noting that incentives matter, that when political, social and religious leaders foster conditions that encourage specific behavior, they are likely to see that behavior as a result.  This is, perhaps, the simplest and most unremitting law of human behavior.  Incentives matter.

In the case of the Republican establishment, they fostered conditions in which the people were desperate for a solution to a problem but in which no solution was ever to be forthcoming.  In essence, they created the incentives for a radical nativist politician to fill a policy vacuum.  And unsurprisingly, they got precisely that.