Charen: Don’t blame the immigrants; it’s our laws that are criminal
America needs more immigrants, but we seem determined to shoot ourselves in the foot. Before addressing that self-sabotage, permit a small digression.
In the 1980s, Venezuela was the wealthiest country in Latin America. Sitting on about 18% of the world’s proven oil reserves, Venezuelans enjoyed higher living standards than their neighbors and seemed to have a stable democracy. Looks were deceiving. When the price of oil plummeted in the 1990s, the country was plunged into instability. In 1999, they elected a charismatic military officer, Hugo Chavez, who promised to redistribute the nation’s wealth and proceeded to befriend Fidel Castro and destroy the nation’s economy. He nationalized companies and farms, crushed labor unions, put opponents in prison and seized the assets of foreign oil contractors. Chavez succumbed to cancer in 2013, but by then Venezuela was a basket case. Today, 1 in 3 Venezuelans doesn’t get enough to eat, malnutrition among poor children is rife, and more than 75% of Venezuelans live in extreme poverty. It is the most abrupt collapse of a thriving nation not at war on record and a cautionary tale about what can happen when people make bad political choices.
Most of the 50 immigrants Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped on Martha’s Vineyard were Venezuelans who had made an arduous 2,000-mile journey. “No one leaves home,” wrote poet Warsan Shire, “unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
Many on the right portray illegal immigrants as criminals who are “breaking into our house” and deserve to be treated as such. Under U.S. statutes, if a migrant comes into this country, turns himself in to a border guard or other authority and asks for political asylum, he is entitled to a hearing. Asylum seekers are not “illegal” immigrants.
DeSantis didn’t see suffering human beings. He saw props. He saw Fox News coverage. (Fox, unlike the governor of Massachusetts, was tipped off in advance.) And he saw the chance to show the GOP base what a jerk he could be.
The DeSantis justifiers object that border states are being flooded with illegals and that it’s unjust that red states are bearing all of the burden. But the border states are not handling it alone. The federal government has spent roughly $333 billion on border security and immigration enforcement in the past 19 years, with much of it targeted on the southern border. As for the burden of immigration, it’s debatable that immigrants represent a burden at all. Many studies show that they pay more in taxes than they cost in social services and they are more likely to work, start business and seek patents than the native-born (and less likely to commit crimes).
Those who believe the propaganda that immigration is destroying America should ponder our neighbor to the north. Is Canada a hellscape? The proportion of foreign-born there is 21%, compared to the American average of 13.7%.
In truth, the vast majority of would-be immigrants have done absolutely nothing wrong. It is our own laws that are the problem. We desperately need workers, yet the wait for legal immigration options is years long. People ask, “Why can’t illegal immigrants wait in line?” But there is no line. We resolutely decline to accept guest workers in large numbers, who could fill jobs and return home (without affecting voting patterns, by the way). And so the only way to gain entry is to put feet on American soil and ask for asylum. Clearly, not all of those pleading for asylum meet the criteria (a well-founded fear of persecution), but the system is short of courts and judges and wait times for hearings are very long. Some never show up for their hearings. And so the word has gone out around the world that if you can manage to get to the United States and present yourself to a border guard, you have at least a shot of remaining in the country either because your asylum claim will be granted or you will melt into the country and avoid deportation.
We are fortunate that so many hardworking people want to come here. If we had our act together, we would reform our laws to take many more legal immigrants (who would begin the application process in their home countries) and hire more immigration judges to hear asylum claims while clarifying that only severe cases will be eligible for that status (not economic migrants). We are an aging population with a declining birth rate. Our national spirit needs the infusion of energy and dynamism that immigrants provide. And we will be thanked and strengthened by people whose lives we save.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her most recent book is “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense.”