The Carrot and Stick of ImmigrationColumnsFeaturedPolicyPolitics

If you believe reliable new polling that reveals a stunning reversal in the attitudes of Republicans on immigration, the debate on whether to grant de facto amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants has clearly shifted.

The immigration reform bill sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, the only Republican with “street cred” on the issue, will soon be front and center, but we can not afford to pass it without a willingness to consider what should be the single most important element of immigration: productivity.

The truth is that most immigrants, legal and illegal, are here for opportunities they could not get in their native lands.  Most are here to try and make a better life for themselves and their families.  Most are here to work.  And not just to work as hard as those who were born here.  But harder, because they come to bat in the first inning down a few runs.  And they know it, but choose to make a life here anyway.

At the same time, we’re in the midst of a startling expansion of an already large welfare state to include government-controlled health care.  This provides exactly the same wrong incentives for immigrants as they do for everyone else.  The ever-expanding entitlement culture encourages dependency and rewards failure, thus implicitly discouraging and shrinking productivity.

The problem is already manifest.  The Center for Immigration Studies reports that, as of the 2010 census, 43 percent of immigrants who lived in the U.S. for 20 years were receiving government assistance; nearly double the rates of natural-born citizens.

These immigrants are actually encouraged in their dependency by the left, which sees a treasure trove of add-on votes for their side in almost any immigration reform.  After all, the type of reform we are considering will hardly make existing law more harsh.  Quite the opposite, whether you want to call it amnesty or not.

The question we should be asking is whether the millions of illegal immigrants already here, and those bound to come once immigration laws are liberalized, represent a net plus or net minus to American society.

The answer lies in productivity.  American greatness, even exceptionalism, was built on a foundation of productivity at all levels of the social strata.  We have always worked exceptionally hard.  And immigrant populations have traditionally been among the hardest working and most productive.

It is also true that many or most immigrants have an even greater love for America than those of us born here and whose families arrived long ago, because they have actively chosen, and sacrificed, to live here.  Unlike so many of us, they do not take America for granted.

It is said that immigrants will do work that Americans will no longer do.  At a minimum, we can all agree it is work that Americans no longer want to do, but must be done.  Extrapolate on that reality, and you will know why it is also said that the economies of California and Texas, and perhaps other states, would collapse without abundant immigrant labor.

Put all of these factors together, and they would seem to outweigh a lack of obedience to laws which those illegally crossing the border or overstaying their visas have had no motivation to obey.

At the same time, we have an e pluribus unum problem that makes the whole issue more complicated.  The left continues to turn our melting pot into a mosaic, sacrificing a common cultural identity at the altar of diversity for its own sake, polarizing the nation by partitioning it into ethnic and racial subcultures.

In fact, we have multiple, interconnected problems on the immigration front.  But unless we first figure out what to do with those already here illegally, we will never get around to addressing border security, sanctions for businesses which hire illegals and the tracking of immigrants, not to mention reforming legal immigration.

Even those who favor deportation of every single illegal immigrant must admit it will never come close to happening because of both practical and political considerations.  Assuming we can work past the important fact that these illegal immigrants have broken our laws simply by being here – a diminished yet still daunting hurdle in a bitterly partisan political climate –  we are effectively left with no choice but to employ the carrot and stick, and pursue a policy that is in the best American tradition, sorting out not so much Hispanics from Asians, or Europeans from Middle Easterners, but the productive from the non-productive.

We should not only reward, but embrace those who have proven they will play by the rules, work hard, be productive, have willing sponsors and serve as a net plus to society.

But equally important is a willingness to deport those who refuse to comply with liberalized immigration law.  For to enforce liberalized laws haphazardly will only provide encouragement to potential illegal border-crossers.  That is exactly what happened the last time we adopted immigration reform in 1986.  Three million previously illegal immigrants were reclassified as legal, promised enhancements to border security never materialized, and the number of new illegals is now more than triple the amount of those given amnesty 17 years ago.

It used to be a safe assumption that anyone who emigrated to America was prepared to work hard.  In an ever-more dependent society, we now are in need of those kind of productive people more than ever, and can not afford to care what their ethnic identity happens to be.  And we are equally in need of rejecting those who burden our already overburdened welfare state by refusing to be obedient and productive.

So here is the message to the illegal immigrants who stand to benefit from liberalized immigration policy: If you want us to pardon your law breaking, you better obey the letter of any new laws, and join the productive sector of society.  If you do, you’re welcome here.  If you don’t, you’re not.