Americans are aware that their political class may not always act in their best interest. This belief is enshrined in the American character, its laws, and the very philosophy underpinning the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers crafted things so that the “knaves” will be forced to abide by the will of the people, but they warned that their “natural progress” is to find ways to remain in power and increase that power at the people’s expense. They therefore also urged eternal vigilance, spiritedness, and the occasional revolt of the people.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others got it right—the knaves have, by and large, behaved, and their actions largely reflect in some way the will of the American people. Americans do not need to engage their politicians in an uncivil way—as happens most elsewhere—since the ballot box, the media, and other constitutional tools largely suffice. Indeed, the American political system works remarkably well. However, there are a handful of topics where the elites do not act in the interests of those they govern. Of these, the most notorious is the contentious issue of immigration. Why are politicians so keen on mass immigration while the common American is not? This has perplexed analysts.
When I aided the foreign relations of presidential candidate and president-elect Vicente Fox back in 1999 and 2000, I met with almost 80 U.S. congressmen and senators during numerous trips and at several events. With just over 50 of them, my colleagues and I spoke about immigration in some depth, as it is one of the important bilateral topics. My findings were reported in a Backgrounder published by the Center for Immigration Studies called “Politics by Other Means.”1 It is a dense and academic paper, but the basic finding was: Indeed, American politicians are overwhelmingly pro-immigration, for a variety of reasons, and they do not always admit this to their constituents. Of those 50 legislators, 45 were unambiguously pro-immigration, even asking us at times to “send more.” This was true of both Democrats and Republicans.
These empirical findings seemed to confirm what some analysts without that level of access termed as a political “perfect storm” of widespread political-elite support for immigration despite its general unpopularity with the average American. The paradox is that immigration is the only issue (perhaps besides trade policy) that represents a notorious discrepancy between elite and popular opinion in the United States.2 But this contradicts the established conventional wisdom of a representative democracy such as the United States. If mass immigration from Latin America has debatable benefits for the United States as a whole, if a majority of the American people is against it, and if immigrants cannot vote until they become naturalized (which can take years after their arrival), why would nine-tenths of the legislators we spoke with be so keen on increasing immigration?
Before these encounters, I believed that it was a problem of either diffusion of responsibility, “creeping non-decision,” or collective rationalization with those legislators, but that was dispelled the more of them we met. Most of them seemed to be aware of the negative or at least doubtful consequences of mass immigration from Latin America, while still advocating mass immigration.3
The familiar reasons usually discussed by the critics were there: Democrats wanted increased immigration because Latin American immigrants tend to vote Democrat once naturalized (we did not meet a single Democrat that was openly against mass immigration); and Republicans like immigration because their sponsors (businesses and churches) do. But there were other, more nuanced reasons that we came upon, usually not discussed by the critics, and probably more difficult to detect without the type of access that we, as a Mexican delegation, had.
Their “Natural Progress”
Of a handful of motivations, one of the main ones (even if unconscious) of many of these legislators can be found in what the U.S. Founding Fathers called “usurpation.” Madison, Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and others devised a system and embedded the Constitution with mechanisms to thwart the “natural” tendency of the political class to usurp power—to become a permanent elite lording over pauperized subjects, as was the norm in Europe at the time. However, the Founding Fathers seem to have based the logic of their entire model on the independent character of the American folk. After reviewing the different mechanisms and how they would work in theory, they wrote in the Federalist Papers that in the end, “If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America . . . ”4 With all his emphasis on reason and civic virtue as the basis of a functioning and decentralized democratic polity, Jefferson speculated whether Latin American societies could be governed thus.5
While Democratic legislators we spoke with welcomed the Latino vote, they seemed more interested in those immigrants and their offspring as a tool to increase the role of the government in society and the economy. Several of them tended to see Latin American immigrants and even Latino constituents as both more dependent on and accepting of active government programs and the political class guaranteeing those programs, a point they emphasized more than the voting per se. Moreover, they saw Latinos as more loyal and “dependable” in supporting a patron-client system and in building reliable patronage networks to circumvent the exigencies of political life as devised by the Founding Fathers and expected daily by the average American.
Republican lawmakers we spoke with knew that naturalized Latin American immigrants and their offspring vote mostly for the Democratic Party, but still most of them (all except five) were unambiguously in favor of amnesty and of continued mass immigration (at least from Mexico). This seemed paradoxical, and explaining their motivations was more challenging. However, while acknowledging that they may not now receive their votes, they believed that these immigrants are more malleable than the existing American: That with enough care, convincing, and “teaching,” they could be converted, be grateful, and become dependent on them. Republicans seemed to idealize the patron-client relation with Hispanics as much as their Democratic competitors did. Curiously, three out of the five lawmakers that declared their opposition to amnesty and increased immigration (all Republicans), were from border states.
Also curiously, the Republican enthusiasm for increased immigration also was not so much about voting in the end, even with “converted” Latinos. Instead, these legislators seemingly believed that they could weaken the restraining and frustrating straightjacket devised by the Founding Fathers and abetted by American norms. In that idealized “new” United States, political uncertainty, demanding constituents, difficult elections, and accountability in general would “go away” after tinkering with the People, who have given lawmakers their privileges but who, like a Sword of Damocles, can also “unfairly” take them away. Hispanics would acquiesce and assist in the “natural progress” of these legislators to remain in power and increase the scope of that power. In this sense, Republicans and Democrats were similar.
While I can recall many accolades for the Mexican immigrants and for Mexican-Americans (one white congressman even gave me a “high five” when recalling that Californian Hispanics were headed for majority status), I remember few instances when a legislator spoke well of his or her white constituents. One even called them “rednecks,” and apologized to us on their behalf for their incorrect attitude on immigration. Most of them seemed to advocate changing the ethnic composition of the United States as an end in itself. Jefferson and Madison would have perhaps understood why this is so—enthusiasm for mass immigration seems to be correlated with examples of undermining the “just and constitutional laws” they devised.
Those that have come out supporting amnesty are also associated with other attempts to undermine the Jeffersonian and Madisonian model of democracy. Sen. Arlen Specter, for instance, a leading supporter of amnesty, years ago proposed another bill that would have changed the outcome of elections based on quotas, whereby electoral outcomes could be changed by a federal judge.7
To Govern Is to Populate
A group of Argentine statesmen in the 19th century sought to populate their country with immigrants from certain parts of Europe, believing that they were more politically mature and more propitious for a stable state than the criollo and mestizo populations in their country at the time. One of those statesmen, President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, had a slogan: “To govern is to populate,” perhaps because Argentina traditionally has been both under-populated and ungovernable.
What could be motivating U.S. legislators to do the opposite, that is, to see their constituents—already politically mature and proven as responsible and civic-minded—as an obstacle needing replacement? In other words, why would they want to replace a nation that works remarkably well (that Sarmiento was hoping to emulate), with another that has trouble forming stable, normal countries?
When thinking of populating as a way of obtaining power, perhaps these U.S. legislators, rather than from the statesman Sarmiento, took an unconscious cue from another Latin American leader who used migration and ethnic policy for less laudable goals. Mexican President Luis Echeverría (1970-76), who began the cycle of political violence and economic crisis from which the country has yet to recover, pursued a policy of moving hundreds of thousands of impoverished people from the country’s south to the more prosperous and dynamic northern states, where they remain to this day, mostly in shantytowns. His goal was to neutralize those states’ more active civic culture that threatened his power—as these states were at the time the main source of opposition to his dictatorial ambitions. These pauperized and dependent migrants and their offspring would provide a ready source of votes for the ruling party along with a mobilizeable mass to counter (politically as well as physically) the more civic-oriented middle classes of those northern states and “crack” their will to challenge his corporatist regime. Along with other extra-constitutional tools (he almost succeeded in canceling the constitution to remain indefinitely as president), migration from undeveloped areas was used by Echeverría as “politics by other means.” Echeverría, in other words, was the ultimate knave.
Acción Directa as a Double-Edged Sword
What awaits the United States when a critical mass of the American people realizes the immigration issue is little different than what happened in Pennsylvania with the pay-raise issue? What if they decide to organize?
These legislators are probably correct that, by acquiescing to mass immigration, they will eventually “crack” the immigration-control advocates. They do not need to win or even engage in a debate if they can change the terms of the game so decisively. However, they have only taken into account the legal or civilized resistance—from those who write in the papers or volunteer peacefully at the border. In Latin America, people engage in un-civil direct action because they have come to realize that attempting to convince their elites that their antisocial behavior has adverse consequences for the country—and expecting that this will dissuade them from engaging in it—is largely a futile exercise. But in the United States as well, once immigration-control advocates realize they cannot reach their goals through legal means, this could breed a form of resistance that has not occurred yet, but cannot be discounted offhand.
The degree of usurpation and neglect of their fiduciary duty by legislators could provoke immigration-reform advocates to engage increasingly in civil resistance, so that instead of influencing political institutions through civic engagement (as Americans traditionally have), they may attempt to politicize individual institutions. Their direct actions are already being reported: local officers taking it upon themselves to detain illegal migrants, sit-ins at immigration offices, vandalizing of Mexican restaurants, threatening calls to the Hispanic mayor of Los Angeles, etc. Once these types of mobilizations begin, they will be difficult to stop.
Some Americans may take a cue from Spanish/Latin American culture itself and engage in what Spaniards call acción directa, or “direct action.” A Spaniard once lamented that “In this country, nobody votes, but everyone protests.” Immigration advocates should not be surprised if Latin American immigrants and their offspring continue their tradition of direct action and ignoring laws and institutions—as the recent mass protests in cities across the country demonstrate. But they should also not be surprised if Americans also learn to pursue acción directa. An interesting test for the U.S. political class will be how they respond to Americans utilizing direct action, since they seem to tolerate and even encourage it for Latin American immigrants and their offspring. So far, their reaction has been predictable—accusing peaceful volunteers of being “vigilantes” and labeling critics as “racist,” while backing down in the face of mass protests by the illegal immigrants. There were even reports that the U.S. government had handed over to the Mexican government the names of the “Minutemen” critics and border-control volunteers.
Moreover, those who challenge through extra-legal means the extra-constitutional and fait accompli pro-immigration methods of the elites would, paradoxically, be abiding more by the spirit and even letter of the U.S. Constitution than the political class being targeted by them. The Federalist Papers are replete with this philosophy. If they do so effectively, the reaction of the U.S. Congress may be the same as it was for the Pennsylvania legislature in the aftermath of the pay-raise scandal. Both policies are difficult to defend openly and publicly with an engaged citizenry.
If Americans do indeed take up civil disobedience and acción directa, hopefully they would realize that targeting Mexicans will not solve their problem, because even if for some reason they could “neutralize” Mexico as a source of mass immigration, soon they would be targeting Indonesians or Africans or South Americans. But that would be attacking the symptoms and not the root cause of their malaise.
Realizing this, what other events could turn the tables in favor of moderate and civic-minded immigration-reform advocates?
One, if these politicians begin to realize that the consequences of mass immigration for them are not what they expected—when the string of “rational short-termisms” crashes in the rocks of failed electoral campaigns or mass mobilization by critics of immigration against their political careers. Perhaps that is why three of the five lawmakers critical of mass immigration we met with are from border states. They perhaps have already come to realize that their “fantasy constituents” were different than expected. But this realization is unlikely to come any time soon to the remaining lawmakers.
Two, if a critical mass of Americans of Mexican and other Latin American descent take the lead in opposing the openly partisan and irredentist leaders mobilizing the illegal immigrants and the Latino citizens, since it is those types of leaders and provocateurs, not average populations at large, who start ethnic conflicts, as in Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.12 But this is also unlikely because of the collective-action problem. American Latinos who criticize mass immigration tend not to organize, as they are especially targeted by the pro-immigration Latino “leaders.”
A third peaceful way to close the gap between elite and popular opinion on the immigration issue is to pass certain political reforms that would help to assuage lawmakers’ concerns for their political and financial stability. Increasing their (already-high) salaries may be a small price to pay to reduce their proclivity to find solutions for their “natural progress” elsewhere, such as with immigration. However, in this case the medicine may be worse than the illness.
A fourth way would be for a political entrepreneur to successfully use popular discontent with mass immigration to reach power. This is essentially what happened in Denmark. There, the antisocial behavior of Middle Eastern and other immigrants was largely ignored by both main parties and the press, both also displaying an elite consensus against the population’s antipathy for immigrants and for further immigration. The parties had even agreed between them not to make immigration an issue in campaigns or on television debates. Eventually, a political entrepreneur named Anders Fogh Rasmussen used the immigration issue to capture power inside his party, and then go on to win the general elections in 2001. As prime minister he enjoys popular support for his tough immigration and law-and-order policies, which also coincided with other reforms against big government and the welfare state. He was reelected in 2005, and even the opposition Social Democrats have dropped their prior position and now largely agree with Rasmussen’s views on immigration.
Samuel Huntington speculated that the American “creed” (values and beliefs) cannot be used to openly oppose mass immigration.16 That may change. So far, the immigration debate has centered on the immigrants themselves—whether they are worthy or unworthy. This debate is a red herring, since average Americans are unusually kind and restrained in the face of mass immigration, something that cannot be said about other nations (including Mexico).17 Recent poll findings from Zogby challenge the popular belief that the average American somehow has negative or overtly prejudicial feelings toward Mexicans in particular.18 However, Huntington did not take into account the possibility that the debate could yet be framed in terms of potential usurpation from the political class using immigration as a tool. If an organizeable mass of Americans comes to suspect that mass immigration from Latin America is being used by the political class to undermine their democracy and as a tool to liberate the political elites from the Jeffersonian and Madisonian constraints, then indeed we may witness a reaction—but hopefully not against the immigrants themselves, as they are also objects of elite manipulations in more than one country.
The Founding Fathers also prescribed a cure for usurpation. Hopefully the American people will not apply it so literally, for the sake of those legislators.