Many Americans have become enamored of the European approach to immigration -- perhaps without realizing it. Guest workers, penalties, sanctions and deportation are all a part of Europe's mode of dealing with immigrants. The results of this approach have been on display recently in France, where rioting migrant youths again burned cars last week. Across Europe one sees disaffected, alienated immigrants, ripe for radicalism. The immigrant communities deserve their fair share of blame for this, but there's a cycle at work. European societies exclude the immigrants, who become alienated and reject their societies.
One puzzle about post-Sept. 11 America is that it has not had a subsequent terror attack -- not even a small backpack bomb in a movie theater -- while there have been dozens in Europe. My own explanation is that American immigrant communities, even Arab and Muslim ones, are not very radicalized. (Even if such an attack does take place, the fact that 4 1/2 years have gone by without one provides some proof of this contention.) Compared with every other country in the world, America does immigration superbly. Do we really want to junk that for the French approach?
The United States has a real problem with flows of illegal immigrants, largely from Mexico (70 percent of illegal immigrants are from that one country). But let us understand the forces at work here. "The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world," writes Stanford historian David Kennedy. That huge disparity is producing massive demand in the United States and massive supply from Mexico and Central America. Whenever governments try to come between these two forces -- think of drugs -- simply increasing enforcement does not work. Tighter border control is an excellent idea, but to work, it will have to be coupled with some recognition of the laws of supply and demand -- that is, it will have to include expansion of the legal immigrant pool.
Beyond the purely economic issue, however, there is the much deeper one that defines America -- to itself, to its immigrants and to the world. How do we want to treat those who are already in this country, working and living with us? How do we want to treat those who come in on visas or guest permits? These people must have some hope, some reasonable path to becoming Americans. Otherwise we are sending a signal that there are groups of people who are somehow unfit to be Americans, that these newcomers are not really welcome and that what we want are workers, not potential citizens. And we will end up with immigrants who have similarly cold feelings about America.
I have a theory that certain conservatives are terrified that someone, somewhere is getting away with something. For example, they're much more willing than progressives to err on the side of more torture of suspected terrorists, stricter prison sentences for petty criminals, the death penalty for murderers, etc. When discussing welfare, they'll focus on the few "welfare queens" who cheat the system rather than on the millions who utterly depend on it. They usually have a punitive view of God as well, looking gleefully forward to Judgement Day when the evildoers will have their comeuppance. (I think this also partly explains the intensity of the anti-gay marriage movement -- they can't stand to see other people "getting away" with breaking rules that they believe in. But that's for another discussion.)
Those with this worldview are outraged at the illegal immigrants. They see a bunch of cheaters, law-breakers, and freeloaders who are unfairly taking from our country. They don't think about what drives people to leave their families, their loved ones, and their countries to seek a better life. They don't think about how illegal immigrants work their asses off (for American employers!) for less than minimum wage. They're simply blinded by rage, and they want illegal immigration to stop. Even if their fury were justified, as Zakaria points out, we could't end illegal immigration simply through tougher enforcement. We can't (practically) deport the eleven million people who are already here and we can only slow the tide of new illegal immigrants.
We need to come up with a practical solution that is focused more on results than on punishing the already desperate and needy. If we could show some basic human empathy and compassion as well, so much the better.