The Magazine

In Praise of Half Measures

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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Our immigration system must also serve rather than undermine our economic interests, which means we cannot ignore the fact that a glut of low-skill immigrants is hurting the economic chances of the most hardpressed Americans while a shortage of high-skill immigrants leaves our most productive sectors understaffed. A basic reordering of legal immigration in light of economic priorities is necessary for our future prosperity, quite apart from any political implications.

The challenge of handling the 11 million immigrants present here without authorization is an immense legal, social, and moral dilemma. It, too, cannot simply be treated as a bargaining chip but must be considered on its own terms. Mass deportation is neither desirable nor possible, but a ready path to citizenship without consequences is not appropriate either. We will need to find a series of middling options that mix compassion with prudence, humanitarianism with a respect for the law, in a variety of ways suited to the varying circumstances of this enormous population. It would certainly be much easier to begin that work once the border is under control, rather than holding America’s sovereignty and security hostage to the progressive desire for a comprehensive transformation of American immigration.

Skepticism about comprehensive transformations should apply well beyond immigration. Indeed, it is one of the great contributions of conservatism to American political thought, and its wisdom is well demonstrated by the assorted comprehensive transformations already wrought in the Obama years—most notably the transformations of health care and financial regulation. In each case, a gargantuan new statute seeks to do far too many things at once and yet (or rather, therefore) manages to leave the most basic problems unaddressed. Hidden in the greasy creases of these corpulent bills are loads of imperious and often contradictory directives, comically specific injunctions and rules alongside appallingly vague grants of executive discretion, unprecedented expansions of government power, and unavoidable technical errors magnified into fiascos—but no means for slowing the growth of health costs and no end to the “too big to fail” regime.

These comprehensive laws aim to transform American government, rather than address discrete problems. They are the epitome of progressive policy-making. And a similar approach to immigration would be no less harmful or misguided. What our immigration system requires is not a transformation in the mold of the welfare state but an application of American constitutional principles to address specific problems through targeted reforms. It requires an approach that builds on what is best to improve what is worst.

In other words, it requires an applied conservatism. If the Republican party offered that to the public, it would surely find itself in better stead with voters, whatever their race, creed, or color.


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