McCain, Again; , W's Immigration Proposal Is a Human-Rights Imperative

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Something strange is happening to John McCain. After a solid 18 months during which he had been invisible except on Democratic issues, he suddenly reemerged last week as a hard-line, even hyper-partisan, conservative. He sounds like Phil Gramm. n In fact, he was working with Phil Gramm?to block a labor-sponsored measure to keep Mexican trucks out of the United States.

Under NAFTA, both Mexican and Canadian trucks are supposed to have free access to our roads, just as we have free access to theirs. But secret protectionism is, and always has been, America's trade policy. Visions of tequila-crazed yokels hogging up the highways with their backfiring trucks have turned the Mexican truck issue into a growth opportunity for DC demagogues. So, against the wishes of President Bush, the Senate is pushing a regime under which Mexican trucks have to answer to more regulations than do Canadian trucks. It's unfair. Trent Lott was ineffectual and smarmy when he called the measure "anti-Hispanic"?but he was not wrong.

What was extraordinary about McCain's performance is that he did much more than oppose the measure. Since it was the Teamsters who had pushed Democrats into backing the anti-Mexican measure, McCain decried labor excesses. And he promised to do his best to bottle the measure up before it could even go to conference.

McCain got another chance to move rightward when the nomination of Mary Sheila Gall to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission came before the Senate Commerce Committee, and was scuttled on a 12-11 party-line vote. That's too bad, since the vendetta against Gall had been launched by Hillary Clinton; it's also too bad since Gall's only sin in government had been her reluctance to rubber-stamp every single trial-lawyer-friendly regulation that came her way. But it was too bad mostly for Gall, and it's hard to explain the fury of McCain's reaction, which had a whiff of the Clarence Thomas hearings about it. "Gall came to her confirmation hearing," McCain said, "to be tried for a handful of allegedly uncaring and heartless votes on children's products. What she faced was a group of senators with rope in their hands." Go, John, go!

What is going on with McCain? Most likely he was caught off-guard by the last-minute deal President Bush was able to strike with moderate Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood on a Patients' Bill of Rights last week. Up until Wednesday night, when he decided to back a Bush compromise, it appeared that Norwood would bring an entire bloc of liberal Republicans and swing Democrats into line with Ganske-Dingell, the House version of McCain's own liberal Senate bill. (McCain is cosponsoring it with Ted Kennedy and North Carolina presidential hopeful Johnny Edwards.)

You'd think McCain would be ticked off to see Bush putting the arm on Norwood. But he's sure not acting like it. That gives us a good idea of the game he's playing. McCain desperately wants to take the centrist position on every issue. Well into last week, it looked like he'd done that masterfully on the Patients' Bill of Rights. As long as the Republican-controlled House saw fit to pass its own equivalent of Kennedy-McCain, McCain himself appeared to be merely an energetic proponent of what most Americans think anyway. But as soon as Norwood pulled out, he made inevitable Thursday's House passage of the Bush alternative that will cap damages in HMO lawsuits at $1.5 million. Suddenly, McCain faced the prospect of going into conference as the champion of the left-wing bill.

There's nothing McCain can do about that now. But he can minimize the damage of being seen as a toady to trial lawyers if he fires up his tort-reforming oratory before the end of this week.

Huddled Mass

On Mexico, it was worth asking whether President Bush was trying to pull off the same kind of trick. He was stuck with the correct, the moral, but the unpopular view of the Mexican truckers issue. This, in turn, was costing him support among the Teamsters?the one major union that Republicans have had some success wooing in his administration. An attempt to gain union support explains at least part of the Bush outreach to legalize undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Until about five years ago, it was an iron rule of American politics that labor unions and illegal immigrants have opposed interests. Labor unions exist to get higher wages (which is why business interests hate them) and illegal immigrants drive wages down (which is why business interests love them). The Democrats were the party that backed the former, the Republicans were the party that backed the latter. But once John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO, the Democrats showed they could organize illegal immigrants just as easily as legal ones. (More easily, in some cases, since they're so often huddled together on remote farms and in small urban factories.) It's still the exception rather than the rule, but there are now parts of the country?like California?where union members generally work with illegal immigrants, rather than try to throw them off of work sites, as they did in Los Angeles at the height of the Rodney King era.

If Bush has a long-term strategy about this (and it's always hard to tell if he has a long-term strategy about anything), Republicans are trying to execute a similar rapprochement. By regularizing immigrants, Bush will make them subject to American wage and benefit structures, and thus remove a lot of the downward pressure on nonimmigrant wages.

This will have unannounced effects, because there is an unspoken economic truth about immigration. Everyone is always talking about how immigration helps the economy?which it does, unless your idea of economic health is a high-wage society in which a McDonald's hamburger costs seven dollars and a cup of coffee five.

That's why all the praise of "legal immigration" is misplaced. Jonah Goldberg argued in the Arizona Republic two weeks ago, "The reason I'm against the proposed Bush move is simple. I am a huge supporter of legal immigration, and the only way you can have legal immigration is if you are serious about dealing with illegal immigration. If illegal immigration continues?and it surely will if this measure passes?it will be difficult to argue for immigration of any kind."

Goldberg, that is, seems to want the "best" immigrants. This is the type of immigration law Australians practice, and as the Germans reform their own residency statutes, it's the type they're looking at most seriously. But it's wrong-headed, and in fact, pace Goldberg, you can make a better economic argument for illegal immigration than for legal.

Illegal immigrants help us precisely because they drive wages for certain kinds of menial work down to their natural level. (I'm sure I'll get an argument from labor economists on the word "natural"?so let's just say they drive wages down to the point where you don't have to pay $7 for that McDonald's hamburger.) Legal immigrants do no such thing. Those who favor legal over illegal immigration make a logical error in comparing, say, a Chinese physicist (who arrives with an invitation to work in a lab) to a Bolivian goatherd (who arrives to work as a busboy). Of course, the former is going to contribute more to the economy than the latter?but that answers a question about social status and innovation, not about immigration.

The proper comparison is between a Bolivian busboy and an American one, and then between a Chinese physicist and an American physicist. The Bolivian busboy is an absolute economic goldmine. Imagine that the restaurant he's working in has 20 employees, and they're all illegals, making $4 instead of $12 an hour. If we remember for a moment that your average restaurant start-up goes bust in a year or so, we can see that, in most cases, the increment doesn't go right into the owner's pocket. What that increment does is keep the business alive. Your Chinese physicist, meanwhile, may help his laboratory, but he'll help it in exactly the same way a physicist brought up in Dubuque would.

We are leaving out one thing. Under this model, we're using the rights-lessness of our Bolivian to exploit him. Given that the per capita income for goatherds in Bolivia is probably about a tenth of what he'll make in America; given that he can, by saving, send enough of his income home to make his mother a very rich Bolivian indeed; and given that his kids will have access to American schools, you'd have to be a real left-wing milquetoast to shed any tears over this.

But once the guy has been in the country for, say, 10, 15 years, he's a typical American in all respects except that he's not a citizen?and he's getting screwed. He is, in short, a human rights problem. In floating the idea of a Mexican amnesty, Dubya is doing nothing more than alerting us that, in most cases, the proper context in which to view Mexicans is the 10-or-15-years-down-the-line one.

There are two things we should consider as this amnesty takes on concrete form. First, it's unfair, and even racist, under the terms of our Civil Rights Act of 1964, since it violates prohibitions against discrimination on grounds of national origin. But that will be quickly fixed by the exigencies of vote-getting. To pick some names out of a hat, Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of the Virginia 8th has next to no Mexicans in his district, but he has one of the handful of most heavily Salvadoran populations in the country. They're the hardest-working of all our immigrants, and most people who meet them can't tell them apart from Mexicans. You won't get Moran's vote unless you include Salvadorans. If there's a single Mexican living in the late Joe Moakley's district, the Massachusetts 9th, I haven't met him; but there are thousands of illegal Irishmen there, and anyone who doesn't campaign on extending the amnesty to them will be dead in the water. So this amnesty law is going to wind up extending to everyone, as it should. (That doesn't mean Bush won't win some Latino brownie points for having thought of Mexicans first.)

A second point is that the amnesty will increase illegal immigration from everywhere except Mexico and Canada. (That's because Bush envisions lifting the quotas on those two countries.) Illegals will increase because once Mexicans already here are regularized, they're going to be less inclined to do those four-dollar-an-hour busboy jobs, and we're going to have to import a whole new bunch of foreigners to do so.

But that said, Bush's immigration proposal is a human-rights imperative. Not to mention the bravest and most innovative immigration reform that any president has broached in decades. Not to mention the highpoint of his presidency thus far.

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