I hate, in Rome, a Grecian town to find;
To see the scum of Greece transplanted here,
Received like gods, is what I cannot bear.
Nor Greeks alone, but Syrians here abound;
Obscene Orontes, diving under ground,
Conveys his wealth to Tiber’s hungry shores,
And fattens Italy with foreign whores:
–Juvenal, Third Satire, 118 A.D.
The great poet Juvenal did not much care for immigrants. He especially didn’t like Greeks, but he was also not fond of Syrians and Jews. Like many conservative Romans of his day, he felt that they were ruining his country.
But Juvenal was wrong. Rome’s liberal policies on immigration and citizenship were a major source of its strength. In the early days of the Republic, Rome won the loyalty of other Italian tribes by finding ways to incorporate them into the political process. Later, Rome would forge a great empire in much the same way.
A lot of Romans listened to people like Juvenal. No surprises there. Nativist sentiments come easy to all human beings—the inevitable result of six million years of evolution in tribal units. Such sentiments are often powerful enough to override rational self-interest. If you don’t believe me, just spend a few minutes reading the latest commentary on the bi-partisan immigration bill currently before the Senate.
Our own Juvenals have been out in force. Mark Levin refers to the bill as a “disgusting disgrace.” Never one to miss an opportunity to engage in the argumentum ad Nazium, Pat Buchannan likens immigration reform to “appeasing Hitler.” The more these people talk, the more clearly they demonstrate that they don’t actually understand a core principle of their own conservative philosophy.
I speak, of course, of the principle that free markets are both good and powerful. This is what drives both legal and illegal immigration. As long as employers in the United States pay wages for agricultural and domestic work that are much higher than they are in other countries, but substantially lower than most Americans are willing to work for, then there will be immigration. That’s how markets works.
This immigration does not have to be illegal, of course. If we set our legal immigration quotas intelligently, then legal immigrants will fill the available jobs and there will be no point to illegal immigration. The fact that this has not happened—and that illegal immigration continues to be a problem that nothing we do seems to stop—is fairly good evidence that we have not set our legal immigration quotas intelligently. And unless conservatives are wrong about free markets altogether, then walls just aren’t going to matter much. We will only be able to control our borders if we design a policy for legal immigration that does not try to subvert the free market for labor. This is a simple extension of the logic that Republicans invoke every time somebody wants to raise a tax or regulate an industry.
But Republicans have more at stake in the immigration debate than consistency to one of their dearest principles. As Senator Lindsay Graham has forcefully reminded his colleagues, Republicans are in a “demographic death spiral.” As recently as 2000, Republicans split Hispanic votes more or less equally with Democrats—which makes sense, given the religious, socially conservative nature of many Hispanic voters. In 2012, Barack Obama won between 71%-75% of that vote in most states. The difference is the reason that he is president today, and, if Republicans cannot somehow slow this trend, they could well be locked out of the White House for a generation.
The current immigration reform bill before the Senate is a compromise. That is how it is supposed to work. If Congress does not pass this bill—or some comparable immigration-reform legislation—it will not be because serious senators and representatives from both parties did not do their jobs. It will because a great political party succumbed to an irrational nativism at the expense of both its core principles and its political survival.