A considerably popular slogan at the rally in Los Angeles on Saturday was the demand to legalize all undocumented immigrants immediately. The expressed logic for these messages varied from humanitarian pleas to appeals to the history of the border region. However, all these claims run in to problems of perceived fairness, practicality, and workability. Ultimately, while this ideal is just that, an ideal, it does not mean that it cannot be an end goal to more gradual plans.
Two of the most common justifications for calling for immediate legalization were the reminder that all Americans descend from immigrants and appeals back to the sordid history of the Mexican-American War and the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
Common Immigrant Origin
The claim is that Americans should remember that all of their ancestors were immigrants once and their treatment of the current immigrant class should reflect this. This argument has universal appeal because the premises, as stated, are true.
However, it neglects the fact that nearly every group of immigrants was maligned and mistreated during its time. Most of the 13 American colonies originally implemented violent religious exclusivity. Irish immigrants in the mid 1800s were basically cordoned into what amounted to ghettos.
Immigration policy since the 1880s is effectively a tapestry of nativist fears spurring restrictions against whichever ethnic group was the newest. America may be a country of immigrants but it is not as if any of these were actually accepted with open arms. Unless there was an ulterior political motives (such as with Cubans between from the 1960s onward).
This should not, however, be taken to suggest that each immigrant group must earn its place in American society by first being reviled. Or that such ire at new immigrant groups is in any way justified. The aim is merely to show the flaw in the logic of the assumption that a country of immigrants will naturally welcome immigrants. Or that the case of Latino immigrants is an unfair exception.
Appeals to History
There are two main schools of thought in this argument. One is that the United States has violated the terms of the treaty ending the Mexican-American War. The other is that this land belonged to Mexico before and is therefore rightfully theirs.
The treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (text available here) did indeed stipulate the rights of citizenship for Mexican nationals left in the territories ceded by Mexico. Although the full extent of American efforts to adhere to this treaty are beyond the scope of this article, the end historical result was unarguably the brushing aside of many of the provisions of the treaty and its generally being swept under the rug of history. Mexican landowners were pushed out and Mexican nationals that remained in the conquered territories suffered injustices.
However this should not come as a surprise considering the political climate in the United States at the time. Manifest Destiny and fear of British encirclement held sway during the Polk Presidency. But even ignoring the ideas of the time, the United States had no incentive to comply with the treaty.
Regardless of how the war was begun, whether by Mexican border defense or cynical American machinations, the United States emerged as the definite victor. American troops had marched into the Mexican capitol and had occupied large parts of the nation. Negotiators could have simply taken whatever they wanted and forced concessions upon Mexico. The agreement to pay for the territory of California despite having won the war is a mystery in itself, probably due to a desire to return relations between the two nations to normalcy. To expect the United States to adhere to a treaty created simply to win over public opinion is, however just, ultimately idealistic.
“We were here first!”
The supplementary argument that Mexican nationals were here first and that “the border crossed them” does not hold water in the realm of modern international relations. For several hundreds of years now, for better or worse, the sovereign nation-state has been the principle unit in international diplomacy. It replaced the city-states, kingdoms, principalities, and loose federations of the past. Borders have defined sovereign nations. Wars have been fought to defend what practically amounts to a line in the sand but symbolically are the bodies of the modern nation-states. We cannot expect modern society to simply disregard these notions on a whim, however much we might want to.
Fairness and Workability
Even if the calls to legalize all can be reconciled with history and the reality of modern international politics, domestic politics in this country make them impossible to actually implement.
The issue of perceived fairness toward immigrants who have gone or who are currently going through the legal immigration process could quickly alienate this demographic. Why should those who cheated the system be rewarded?
This line of thought of course ignores the immense difficulties and dangers faced by immigrants who cross over illegally but, in the end, legal immigrants are the ones who can vote.
Which leads us to the matter of political will in Washington. The main priority of every elected representative is to get reelected. This fact does not necessarily have to be cynical, since even the well meaning and positive legislative goals of elected politicians cannot be achieved if they are not in office.
This means that most legislators will never back a proposal that will threaten their chances of reelection, no matter how much they want to. The recent change in positions by Senator John McCain is a good example of this. A proposal like the one stated, which by its very nature leaves little room for compromise, is almost indefensible against public opinion and party politics and is, therefore, unworkable.
While the legalization of all residents of the United States is a noble goal, it cannot be proposed as an immediate measure if it is to have any hope of becoming a reality. Only through more gradual approaches, such as the Schumer-Graham plan, does the cause stand a realistic chance in the current political climate.
Uri Lerner has a Master Degree in Political Science from American University in Washington and is a graduate of UC San Diego with a bachelor’s in political science. He is a Senior Research Associate at Hanover Research Council in Washington, D.C.