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{Published in The Gazette, Colorado Springs}

With the dramatic entrance of Tom Tancredo into the Republican gubernatorial primary, the immigration issue is sure to be front and center this fall. That’s too bad, because the traditional conservative view on this issue is wrong.

If we look at the immigration issue as a combination of:
1) how hard we should make it for people to become citizens; and
2) what kind of benefits people should enjoy once they become citizens, four basic perspectives emerge.

You can distinguish them based on how hard you believe each should be.

For example, you could favor tough laws for citizenship, while at the same time supporting a generous welfare state. This is, I think, a comfortably mainstream Democratic leftist position. Many European countries adopt this model, and I think it’s reasonably well represented in America. That’s fine if you think America should be more like Europe, but otherwise not particularly inspiring.

You could also favor making it easier for immigrants to become citizens, while supporting a generous welfare state. The risks of turning this perspective into policy are obvious, and I know of no modern nation that supports it. One possible exception might be Israel, which is concerned about its small population compared to its (predominantly hostile) neighbors. But even then, Israel provides immediate citizenship only for Jews. Others are subject to more stringent requirements. 

The third perspective is the traditional conservative one: Tougher requirements for citizenship, fewer entitlements once citizenship is earned. I’ve already suggested why this position reduces freedom in America. But it also decreases wealth. The voluntary movement of human capital is arguably the single greatest source of wealth creation in human history. Putting up more barriers to entry ultimately makes the world poorer.

And that brings us to the fourth view. It is the least popular, perhaps because it is the most politically difficult to achieve. But it makes the most sense. We should absolutely reduce our mania for entitlements, before it bankrupts our country. This has to include cutting entitlements to both legal and illegal residents. But at the same time, we should reduce the political barriers to citizenship. We need more and faster paths to residency and citizenship for those who want it.

What would this mean in practice? It would mean that everybody would have to give up something.

Liberals will have to recognize that it’s not racist or wicked to deny benefits to people who are here illegally. It’s simply applying the same standards of compassion to American citizens who wish more of a role in deciding for themselves how their money is spent. Giving benefits to illegals also makes chumps out of future Americans, those law-abiding foreign nationals who desperately want to bring their skills and energy here but are committed to obeying our laws, even if it takes years and might never happen. What could possibly be good about that?

Conservatives, on the other hand, will have to set aside the votes they’d otherwise get by pandering toxenophobia and nationalistic fervor. There will always be people eager to divide the world into “us” and “them.” Such people will happily give others power in exchange for promises of protection. Those beliefs go far back into our evolutionary history. Perhaps at one time they served us well, but we darn sure don’t need them now. We shouldn’t pander to those primal urges.

Different immigration policies send different messages to the world. What exactly would lower taxes, lower spending and lower citizenship requirements tell people who want to become Americans? It would say “Do you want to be free, to rise or fall on your own efforts? To earn your keep without taking that of others? To accept help when freely given, to give help when freely chosen? Then come to America. Live here, raise children here, make your life with us. We are the world’s best hope for freedom, and we want you to help us build a great nation.”

Virtually all of us are descended from immigrants who came here for exactly those reasons. It is time to rekindle that vision once again.