The Duck of Minerva

Romeny on immigration: “don’t ask, don’t tell”

29 November 2007

A quick note on the CNN/YouTube Debate.

Although the point is rather obvious, I think it is worth reflecting on how whe exchange between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney about illegal immigration encapsulates fundamental tensions in this country, and within the Republican party, on the issue.

Recall that Romnney attacked Giuliani for running a “sanctuary city.” Giuliani rejected the the label but also went on the offensive:

It’s unfortunate, but Mitt generally criticizes people in a situation in which he’s had far the — worst record.

For example, in his case, there were six sanctuary cities. He did nothing about them.

There was even a sanctuary mansion. At his own home, illegal immigrants were being employed, not being turned into anybody or by anyone. And then when he deputized the police, he did it two weeks before he was going to leave office, and they never even seemed to catch the illegal immigrants that were working at his mansion. So I would say he had sanctuary mansion, not just sanctuary city.

Romney denied that he employed illegal immigrants, but also responded:

Are you suggesting, Mr. Mayor — because I think it is really kind of offensive actually to suggest, to say look, you know what, if you are a homeowner and you hire a company to come provide a service at your home — paint the home, put on the roof. If you hear someone that is working out there, not that you have employed, but that the company has.

If you hear someone with a funny accent, you, as a homeowner, are supposed to go out there and say, “I want to see your papers.”

Is that what you’re suggesting?

But, of course, many of those concerned about illegal immigration–the very constituency Romney’s targeting in his attacks on Giuliani–want the government to engage in behavior that Romney labels “racist”: conduct sweeps of hispanic laborers, and hispanics in general, because of their accents and appearances.

Indeed, Romney’s implicit claim, that individuals have no positive obligation to comply with immigration laws, highlights some broader inconsistencies in the current political environment. Romney, I imagine, employed the company in question because it offered to do the job he wanted at a competitive price. How did it get its prices sufficiently low to secure a contract with Romney? Presumably because it employed low-wage illegal immigrants.

Romney made the same choice that, I’d wager, at least tens of thousands of Americans make every day: to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to accepting cheap goods and services made possible by, at least as the employment market currently works, illegal immigrants.

Romney’s position may be particularly hypocritical because, after all, he seeks to exploit the current wave of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment even as he may have directly gained in material terms from illegal immigration. And unlike Fred Thompson, he doesn’t even express some regret from possibly having done so. But like not a few other Americans, Romney wants to have it both ways: to take a strong stand against illegal immigration without assuming the kind of personal responsibility that would reduce the size of his bank account.

Romney’s inconsistency reflects a more abstract dilemma. Most political elites support free trade on the grounds that the open flow of capital, goods, and services contributes to economic efficiency and aggregate economic growth. But many of these same elites draw the line at labor. If we should import other production factors, such as rubber, from wherever they are cheapest, why shouldn’t we enjoy the unrestricted ability to import cheap labor as well? The answer involves, ultimately, distributional and cultural politics. But similar considerations also apply in the context of debates over “free trade.” So those who want to restrict the flow of cheap labor to this country but not of other production factors, let alone finished goods, have some explaining to do.