Signs of our times

ON INTERSTATE 5, NORTH OF SAN DIEGO—If you blink you may miss them. Don’t blink. They are signs of the time.

They are large yellow signs of the sort that use black silhouettes—of falling rocks, leaping deer, playing children—to warn motorists. But the silhouettes on these signs are of a running family—a father, mother and small daughter. They represent illegal immigrants who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives, sprinting through the stream of speaking vehicles to evade a government checkpoint.

Here, where the surf rumbles a few hundred yards from the traffic’s roar, where the Republic runs out of room and the horizon reminds Americans of Asian nations exporting economic challenges and challenging immigrants, here two of the nation’s political preoccupations fuse: immigration and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

From the moment in the 18th century when national consciousness began emerging on the thinly-settled eastern fringe of this continent, the animating question of American politics has been: What kind of people do we want to be? Uniquely blessed by the burden of choice—the French, for example, do not share our sense of perpetual becoming—we now face, with immigration NAFTA, choices that will shape who we are.

In Sacramento and Washington, legislative hoppers are piled high with proposals, from national identity cards and increased border patrols to diminished entitlements for immigrants, to slow the flow of foreigners. Some are sound; Almost all deserve debate and will get it, evidence that anxiety about immigration is now discussable, rather than dismissible as xenophobic primitivism. But all such proposals pale in significance when compared with NAFTA.

What implies immigrants to risk everything crossing the freeway—or the ocean it borders? The hope of betterment—in a word, jobs. Most immigrants would prefer to pursue a productive future at home. NAFTA will help potential immigrants to prosper at home—if NAFTA can be rescued from current irrationalities of American politics.

Pat Buchanan Republicans, a small but gingery group, oppose both immigration and NAFTA, an incoherence matched within the Democratic Party. Many Democrats are queasy about acknowledging the principal incentive for immigrants—the availability of entry-level jobs in America—because many black leaders blame the disorderly lives of the inner-city underclass on the supposed unavailability of such jobs. Furthermore, freer trade means, as freedom generally does, an uncertain future, and so is threatening to the timid, including some Democratic constituencies, such as organized labor.

Fear (Buchanaites are timid nationalists—a phenomenon once considered a contradiction in terms) touches the immigration issue at every turn. Does immigration increase crime? Perhaps. But would denying, say, educational entitlements to the children of illegal immigrants serve domestic tranquillity?

Because governments are objectives of interests and conduits of passions, such as fear, much that governments do is mistaken. But most mistakes—spending here, taxing there—are correctable. However, if this moment for liberalized trade through NAFTA is missed, there will be a spate of surrenders by the government-in the name of “Compassion”—to timid interests demanding protection. And if immigration law is changed in a manner that codifies fear and hostility, America’s identity will be altered.

Protection, candidate Clinton said, is just a fancy word for giving up. Giving up, that is, the nation’s characteristic stance of confidence about competition and a fast unfolding future. And if immigration reform takes the form of a fearful flinching from infusions of ambitious and industrious newcomers, America will have gone far toward redefining itself as whiny and embattled.

The idea that most immigrants are drawn here, like iron fragments to a magnet, by welfare entitlements misses a huge and heartening truth. What was once called “the Protestant ethic”—faith manifested in social advancement through individual striving—is coming in quantity from Catholic countries to the south.

Richard Rodriguez, an American writer of Mexican parentage, says that Tijuana, comparable in size to its neighbor, San Diego, is, in a sense, more American than San Diego. He means that Tijuana is rawer, less middle-aged, more as America used to be in its youthful boisterousness.

But America is more than an economy, more than an arena for individual striving for material betterment. It also—it primarily—is a culture and a fabric of civic traditions. Singapore booms, but is not “American.”

In the flood tide of 19th-century American confidence, Walt Whitman proclaimed that America was more than a nation, it was a world. The justifiable concern about today’s immigration is that America may be becoming less than nation, a community lacking a clear cultural definition, a mere geographic expression.

Still, remember the reality represented by the silhouettes on the yellow signs. There is something unseemly about an America that is frightened by families sprinting across the freeway to get to work. Such an America has much more to worry about than those families.