Playing Immigration Zugzwang
There is a wonderful term in chess, Zugzwang, which refers to a position in which it is a player’s turn to move, but anything he does weakens his position.
Zugzwang is also the perfect metaphor to describe the GOP’s dilemma about immigration—seemingly every move they make worsens their position.
Late last week, the esteemed Speaker of the House, John Boehner, pronounced immigration reform dead. His reason: the GOP “couldn’t trust” President Obama to fairly enforce any laws that might be passed. This came as something of a surprise to many observers, because barely ten days before that, Boehner himself had rolled out a set of principles for immigration reform that actually had some substance to them.
This sudden, completely unanticipated wave of mistrust of Mr. Obama, emerging, as it were, as a windstorm across the Great Plains, overtook Mr. Boehner’s good intentions and reset the debate to its traditional zero. When Senator Schumer offered to delay implementation of any bill until after Mr. Obama left office, the sound emanating from the Speaker’s office resembled a cross between crickets and a wart hog.
There will be no immigration reform bill passed. The Speaker, as feckless as he appears to be, is reacting to pressures inside his caucus. His team is simply not ready for him to make a move. And, maybe that’s a good thing, because the truth is that none of us have really figured out how to talk about immigration.
We aren’t alone. This past Sunday, the Swiss passed a referendum sharply curtailing immigration. The Swiss!! Alps, chocolate, banks, quaint towns, sheepherders, funny hats and those cool alphorns? Neutral, calm, tolerant Switzerland, home of the International Red Cross--they are anti-immigrant? Those Swiss?
Those Swiss. And the issues raised in that referendum aren’t that far apart from ours. The economics of a more open immigration policy is complex, but, boiled down to it essence, consists of the (not completely farfetched) fear is that we will have more dependents on an already strained social safety net and the (not completely farfetched) fear that flooding the market with cheap labor takes away jobs that “real” Americans (or Swiss) could take. There are academic studies that indicate that a pro-immigration policy could actually generate substantial economic growth, and there are plenty of indications that “real” Americans don’t like crop and feather picking, but those are net gains in a dynamic equilibrium. Each job lost to an immigrant, whether it is in tech or pushing a broom, is a net loss to someone. And, you don’t need to be an economist to understand that the more competition there is for jobs, the more wage pressure there is. It is not coincidental that, in both the United States and Switzerland, businesses are among the biggest supporters of immigration reform, particularly at the high and low ends of the market. They see money. The average American may not be quite as fortunate.
Nor is it coincidental that the rightist Swiss People’s Party, which placed the referendum on the ballot, mirrors the concerns of many Tea Party members and conservative Republicans generally when they speak of Switzerland “retaining its identity.” The Swiss are primarily concerned with immigration from Eastern European countries while we seem to be particularly obsessed with Latinos, but the core fear is the same: when you introduce large numbers of people with a different language and culture, things can change, and the old truths (and virtues) appear to come under attack.
Those of us who are generally pro-immigration shouldn’t just dismiss those social and economic fears or call them ignorant and xenophobic. If we want solutions, we need to acknowledge that immigration is not a constitutional right—it derives from affirmative legislation we put in place. What we do on immigration has to be done by consensus—not unanimity, of course, because no democracy can possibly function by giving a veto power to everyone, but by a broad enough agreement so that we can move forward without the relentless and destructive charade we see on the ACA. In short, we need both sides to see the wisdom of doing something.
That can only be accomplished through the political process, and right now, the political process isn’t doing. Immigration just isn’t like other orthodoxies. In 2014, if you are a Republican, it is virtually impossible to recognize climate change, much less be an environmentalist. But you can see the virtues of immigration reform, as a matter of self-interest. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sees it, because it’s good for business. A number of GOP party professionals see it, because they feel an urgent need to defuse this as an issue in coming elections. Seeing it, however, is not the same as being able to act on it. The base doesn’t want it, and Boehner’s 180-degree turn is an explicit acknowledgment of that. Boehner is not going to risk his Speakership before his caucus is ready. Boehner perceives Zugzwang. So he takes a deep breath, refuses to move, and blames Obama.
Boehner is stuck (as we all are) because immigration has a powerful emotional pull without an easy resolution. You can’t promise every American that they will all benefit economically, because that is untrue, and everyone knows it. Nor can you promise them that if the population of Latinos (or South Asians, or Africans) in their communities goes from one percent to ten percent, that no one will dare speak anything but English. Let more immigrants in, and it’s going to happen.
While we are at it, let’s add more reality. “Build the dang fence” isn’t going to stop every illegal, and it certainly isn’t going to remove all that are already here. Self-deporting isn’t going to happen. Sheriff Joe isn’t going to be appointed by some future President to hunt down every illegal in this country. Hemming people in will cause them to concentrate, not assimilate—they won’t learn the very things that would make us more comfortable with them. Immigrants aren’t going to stop having children, and those higher birthrates will inevitably lead to more children of immigrants who eventually become voters. They will remember who stigmatized their parents. Injustice is a scar that doesn’t heal overnight.
How do you deal with those truths: that having immigrants does mean some culture shock and purging them all is impossible—in short, they are here to stay and others will follow? You can start with plain speaking-by admitting to everyone the obvious. There is no perfect solution, and any politician who tells you otherwise is flat out lying. That there will be risks, and there will be losers, and there will be discomfort, but the way to manage the future is to get out in front of it.
John Boehner thinks he’s doing himself and his party a service by stopping the clock. What he is forgetting is that in chess, the clock is always running. That’s what gives Zugzwang its sting. Sooner or later, you either move, or time runs out.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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