Confusing Criminals

It isn’t always clear, and often is, perhaps, not the case, that pundits are trying to deceive by their fallacious arguments. Sometimes the flaws in the argument suggest more basic incoherences and confusions in their thought. This seems to be the case with David Brooks’ “Two Steps Towards a Sensible Immigration Policy” (NYT 8/4/5), in which he employs a literary device that ultimately undermines the argument that he is trying to make about immigration reform.

Imagining a “working class guy from the south side of San Antonio” as his interlocutor, he sketches the problem of immigration:

>He’s no racist. Many of his favorite neighbors are kind, neat and hard-working Latinos. But his neighborhood now has homes with five cars rotting in the front yard and 12 single men living in one house. Now there are loud parties until 2 a.m. and gang graffiti on the walls. He read in the local paper last week that Anglos are now a minority in Texas and wonders if anybody is in charge of this social experiment.

The problem with immigration for this guy seems to be that some immigrants are “bad” and the minority status of Anglos. The latter is a population problem, i.e., the sheer number of immigrants entering Texas (and suggests a more “racial” concern that Brooks admits), the former a crime problem, i.e., the failure of our immigration policy to prevent “bad” immigrants (gang members or other unruly people) from entering the country. But, it is also significantly more than that, since none of the behaviors that trouble this guy are particularly serious crimes, but are closer to “socially disruptive behavior” (I mean something like behavior that does not conform to certain prevalent social expectations, e.g., size of households, disposal of non-functional cars, appropriate party times and forms). There is thus a sort of conflation of crime and “anti-social” behavior. This latter defined relative to norms that are supposedly prevalent among Anglos.

Unfortunately getting “tough” on immigration doesn’t seem to solve the population problem as Brooks notes:

>But we can’t just act like lunkheads and think we can solve this problem with brute force. Tough enforcement laws make us feel good but they don’t do the job. Since 1986, we’ve tripled the number of Border Patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget 10 times over, but we haven’t made a dent in the number of illegals who make it here.

Presumably if we can’t regulate the flow of immigrants we can’t regulate the flow of “bad” immigrants either.

Instead, by controlling economically necessary immigration we will be able to lessen the number of illegal immigrants.

>The only way to re-establish order is to open up legal, controllable channels through which labor can flow in an aboveground, orderly way. We can’t build a wall to stop this flood; we need sluice gates to regulate the flow.

This is the real point of his column: to argue for two bills before the senate, one allowing for a temporary worker program and the other for tougher boarder controls.

But he has just finished telling the guy from San Antonio that the latter aren’t effective in addressing his concerns. There is only one way that we can make Brooks’ argument coherent. We must supply something like one of the two following concealed premises:

A) Illegal immigrants are likely to commit other crimes.

B) It is harder to prevent crimes committed by illegal immigrants than legal immigrants.

It is tautological that illegal immigrants are “criminals” by breaking immigration laws. But Brooks and the guy from San Antonio seem to be more concerned with the “subculture of criminality across America” supposedly caused by illegal immigration. But unless A or B are true, there is no reason to think that the bills before the Senate will effectively address this problem, or for that matter that illegal immigration is the cause of increased criminality (beyond the tautological sense).

I don’t know which of the two premises Brooks or the guy from San Antonio would prefer to accept, and I don’t know whether there is any reason to think that either of these is true. I suspect that the real problem here is that the policies for which Brooks is arguing will not address the concerns of the guy from San Antonio, who seems to confuse criminal behavior with disruptive behavior. Add to that a confusion between the criminality of illegal immigration and other forms of criminal behavior and we see how Brooks can suggest that these policies will address the guy from San Antonio’s concerns.

1. These policies will address criminality (of illegal immigration).
2. Addressing criminality (of illegal immigration) will address criminal behavior. (By A or B perhaps)
3. Addressing criminal behavior will address disruptive behavior. (The guy from San Antonio might assume).

Therefore, these policies will address the concerns of the guy from San Antonio.

Nonetheless Brooks would seem to admit that these bills will not solve all the problems.

>So here’s the bottom line for the guy in San Antonio: Everybody’s expecting a big blowup on this issue, but we’ve got a great chance of enacting serious immigration reform. It won’t solve all problems. There will still be wage pressures and late-night parties.

But it seems that he should add one more: criminals. Having confused the criminality of illegal immigration with other forms of criminality he cannot do this.

> But right now immigration chaos is spreading a subculture of criminality across America. What we can do is re-establish law and order, so immigrants can bring their energy to this country without destroying the social fabric while they’re here.

As usual we are not evaluating the truth of Brooks’ conclusion. It may be the case that these two bills are good and beneficial. But it is important to note that Brooks’ has not given us or his friend in San Antonio reason to believe this.
And along the way he seems to have missed the point of his own argument.