The Prohibition era (1919-’33) happened so long ago that only centenarians experienced it directly. Younger Americans think Prohibition happened because screwball Fundamentalists somehow got the Constitution amended to make drinking illegal. But much of this impression is fundamentally wrong. The 18th Amendment – a.k.a. the Volstead Act – was ratified in an orderly way between 1917 and 1919 by the legislatures of 75% of the states. Religious groups pushed it, but it was a nation-wide effort to address the problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
Contrary to popular belief, the 18th did not make drinking illegal. Prohibition actually outlawed all commerce involving alcoholic beverages. Individuals could make quantities of their own hootch and drink themselves silly, if they wanted to. But they couldn’t buy the stuff, sell it, or transport it without breaking the law.
Our enduring impressions of the Prohibition era are cinematic images of wild tommy-gun battles between cops and hoods, careering Packard touring cars, flappers dancing the hootchy-kootch in elegant speakeasies, and grim-faced Feds chopping barrels and watching bootleg beer run into the gutter, and James Cagney snarling, “You dirty rat! Come and get me, copper!” But these were just minor sideshows in the nation-changing drama of Prohibition.
Prohibition’s real story was corruption – corruption on a scale so vast that it changed America forever. The 1987 film, The Untouchables, probably came closest to a realistic picture of the pervasive corruption at every level of society, including police, local government officials, merchants, journalists, and citizens. Much of this was airbrushed out of the 1950s Untouchables TV series, since many original participants were still living and might have been embarrassed by full disclosure. (That august company would have included Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s pop, who made millions importing illegal booze from Europe in the ‘20s.)
Society was thoroughly (some historians say “irredeemably”) corrupted by profits from the sale of bootleg alcohol. Some communities even kept public salaries artificially low in anticipation of the significant income they expected police and other officials to reap from payoffs and bribes produced by the illegal trade. Speakeasies under police protection were common in the 1920s.
Bigshot criminals like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Frank Nitti evaded local prosecution via layers of protection furnished by their own “soldiers,” as well as by government officials on the take. Capone was convicted of Federal income tax evasion and sent to prison, but he never faced an accounting for his Volstead Act crimes or his manifest complicity in murder, bribery, theft, assault and conspiracy. Lansky was never successfully prosecuted; Nitti served only two years for income tax evasion. (Who says the income tax isn’t useful?) The corruption problem was solved only when the 21st Amendment repealed the Volstead Act, taking the money (and the motivation for protecting criminals) away from citizens and public officials. But by then the big money had funded an organized criminal cabal that endures to the present day.
Banning a commodity which enjoyed great popularity in American society was arguably a serious societal overreach. Many historians agree. But there is room to argue that Prohibition might have succeeded if so much of society had not been corrupted into subverting the law. The gigantic amounts of money posed an insuperable obstacle to the law’s success.
Honest people can disagree about whether Prohibition was a Noble Experiment or an over-ambitious attempt to defeat an uncontrollable thirst shared by nearly every society in recorded history. I wasn’t raised in a drinking family, so I don’t care much about beer, wine or liquor. But as a grown man I can recognize a serious lack of realism in trying to restrict a commodity desired by so much of the population. Prohibition essentially converted us into a nation of lawbreakers.
The modern parallel to Prohibition obviously would be the decades-long war on illegal drugs. The vast sums of corrupting money, gang-wars, and grisly violence certainly evoke the Prohibition era. Mere possession of these commodities is a crime, but the market is much smaller than the booze-market was. Lack of widespread public demand keeps the hardest drugs illegal, even though only a Federal statute – not a Constitutional provision – outlaws them.
Americans are not of one mind about “recreational” drugs. Some states and cities have legalized marijuana, and there is some national support for this. But de-criminalizing all drugs is a harder case to make because of their extreme destructiveness and the danger they pose to children. Years ago I wrote an article calling for legalizing drugs and controlling who gets them, and in what quantity. I wanted to remove the profit from the black market and save the vast sums we spend on police, counselors, lawyers, prosecutors, bailiffs, clerks of court, judges, medical personnel and facilities, etc. – all retained because of the war on drugs. But today – amid an “opiate epidemic” causing overdose-deaths of far too many young people – I no longer hold that view. Some things are just too dangerous, and have too little redeeming value, to be legal.
A less recognized, but more accurate modern parallel to Prohibition is Illegal Immigration. As during Prohibition, the law is ignored at every societal and political level. As with booze, the vast demand for the “product” explains why. Many Americans are indifferent to immigration lawbreaking, regarding it as a “victimless crime” on the order of running a red light – a trivial flaunting of Federal regulations that seems unrelated to them. Federal, state and local officials dance round the “illegality” issue with a deftness that would have made Bugsy Siegel proud. Hundreds of “sanctuary cities” – where police and other public officials are enjoined from enforcing federal immigration laws – have sprung up across the country.
The issue is further complicated by some citizens’ belief that helping “undocumented” people is compassionate and humanitarian work. They actively support these efforts through churches and community groups. Others live in a kind of “dream universe,” believing that government is truly working to keep our borders and our body politic secure. Of course, a child could see that our federal government’s efforts on these matters have been spotty at best.
In the end, most things reduce to practical considerations of money or power. People often advocate an idea or practice or philosophy – not because it is right or true or productive (although it may be), but because their livelihoods depend on it. This same dynamic drives support for illegal immigration. It’s all about money and power.
To businesses, illegals represent a supply of cheap labor that can be exploited with relative impunity. Employers pay them low wages and sometimes don’t forward their withheld taxes to the government, knowing that they will never file tax returns. More ethical businessmen, like a builder I know, say most illegals are conscientious and honest workers who fill an important labor-niche. Well-off homeowners like the low rates illegals charge for yard work and repairs.
Educators see the wave of illegal immigrants producing increased funding and more public-school jobs. California alone educates over a million children of illegals. A recent study by the Center for American Progress and the University of California estimates that around 1.9 million children under 18 years old in the state live in homes with at least one illegal immigrant. And some 1.3 million of those children are likely of school-going age. The state’s education, law-enforcement and welfare costs for illegals run to some $25 billion a year, according to a 2014 study released by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
Californians tried to stop this drain on public resources by passing Proposition 187 in 1994, but the State Supreme Court overturned it. In 2015 Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that allows illegal residents to vote in California elections. Some analysts say the numbers of illegals now voting in California make any meaningful correction of the situation all but impossible.
Politicians – blithely speaking of “undocumented” persons as though they had merely forgotten their pool passes – find illegals very useful. Democrats see visions of new ethnic voters for their party. And President G. W. Bush – sympatico with immigrants (both legal and illegal) – tried to align them with the Republican Party by catering to their interests. In mid-2006, a bi-partisan effort in the Senate – supported by Mr. Bush – to pass comprehensive amnesty for millions of illegal aliens was thwarted by a furious telephone offensive in which thousands of callers jammed the Senate switchboard and persuaded several senators to change their minds and stop the proposed law.
Starting in 2001, a so-called DREAM Act has been repeatedly introduced and debated (but never passed) in the Senate. It would grant illegals’ children the right to work, attend college, or serve in the U.S. armed services. A young illegal who engages in any of these would become eligible for permanent legal residence in the USA. Some past versions of the bill also would have let states apply in-state tuition rates to illegals at state colleges and universities – reversing a ban on this practice in the 1996 Immigration Reform Act. The proposed bill has been debated for so long that many citizens now believe it is actual law.
President Obama took several executive-actions during his tenure to “normalize” various blocs of illegals. In June 2012 he announced a halt to deportation of young illegals who match certain criteria previously proposed under the DREAM Act. The U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began accepting applications under the Obama administration’s new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in August 2012.
These presidential actions produced opposition from several quarters. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer issued an executive order preventing issuance of Arizona driver’s licenses and public benefits to young illegal immigrants who receive deferred status and work authorization under the DACA. Her order also barred illegal immigrants from receiving state-subsidized child care, health insurance, unemployment benefits, business and professional licenses, and government contracts. And in late August 2012, ten U. S. Immigration and Customs agents sued Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, charging that the directive forced them to break the law and ignore their duties. As of January 2017, 740,000 people have registered through DACA.
A furious national argument over illegal immigration drove the 2016 presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, undoubtedly helping to produce Mr. Trump’s surprise win that shocked the country’s political establishment on both sides of the aisle. Since his inauguration, the new president has seen two of his executive orders – intended to restrict legal immigration from certain Middle East countries – stayed by judicial rulings. He has also continued to press for construction of a wall to protect our southern border from incursion by illegal immigrants. At this writing, illegal crossings are down by 70%, despite the fact that the wall Mr. Trump wants remains unfunded and work on it has not begun. Political analysts believe a huge political fight over that funding lies ahead.
Supporters from both national parties claim that amnesty for illegals’ children is compassionate and humanitarian, as well as pro-child, pro-education and pro-USA. They say it makes the best of a bad situation. A poorly educated child growing into an unskilled, disadvantaged adult, they argue, will not help the country. (This is certainly true.)
Opponents rejoin that amnesty rewards illegality and slaps the collective face of immigrants and citizens who play by the rules. They say in-state tuition rates will advantage illegals over citizens who must pay higher tuition rates if they attend an out-of-state college. (Also true.)
College-places are a finite commodity, so every illegal admitted to a college replaces a US citizen who might have had that slot. The country is not helped when politicians and officials undermine our immigration laws and reward people who cheat. A talk-show caller suggested that it will make sense to go to Mexico, then sneak back across the border in order to qualify for special educational perks. (Sadly, true as well.)
Thus, we seem to be reliving the Prohibition era. No speeding Packards, James Cagney, or gun battles, but plenty of corruption over money and votes, and copious undermining of the law. Increasing numbers of Americans are realizing that uncontrolled illegal immigration costs:
- billions in taxes;
- political dilution;
- lessened opportunities for education and jobs;
- diminished security.
After we increase our local taxes to educate the children of illegals, those children will compete for entry to colleges and universities. They will pay lower tuition if admitted. Illegals who get driving licenses can easily sign up to vote via the Motor Voter provision. They will be able to vanish inside our vast country, and no one will know where they are or what they are doing. (Not every illegal does cheap yard-work and has adorable children.) We need to think about this.
Excepting Native Americans, every American either is an immigrant or has ancestors who immigrated. So we are naturally sympathetic toward people who seek a better life. We are a generous people and a generous country. But we are also a nation of laws.
Most of our forebears obeyed those laws when they came here. We know this, so we are conflicted about illegals. We realize that we cannot let the whole world in. Our communities have limited resources, and we viscerally dislike seeing people get ahead by cheating.
So the jury remains out. Will the American people give up on immigration law (as they did on Prohibition), throw open the borders, and see their American Dream diminished and diluted? Or will they decide to retake their own country? Americans don’t have the patience for long wars, but I believe many are beginning to sense that this one is for keeps.