The Prohibition Era happened so long ago (1919-’33) that only centenarians experienced it directly. Last week – 27 July 1919 – marked the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Volstead Act, which authorized and funded enforcement of the 18th Amendment1. President Wilson vetoed the act, but Congress passed it over his veto. Prohibition took effect in 1920.
Younger Americans tend to think Prohibition happened because screwball Fundamentalists somehow got the Constitution amended to make drinking illegal. But much of this impression is fundamentally wrong. The Amendment was ratified in an orderly way between 1917 and 1919 by the legislatures of 75% of the states – then 36 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 Amendment did not make drinking illegal. Instead, it outlawed all commerce involving alcoholic beverages. Individuals could make their own hooch and drink themselves silly, if they wanted to. But they couldn’t buy, sell, or transport the stuff without breaking the law.
Our enduring impressions of the Prohibition era are cinematic images of careering Packard touring cars, machine-gun battles between cops and hoods, flappers dancing the hootchy-kootch in speakeasies, Feds dumping bootleg beer into the gutter, and Jimmy Cagney snarling, “Come and get me, copper!” But these popular images were just minor sideshows in the nation-changing drama of Prohibition.
The real story of Prohibition was corruption – corruption on a scale so vast that it changed America forever. The 1987 film, The Untouchables, probably came closest, cinematically, to a realistic depiction of the pervasive corruption at every level of society, including police, local government officials, merchants, journalists, and ordinary 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. (This would have included Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s father, who made millions importing illegal booze from Europe in the ‘20s.)
Society was thoroughly (some historians would say “irredeemably”) corrupted by money from illegal alcohol. Some communities even kept salaries of police and public officials artificially low in anticipation of the significant income those public servants were expected to reap from payoffs, bribes and “protection” monies paid by criminal enterprises.
Bigshot criminals like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Frank Nitti evaded local prosecution via layers of protection furnished by cops, government officials and whole agencies on the take. Capone was convicted of Federal income tax evasion, but he never faced an accounting for his Volstead Act crimes – to say nothing of his manifest complicity in conspiracy, murder, bribery, theft, and assault. Lansky was never successfully prosecuted; Nitti served only two years for income tax evasion.
The corruption-problem was solved only when the 21st Amendment repealed the Volstead Act in 1933, 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.
Many historians argue that banning a commodity which enjoyed great popularity in American society was a serious societal overreach. Honest people can disagree about whether Prohibition was a Noble Experiment or an over-ambitious attempt to control a thirst shared by nearly every society in history. I wasn’t raised in a drinking family, so I don’t care much about beer, wine or strong spirits. But as a grown man I can see a lack of realism in trying to restrict a commodity desired by so much of the population.
The modern parallel to Prohibition would seem to be the decades-long war on illegal drugs. The vast sums of corrupting money and grisly violence certainly evoke the Roaring ‘20s. But the drug market is much smaller than the 1920s booze market, and mere possession of drugs is a crime. Only Federal law – not a Constitutional Amendment – keeps drugs illegal. The public is averse to hard drugs, but in recent years some states have moved to override federal laws by legalizing marijuana. Thus far those state laws have not been tested in the courts, but that reckoning might be coming.
Years ago I argued for legalizing drugs, subject to proper controls. I wanted to demonetize the black market and save the vast sums we spend on police, counselors, lawyers, bailiffs, prosecutors, clerks of court, judges, medical personnel and facilities, etc. – all employed in the war on drugs. Some of those people opposed my proposal, however. Later, I realized that they probably saw it as a threat to their jobs. People will usually oppose something if it looks like it might disrupt their livelihoods.
Today the country is not of one mind about legalization, so the war continues. It’s difficult to argue for complete decontrol because of drugs’ extreme destructiveness and the danger they pose to children. The “opiate crisis,” causing thousands of deaths each year, is a case in point. In fact, I no longer advocate legalization. Some things are just too dangerous, and have too little redeeming value, to be made legal.
A less recognized modern parallel to Prohibition is the attempt to control Illegal Immigration. As during the 1920s, the law is ignored at every societal and political level. Demand explains why. Generally, Americans have been indifferent to immigration lawbreaking, regarding it as a “victimless crime” like jaywalking – a trivial flaunting of Federal regulations that seems unrelated to them.
Some citizens believe improving the lot of “undocumented” people is compassionate and humanitarian work, and actively support it. Others live in a kind of dream world, imagining that government is truly working to keep our borders and our body-politic secure. But officials at all levels of government are dancing around the “illegality” question with an agility that would have made Bugsy Siegel proud.
Illegals represent a supply of cheap labor for business 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 illegals 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. Homeowners like the low rates illegals charge for yard work and repairs.
Educators see jobs and increased public funding in the flood of illegals. A million-plus children of illegals are in California public schools. The state’s education and welfare costs for illegals exceed $30 billion a year – from a state budget now $20 billion in deficit. Citizens tried to stop the financial bleeding by passing Proposition 187 in 1994,2 but their State Supreme Court overturned it.
In 2015 Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that lets illegal residents 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, short of Federal intervention. Illegals pouring over its borders and straining it social services to the breaking point have completely changed California from the state I first saw in 1966.
Politicians – speaking of “undocumented” persons as though they had merely forgotten their pool passes – find illegals very useful. Democrats see legions of new ethnic voters for their party. President George W. Bush – sympatico with immigrants (both legal and illegal) – tried to align illegals with the GOP by catering to their interests. In mid-2006, Mr. Bush supported a bi-partisan attempt in the GOP-controlled Senate to enact “comprehensive amnesty” for millions of illegal aliens. But the effort was thwarted by thousands of angry callers who jammed the Senate switchboard with a furious telephone offensive that spooked several senators into withdrawing their support. The proposed law was not passed.
Starting in 2001, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (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 our armed services. Young illegals who engage in any of these would become eligible for permanent legal residence in the USA. Some versions of the bill also allowed states to offer illegals in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities – reversing a ban on this practice in the 1996 Immigration Reform Act. The DREAM Act has been debated for so long that many citizens now believe it is actual law.
President Obama issued several executive-orders to “normalize” various blocs of illegals. In 2012 he stopped 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 program in August 2012. By January 2017, 740,000 people had registered through DACA.
Mr. Obama’s 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 by DACA. Her order also barred illegal immigrants from receiving state-subsidized child care, health insurance, unemployment benefits, business and professional licenses, and state contracts. In August 2012, ten U. S. Immigration and Customs agents sued Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, charging that DACA forced them to break the law.
A furious national argument over illegal immigration drove the 2016 presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, undoubtedly helping Mr. Trump to a surprise win that shocked the country’s political establishment on both sides of the aisle. Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, several of his executive orders – intended to restrict legal immigration from certain Middle East countries – have been blocked by federal judges. The president advocates construction of a wall to protect our southern border from illegal incursions. A political battle continues over funding for border protection and detainment facilities.
Supporters of legalizing illegals’ children (from both national parties) claim this would be compassionate and humanitarian, as well as pro-child, pro-education and pro-USA. They say it makes the best of a bad situation by helping children who came here illegally by their parents’ choice. A poorly educated child growing into an unskilled adult, they argued, will not help the country. Of course, they have a point, but it’s not the only point to be made.
Opponents reply that this “amnesty by another name” rewards illegality and slaps the collective face of immigrants and citizens who play by the rules. They say in-state tuition rates would advantage illegals over citizens who must pay higher tuition rates if they attend an out-of-state college.
One radio commentator noted that the country is not helped when politicians and officials undermine our immigration laws and reward people who cheat. A caller suggested that it makes sense to go to Mexico, then sneak back across the border as an illegal in order to qualify for special educational perks.
Thus, we are reliving the Prohibition era. No speeding Packards or gun battles (yet), but plenty of corruption over money and votes, and copious undermining of the law. Many Americans seem not to comprehend that uncontrolled illegal immigration –
- Costs billions in taxes;
- Causes political dilution;
- Lessens opportunities for education and jobs;
- Diminishes security.
After we increase our local taxes to educate illegals’ children, those children will compete with ours for entry to colleges and universities. If admitted, they will pay lower tuition. Illegals who get driving licenses can easily sign up to vote via the Motor Voter provision. They can vanish inside our vast country, and their whereabouts and activities will be unknown. (Not every illegal does cheap yard work and has adorable children.)
During Mr. Trump’s presidency, hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people from Mexico, Central America, Europe and the Middle East have overwhelmed our southern borders, demanding sanctuary from oppression. Border stations lack the facilities to detain them, so thousands are released into the USA each day, with little expectation that they will appear for their asylum-hearings. Thousands more are slipping into the country undetected, every week, and moving north.
Congressional Democrats use lurid tales of crowded border retention centers to bash Mr. Trump as a heartless racist, while refusing to appropriate funds for expanded facilities and enhanced border-protection. One analyst said the situation resembles a town-council that orders storekeepers to leave their shops unlocked at night, then denounces the mayor for increased crime. Federal agents report that our border situation is completely out of control. It is shaping up as a major issue in the 2020 election.
Except for Native Americans, every American either is an immigrant or has ancestors who immigrated. So we are naturally sympathetic toward people seeking 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, so we are conflicted about illegals. We realize we cannot let the whole world in. And we viscerally dislike seeing people get ahead by cheating.
Thus, the jury is still 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 patience with long wars, but I believe many are beginning to sense that this one is for keeps.
- 18th Amendment: https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxviii
- Proposition 187 was a 1994 ballot initiative that established a state-run citizenship-screening system to prohibit illegal immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other services in California.