Saturday, August 11, 2007

Let 'em come

OK, let’s solve the immigration problem. Let’s crack down, let’s get tough. Here’s what we do: First, we fence off the border with Mexico. It’s only 1,500 miles or so. That would be--hang on, have to go price fencing at Home Depot... Hmmm. That’s a lot of fencing. But hey, it’s a serious problem, so let’s spend the billions. We’ll run the fence right through Big Bend National Park, ignore the environmentalists’ protests. At the rate of a hundred yards a day, pretty good going for a competent crew, we’ll have the sucker walled off in... Wait a second. Fencing off the border might not be as easy as it sounds. But if we could put a man on the moon...
All right then, tackle the other end of the problem. Go after the employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. Threaten them with fines or even jail if they don’t double-check to make sure all their employees are legal. Put the burden of checking the papers on the guy who needs to get his apples in before they rot, or the contractor who has two weeks to get the concrete poured. Round up the illegals, all twelve million of them, and bus them back to the border. (OK, that’s a lot of buses, but if we could put a man on the moon...) The resulting job vacancies will be filled by our domestic unemployed. People will stream eagerly out of Oakland into the Sacramento Valley to pick the vegetables...
Let’s get serious. Massive illegal immigration does pose certain problems for the United States, but they are not existential, nation-threatening problems. (The existential threat to the nations of America started in 1492, and it’s over. The Americans lost, and the Europeans won.) Furthermore, the various draconian solutions proposed would be absurdly costly and futile, like, well, building levees around New Orleans.
To think seriously about immigration we have to think seriously about scale. The illusion of “taking control of our borders” rests on an inability to conceive of the distances and spaces and numbers involved. If a few thousand people per day want to sneak across a line fifteen hundred miles long, you’re just not going to stop them all. You will catch a few, maybe enough to create deterrence locally, but then they’ll just go look for another crossing point. When you’ve sealed off all the easy ones they’ll start trashing Big Bend National Park. Large voluntary population movements cannot be easily controlled. They just can’t. Only incentives will do it.
It makes more sense to police things at the other end, where the stepped-up enforcement measures just announced in Washington could create enough fear in employers to make them pickier about whom they hire. But there are costs as well as benefits here. How much additional paperwork can a small business take on without cracking under the strain? How easy is it going to be for employers to find legal workers all of a sudden? It’s easy to demonize employers who hire illegal aliens (and no doubt some of them do it knowingly and just don’t care). But it’s harder to come up with alternatives for them. When there’s work to be done, you hire who’s there.
Furthermore, how much are you willing to pay for groceries? Maybe you’re willing to pay a lot more to insure that your vegetables were picked by Americans. But maybe not everyone has as much money as you. Poor people benefit from low prices, or had that never occurred to you in your outrage over companies using cheap labor to hold down their costs? Tell you what, you explain to the people living from one Social Security check to the next that grocery prices just doubled because we kicked out the Mexicans.
From a purely economic point of view, the case for open borders is strong. If the rich can shift their capital anywhere in the world at the touch of a button, why shouldn’t the poor be able to take their labor where it is most valued? Mexicans are doing exactly what blacks did when they came north in the Great Migration, and a lot of white people didn’t like that, either. But somehow the economy survived. Competition, in labor just as in everything else, is what holds down costs and makes the economy efficient. So if you’re only interested in economic efficiency, you ought to throw the gates wide open.
The trouble is, economics isn’t the only thing involved. There are two genuine problems posed by massive illegal immigration. The first is the rule-of-law issue. If you have laws on the books but fail, year after year, to enforce them, it undermines the rule of law on which any decent society has to be based. It tells people that the law is no longer supreme, that instead expediency is supreme. And that’s a really bad message to send. It makes people who have taken pains to observe the law (like those who jumped through all the hoops and waited all the years to gain legal residence in the U.S.) wonder why they bothered. Whatever the merits of our immigration laws, the fact that their enforcement has been completely ineffectual is a serious failing.
Now, some essential laws are hard to enforce, and no law is perfectly enforceable. Difficulty of enforcement alone is not a reason to ditch a law. But if enforcement is so difficult or costly that we just can’t be bothered to enforce it, it’s time to ask whether we ought to have the law. If the prohibited activity is not in and of itself harmful, maybe we don’t need that law. That’s the case for some kind of amnesty on immigration, some recognition that our immigration policy has simply been overtaken by events and it’s time to reconsider it.
However, there are problems with amnesty as well (such as the bird it flips to the aforementioned people who jumped through all the hoops). If all an amnesty does is let everyone off the hook, it just tells people that we’re not serious about our laws. So there has to be some kind of process for legalization. You have to make people jump through some hoops. You have to say to them: we’re willing to let you become legal, but you have to prove that it means something to you by taking these steps. Then the debate is over how many hoops we make them jump through.
The second problem with mass immigration is cultural. Any country needs a certain amount of cultural unity. We need a common language, we need common allegiance and a common culture. That does not mean a bland cultural uniformity: there is plenty of room in this country for preservation of diverse traditions. But we need a common core of values.
Now, U.S. culture is very powerful and appealing. People tend to want to assimilate to it. Even if the first generation sticks to the old-country ways, their children usually don’t. Left to themselves, people assimilate automatically. Unless, that is, they are actively encouraged not to assimilate. And that is the effect of some policies that may be well-intended but have the effect of encouraging ghettoization and separatism. It is folly to try to provide education and official documents in every language under the sun. There is no need to pass legislation to make English our official language; all we need to do is to refrain from caving in to demands to conduct official business in anything else. People are very good at learning the languages they need to function. All we need to do is let them get on with it.
Our immigration “problem” will sort itself out if we focus on essentials: maintaining a legal framework that allows migration but encourages integration. I say let them come, but expect them to assimilate.

Sam Reaves

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