Fourth of July Note: Before posting this item, I passed it by some friends, both conservative and liberal and somewhere in between. None has unfriended me on FaceBook and they still take my phone calls, so it’s just possible there’s some truth in common sense. And isn’t this great country all about common sense, common people and the commonwealth? As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha.”
I am continually amazed at the people who think immigration reform is a controversial topic of some sort. When you approach it like a true American, it’s so simple that even a child couldn’t screw it up.
Thank God we have Congress to handle it for us. Or not handle it, as the case may be.
ABOUT THIS COUNTRY
The United States is a really special country and part of what makes us special is our history of accepting all kinds of people from all kinds of places and turning them into AMERICANS. We’re all hyphenated Americans of a sort, but most of us end up with the second half (xyz-AMERICAN) in all caps.
The ability to take in boatloads of people and transform them in a generation or two is such a quiet and consistent process in this land that we sometimes forget it exists. Like the cleanup teams at Disneyland, the work is so silent and efficient that you can forget it’s going on.
ABOUT IMMIGRATION (THE LEGAL KIND)
We all take pride in saying this is a nation of immigrants and, in fact, most of us are no more than two or three generations removed from the people who grabbed a batch of clothes and a fry pan and hopped on some ship—in steerage. Most of us, I suspect, have actually met the person who was the first of our family to set foot on these shores, even if that person is no longer with us today.
We believe in the American Dream, the ability of strangers who know nothing of this country or its culture to become a part of us and to succeed. Many (most) of us recognize that the American Dream has been at work in our own families.
People come here to pursue the American Dream and you don’t see a whole lot of people begging for a chance to leave. The exit door is open, but there’s a lot of cobwebs on the hinges. The American Dream involves work and most people come to work. You can see it in the fast food joints, the donut shops, dry cleaners, landscaping companies, factories—pretty much anywhere that the wages are low and the work is difficult. It’s the first step on the ladder and they’re ready to jump on it.
Immigration is good for many reasons. It brings in new workers—people with drive and ideas—enriches our overall culture and builds our economy. Everyone in this country needs to eat, to sleep, to have a roof overhead, to attend school and buy clothes and pay for texts. Strip away all the political spinning and lies and you find that population growth builds the economy and immigration is a good way to build population.
By the way, population growth is one reason the United States might fare better than many European countries that are aging faster and have few younger workers to pay taxes. Whatever we might think about Social Security and Health Care Reform and other government programs, it’s an absolute fact that each of us pays less taxes than we would if there were fewer people to support the system. If anything, immigration is a good way to reduce the burdens per capita from unaffordable programs.
ABOUT IMMIGRATION (THE ILLEGAL KIND)
First, let’s stop saying politically correct things like “undocumented.” Using euphemisms makes people sound fearful, unable to address topics head-on.
The challenge in discussing illegal immigration is that the distinction is legality, not immigration. Lots of people who don’t like immigrants, other than their own grannies, will talk about immigrants as if all are illegal. Lots of people who see legality as a mere technicality talk about illegals as if they don’t represent a problem at all.
So we come to the question: Why does legality matter? If a person comes to work, as most do, why do we care if they come with papers or not?
There are two simple answers here:
First, if we cannot know whether Jose or Piotr or Winston has entered the country legally, we cannot know if Osama bin Laden is here, either. Knowing who is in the country is a national security issue. It’s not particularly dangerous when Pedro comes to harvest fruit or Mani overstays his visa to keep writing code, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore their presence. In the world of security, you can’t inspect only the bad guys, because they tend to hide among the good ones.
Second, illegal immigration creates a number of distortions in our country. Illegal immigrants are more likely to be abused in the workplace and less likely to report a crime. Illegal immigrants with native-born children run the risk of being deported, leaving their citizen offspring behind. Illegal immigrants are more likely to work for cash, and be off the tax rolls, although lots of American shrimp boat operators in the Gulf are suddenly discovering the downside of that gambit as they need to show BP how much income they’re losing.
The cost of illegal immigrants to the nation is really hard to calculate, although you can find very specific numbers trumpeted on both ends of the political noise machine. If an employer pays illegal immigrants in cash and provides no benefits, that employer’s income rises and he pays more taxes as a result. Assuming our law-abiding employer is actually paying the full amount of his taxes owed, the government might see a net gain in its income—because the employer is paying at a higher marginal tax rate than his worker. As money circulates through the economy, the total impact of Illegal/legal immigrants might not vary much, but there could be large displacements as local school boards get less, for example, and the state government or feds get more.
Illegal immigration also creates distortions in law enforcement. Local police have fewer cooperating witnesses when the victims of crimes have the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. More federal dollars go to tracking down and deporting criminals here illegally, people who would be simply local/state targets if they were citizens or, in some cases, legally within our borders. As a result, less federal time and dollars go to anti-terrorism efforts.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
Okay, assuming everything above is true, which it is, what do we do? We benefit from immigration, but illegal immigration creates costly displacements in the economy. Is there, perhaps, a three-step solution to fix all of this?
Why, yes, there is.
1. Secure the borders. It costs much less to keep the border secure than to try to find and address issues across 50 states. By borders, I’m talking about the coasts and Canada, along with Mexico. This is a national security issue, not a Mexican immigrant issue. We do need to invest more heavily in the South, as a practical matter, but people who speak only of the southern border betray more of their beliefs than they might realize. This government, like every government, has all good reason to know who is and isn’t coming into the country. Why waste money on immigration enforcement in the States when it takes about a week for a deported person to re-enter our space? Secure borders are a necessity. In fact, nothing works without secure borders, because people who are thrown out find it far too easy to come back.
2. Open the gates. Bring in immigrants by the truckload and encourage them to become citizens. Yeah, there’s no more room here, but that’s what they said when our grandparents were getting off the boat, too. We have room and we have opportunity—that American Dream thing we like to talk about. People on the left love Zero Growth when it comes to environment, but not immigration. People on the right love Zero Growth when it comes to immigration, but not the environment. They’re both wrong. When we make it easier to come legally, we reduce the incentive to come illegally. Fewer criminals enter, including terrorists, because the border is secure, and people who are deported are likely to stay deported, for the same reason. The good, hard-working people who want to become Americans will be able to do so and we will know how to keep the others out of our fine nation.
3. Create a path to citizenship. Let’s face facts. We aren’t going to deport 12-20 million people. First, it might not be possible for us to identify and process that many people in a lifetime and we would end up with multi-trillion-dollar costs in doing so. In addition, the movement of 12-20 million people, many of them employed and, contrary to public opinion, paying taxes, would cause gigantic disruptions to our economy. Not to mention the violent battles in the streets of our nation.
If we eliminate the impossible, as Sherlock Holmes said, we’ll arrive at the truth. The truth is that we would benefit immensely from having 12-20 million additional tax-paying, voting, engaged citizens. (NB: Republican fears that all will be Democratic votes might not come to pass. Contrary to much punditry, Latino doesn’t equal Liberal.) Bringing illegals out of the shadows, to the extent they are hiding now, will also accelerate their acculturation as Americans.
The Puritanical side of me believes all the illegal immigrants should have to pay fines and back taxes and otherwise jump through flaming hoops to become citizens. The common sense part of me says we should make the path attractive—even it it isn’t free—and naturalize as many as we can as fast as we can. It will be less expensive, less time consuming and less disruptive over the long term.
Sometimes, we make situations more complicated than they need to be. In seeking or insisting on the perfect solution, we give ourselves the excuse to provide no solution at all. The problem gets worse, as has been the case with government spending, Social Security shortfall, state pension programs, personal debt and so on. We pass the problem on to our children like an heirloom that is not only priceless but also unaffordable.
Every so often, Ockham’s Razor is the scalpel we need. Every so often, we must decide whether we want to be vindicated in our beliefs or simply choose to resolve an issue. Immigration reform is simple, if we want it enough to choose common sense, decency and practicality over ideology.
And, on this Fourth of July, isn’t it nice to recall that common sense, decency and practicality are fundamental strengths of this great nation?