by Barry Edelson


A Modest Proposal on Immigration


Whatever We're Doing Now, It's Not Working

Since man first roamed the Earth, he has gone to great pains to protect his terrain from incursions by other members of his species. Whether it is a hunting range, a river, or a field of potatoes, human beings are highly protective of their own space and of the fruits (literally) of their labor. A formal border between nations, of the kind we live with today, is a recent phenomenon, but man has always established boundaries around the territory upon which he depends for his survival, and defended it with his life. It was observed by Jacob Bronowski in "The Ascent of Man" that war is not a human instinct, but originally developed as an organized form of theft. Groups of people are constantly rubbing against one another, jealously guarding land and property, taking what they need or want when they have the power to do so, fending off aggressors with merciless fury. Let us therefore dispense at the outset with any romantic notion of a prelapsarian world without borders. It is without basis in fact, and provides no insight into the problem of the modern-day movement of peoples.

There are several other absurdities that make it nearly impossible to enact meaningful immigration reform, whatever that phrase is supposed to mean. First, the United States of America, for all its current troubles and troubled history, is a first-world country, and first-world countries have always been and always will be a magnet for the less fortunate in the third-world countries. We are never going to stop people from trying to come here, no matter how many walls we build and how high we build them. Whether we're talking about the border between the U.S. and Mexico, or the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and North Africa, the dynamic is the same. We are rich and they are poor, and nothing short of their equalling or eclipsing our standard of living is going to change that calculus.

Second, we must stop thinking of the people who enter this country without the government's invitation as "illegals". This word is used deliberately to denigrate poor migrants as de facto criminals and therefore unwelcome. There isn't a shred of evidence that the prevalence of criminal behavior among undocumented immigrants is any higher than among "legal" immigrants or the population as a whole. This is nothing new, and as the civilized descendants of wanderers (every single one of us, the Native Americans included), we ought to be more sensitive to this inhuman tendency. Every wave of immigration in American history has been met with the same obvious attempt to brand the newcomers as somehow unsavory: the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans, all different from those who came before, and different looking. As a teacher of mine once said, 19th-century immigrants were hated for the "isms" they brought to America: Catholicism, Socialism, Anarchism, alcoholism. Today's unwanted guests from Mexico and other points south are different in no important way from anyone else who ever tried to come to this country. Their misfortune is simply to have been born into an era in which we aren't allowing large numbers of unskilled workers into the country, and their "crime" is crossing a border, an invisible and arbitrary line in the sand, that stands between them and what they hope will be a better life.

Third, the imposition of a police state will succeed only in inflicting a heavy toll on our rights as citizens. One would have thought by now that the hyper-reaction of the Patriot Act would have taught us that undermining liberties in the name of security is a fool's game. We need to get it through our thick skulls once and for all that abrogating the rights of any human being is a threat to the rights of all of us. Arizona's new "immigration" law, which requires the police to inquire about the status of anyone they deem "suspicious", is so obvious an example of government idiocy as to be barely worth mentioning. The politicians who argue, all too familiarly, that "law abiding citizens" have nothing to fear from this or any other law, would do well to ask their citizens of hispanic descent, including some whose ancestors were living in the southwestern U.S. for centuries before they fell under the control of an English-speaking government, whether they agree with this proposition. Even the police in Arizona don't want to enforce this law (notwithstanding the already notorious sheriff of Maricopa County, whose name will not be repeated here, and who evidently misplaced his application to the KGB). Sure, if you're white and well-dressed, you are not likely to be bothered by the Phoenix police. Nor asked too many questions at the airport security check-in, for that matter. But the Bill of Rights is supposed to guarantee that the rights of the minority are no less secure than those of the majority. How many Americans would knowingly volunteer to live in a police state, even if they knew they were personally unlikely to be arrested?

There Is a Better Way

There is a popular saying that defines insanity as applying the same solution to a problem over and over even though the outcome never changes. America's approach to immigration on our southern border bears many of the worst characteristics of the "war on drugs". Like all prohibitionist movements, both efforts are utterly and demonstrably ineffectual. We have no more stemmed the flow of drugs than we have sealed the border against unauthorized crossings. Both policies create artificial shortages — in the one case, a dearth of sufficient legal quotas for immigrants, in the other, a relative scarcity of a commodity that remains in demand — therefore greatly increasing the price of entry. In both cases, higher prices are an open invitation to criminal black markets, which have fostered a vast subculture of extremely violent smugglers, which is, in turn, have become costly burdens to our entire society.

Only after we've acknowledged that current policies have failed can we look beyond solutions that are some combination of legal confusion, paramilitary action, ethnic vilification and paranoid delusion. Only once we rid ourselves of the notion that we can actually seal the borders, label every undocumented worker as a criminal, and send millions of migrants back where they came from — and that it is even desirable to do any of these things — can we start to consider some ideas so obvious that we seem to have simply overlooked them.

Here, then, is my modest proposal:

(1) Let them in. The only reason why so many immigrants come to this country illegally is because we don't allow them to enter legally. Who would trek across the Sonoran Desert if he didn't have to? So, let us admit that there is a serious shortage of manual laborers in the United States, and admit millions of them to come in an orderly fashion from somewhere else. More than one elected official made the argument in the past week that unemployment is high in this country because so many illegal immigrants are working here. No, unemployment is high because we have recently suffered a catastrophic failure in our financial industry and a bursting of a massive real estate price bubble. (It was in all the papers). It is the worst-kept secret on the planet that, even in the dire economic straits we are now navigating, most Americans do not want the low-paying jobs that mostly hispanic migrants are doing. Let's face reality: without all of these "illegals", the cost of many services (landscaping, roofing, construction, etc.) would be dramatically higher. Let us begin to think of our porous border as a boon, not a drain, on the economy. It worked in the late 19th century: instead of building a wall, build a new Ellis Island in the Arizona desert. It will provide a virtually bottomless supply of cheap labor, and save a fortune in border patrols.

(2) Stop sending them home. Hasn't anybody noticed that they just keep coming back? Even after we've instituted an orderly way to gain entry legally, some people will still try to jump the line by crossing the border illegally. Well, since they're coming here to work, let's give them work — for the government. This would work as well for the new arrivals as for the millions already here without papers. Make them work as long as it takes them to pay off the costs of adjudicating their cases (a minimum of three years, say), and then give them a choice of getting at the back of line for legal residency, or just going home. If they choose to go back, and cross illegally again, put them to work for five years, or ten, the second time. Pretty, soon, the word will get out that we're serious.

(3) Make them speak the language. One of the oft-cited reasons for hostility towards more recent immigrants is that they tend to live in monolingual enclaves and resist assimilation more than our great-grandparents did when they came here in centuries past. While it is already mandated that people with green cards have to study English to maintain their residency status, the rule is poorly enforced. With allowances for someone's age at the time he entered the country, people should have to demonstrate a genuine willingness to partake of our society and culture, not just our wealth, by truly learning the language. This doesn't have to be done in a draconian fashion, by outlawing the use of other languages in private settings, for example. The main reason why so many municipalities across the country offer services in Spanish is because of the questionable status of so many people living here. In other words, it's nearly impossible to impose a one-language standard when so many people are simply afraid to be counted, and so many others are willing to hide and defend them. This provision would bridge some of the ethnic divide that separates immigrants from their new country, make it somewhat harder to profile legitimate residents and citizens, and take away a potent argument wielded by some in the more hateful anti-immigrant camp who just don't like foreigners, period.

It does no good to hide behind the platitude that we are a nation of immigrants. In Annie Proulx's novel, "Accordian Crimes", she puts paid to the myth of the American melting pot by depicting several immigrant families from different countries, each of whom bears little but bitter hatred towards the members of every other immigrant group. Her intent was not to show that we are incapable of living together, but that despite the similar aspirations, and even the cultures, of these very different people, creating e pluribus unum is a painful and laborious process. It is not the sentimental experiment in nationhood that we were all taught in grade school, but it is plainly not impossible either. We need to be honest about where we've been in order to get serious about where we would like to go as a people. Our current attitudes towards immigration are making this a far more difficult task than it needs to be.

May 1, 2010


Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.