Watching the talking heads on TV, it seems like everyone’s spouting off about keeping the borders secure, about not rewarding immigrants who have come to the US illegally, and about how much it costs to pay for illegal immigrants here in the US. Well, I’ve got bad news for you all, but those are exactly the wrong questions to be asking here. In fact, these questions are wrong in two ways: there is a better question to ask, and these questions distract from the real issues.
First, how much does it cost to pay for illegal immigrants? Some people throw around big numbers, ten billion or more, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s not true that, if we kicked out the illegal aliens, we’d suddenly save $10B; instead, prices for many of the things that we buy would go up. Further, much of this spending is for things that benefit us indirectly, such as treatment of diseases that are a public health concern and education for the children of immigrants, which provides said children with the opportunity to be successful in their lives (that I consider these things indirect benefits to me probably just proves that I’m a bleeding-heart lefty). At any rate, it’s not a simple kick-the-immigrants-out-save-billions issue.
One of the major things that people seem to agree on is question number two, keeping the borders secure (yes, I’m aware I’m working out of order here). It seems like a good idea to secure our borders, and there may be good national security reasons to do so, but border security won’t help with immigration. First of all, let’s just think this thing through: so we build a fence along the whole border. OK, then some clever Mexican comes up with — get this — wire-cutters, and makes a hole in the fence. Then they walk through that hole. So, now pick one:
* Let the Mexican come across and illegally clean your house
* Shoot the Mexican for wanting to clean your house
A bit trite, you say? Well then, let’s look at history. The last time we tightened up the borders, we actually ended up spending more to support illegal immigrants (see point above). Why? Well, a lot of migrant workers had come up for grape-picking season every year and then returned to their homes and families in Latin America during the off-season. Now, with the tighter border, these migrant workers instead decided to stay in the US, where the jobs were, and brought up their families too.
The real solution to border security is a market-based solution: make it easier to get across the border legally than to go illegally, and easier for companies to hire legal immigrants than illegal ones. Of course, this means that both legal entry and hiring migrant workers, legally, need to be absurdly easy. But, otherwise, it will continue to be a sounder economic decision for people to behave illegally than legally.
And then there’s the question of rewarding immigrants who’ve come to the US illegally, by giving them citizenship. This is a good entree into the real solution, which is: we need to ask where we want to be, not get obsessed with where we are. Thinking about how people got here is focusing on things in the past that cannot be changed; there is no way that someone who came illegally can change that fact, even if they’ve stayed in the US legally for 20 years. They’re here, and we’ve got to deal with that. Can we make something positive of their presence in this country, rather than something negative? On one occasion, an immigrant made the decision to come legally or not, Every day, they make the decision to behave legally or not, to work hard or not, to be a good parent or friend or family member or community resident or not. Should we ignore all of the other good choices they’ve made and deny them citizenship? And is citizenship a reward, a responsibility, or both? Do we profit more from giving an immigrant citizenship than we give up, or is it a bigger benefit to them than it is to us? We need to decide these things before we can even begin to tackle the citizenship question.
The present Congressional leadership wants to rush an immigration bill through; we really need to consider all of these issues and many more. The real questions are:
* What kind of a United States do we want to build?
* How do we compete with up-and-coming countries like India and China in the 21st century?
* What are our real national security requirements, and what are we doing to fulfill them? Where will we cut corners and where will we execute fully?
If we don’t consider these serious questions, any solution we adopt is, at best, a band-aid. Let’s not make this an issue we revisit every couple of years, let’s have a serious national conversation and adopt an approach that can last us for the next half century or more.