Immigration: What to do about it? -- Everything

In a previous column I admitted to having no solution to the immigration problem. But discussions with the Lakewood Public Library’s “Great Decisions” group changed my perspective. And immigration is worth another round of discussion, for under the new and (hopefully) improved Congress it might again be on the table.

Illegal immigration from Mexico is a process. It begins with the need to migrate on the part of Mexicans (as well as those who migrate through Mexico, e.g. Central Americans – or terrorists). It ends with the attempt to find employment in the U.S. This process must be attacked at every point. Think of a dike with many leaks. If we leave any leak unplugged we will be drowned. To the extent that we fail in any aspect of the immigration program we run the danger of being overrun.

But we can’t try for perfection. All we can hope for – and all we should aim for -- is to transform illegal immigration from a desperate necessity into a foolish risk.

We can do this by lessening the need to immigrate, by making illegal immigration more difficult, and by making the alternative (i.e., legal immigration) more realizable.
To this end, I offer a five-point proposal.


Currently, immigration is governed by a complicated quota system that produces long waiting lines and is strongly slanted in favor of relatives of those already in the country – relatives that are probably not in the work force. As far as immigration from Mexico is concerned, the system allows far fewer adults to enter than the number who wish to. The rest, as we know, stream across the border illegally.

On the U.S. side, the demand for these illegal immigrants shows that our businesses need far more Mexican immigrants than the immigration laws now permit.

How many more? What number of adult immigrants should be allowed to enter legally from Mexico and Central America – what should the legal quota be? The required number is clearly greater than the legal quotas now in effect and is presumably smaller than the current number of illegal immigrants.
This question of the legal quota is a political one, to be resolved by balancing interests, mainly the interests of businesses in getting Mexican workers versus the interests of American labor in minimizing competition from these workers. Rather than allowing the question to be settled by anecdotal claims and partisan broadsides, we need to settle it through open deliberation based on all the facts with all sides participating.

Congress must make the final decision, but it should do so on the basis of recommendations from a conference and/or commission representing all stakeholders and marshalling all the expertise available. The experts will be asked to determine exactly what the consequences would be (primarily economic consequences, but also social consequences) for any given number of immigrants. (And perhaps in calculating these consequences we should expand the experts’ numbers by, say, 5% to allow for leakage in the system.) Using these factual estimates, the participants in the conference(s) and/or commission could hammer out a fair and equitable number of immigrants to allow in each year, and transmit their findings to Congress.
(With the increase in the number of legal immigrants, a guest-worker program will be unnecessary. It is also unwise, for the same reason that it would be unwise not to provide amnesty, as discussed below.)

This quota of legal immigrants would represent a national consensus, and its establishment would leave no legitimate grounds for complaint about the number being legally admitted and no room arguments against preventing others from entering illegally.

What remains is to take the measures that will insure against illegal entry.

The basic and obvious problem is that the illegal immigrants’ motivation to immigrate is stronger than the barriers set up to stop them. So one necessary point of attack is to decrease the pressure for immigration at the source:


We need to make life in Mexico more viable for small farmers in Mexico and Central America. I see two ways of doing so:

First, inaugurate an extensive program of micro-credit throughout Mexico, especially southern Mexico, and in all relevant parts of Central America.
Micro-credit, as you may know from recent news stories, is a program for lending small amounts of money to poor people – people too poor to get loans from normal banks. Begun in Bangladesh, it has spread around the world and has proven spectacularly successful, both in terms of repayment of the loans and in terms of lifting recipients out of poverty. In fact it has been so successful that its originator, Muhammad Yunus, recently won the Nobel Peace Prize.

With a relatively small amount of working capital and with the consent of the Mexican government, the U.S. could initiate micro-credit programs throughout the poorer areas of Mexico and Central America. Farmers would be enabled to switch to higher-yield crops (see the next recommendation), and workmen would be enabled to start their own cottage industries. These measures would alleviate some of the poverty that drives so many Mexicans and Central Americans northward.

Second, stop the sale of U.S. corn in Mexico. Small-scale Mexican farmers, it is reported, cannot compete with exports from U.S. producers and must go out of business. Their only alternative is to go north. This process, it is claimed, is worsened by government subsidies to U.S. farmers. How big a role such subsidies play is open to dispute; in any case, all reports indicate that U.S. corn is driving Mexican farmers off the land.

The Mexican government supposedly allowed for this possibility by initiating programs through which corn farmers could switch to more profitable crops, as well as by encouraging farmers to take the manufacturing jobs that NAFTA would bring in. But the former program has not reached all the farmers it is intended to benefit, and many of the factory jobs have gone to China.
Beyond this one instance of corn exports, the larger question of NAFTA should be explored. We are familiar with complaints that NAFTA hurts U.S. workers, but the opposite seems to be taking place as well – exports from the U. S., under NAFTA, are hurting Mexicans and forcing them to emigrate.
Of course, banning agricultural or other exports is a violation of free trade principles, and as such may hurt various interests in the U.S. and perhaps in Mexico as well. But it is necessary if illegal immigration is to be minimized. If we are serious about minimizing illegal immigration, we will take the steps necessary to do so, regardless of complaints from the agriculture sector (mainly agrobusiness).

There is a historical analogy to the events now transpiring in Mexico: In England, mainly between 1750 and 1850, large landowners put through a system of laws known as the Enclosure Acts (or “Inclosure Acts”). Prior to these measures, much of the grazing and farm land was common property, available to all villagers. The Enclosure Acts transformed these common lands into private holdings. The rationale, presumably, was that privatized farming was more efficient. But the result was that many of the poorer herders and farmers were forced off the land and had to make a living elsewhere, often migrating to the cities where they formed the ill-paid labor force that kindled industrialization and the rise of capitalism. After the Enclosure Acts, English farmers went to London. After NAFTA, Mexican farmers are coming to the United States.


I know the arguments against: If you build a 12-foot fence, there will be a run on 13-foot ladders, not to mention tunneling equipment. But I’m not claiming that the fence, or any one provision of the program, will be sufficient. Please remember that we’re not aiming for a cure-all but for disincentives – the more the better. And a patrolled fence will certainly be a disincentive.
The fence might especially work to prevent the entry of terrorists, because it will increase the need to cross the border in small disciplined groups, with a “coyote” in command. In such close contact with their coyote and their fellow travelers, Islamic terrorists would find it more difficult to pass themselves off as Mexicans. (To increase this effect, the Congress might pass a law providing severe penalties for anyone who knowingly or unknowingly abets a terrorist’s entry into the U.S.)


The prohibition on employment of illegal aliens should be strictly enforced. If illegal aliens cannot get a job, their predominant reason for illegal immigration is removed. This prohibition is of course defeated if the illegal immigrant can forge his or her immigration documents. What is needed, then, is a forgery-proof identity card.

So far so good. But identity cards will have to be issued not only to immigrants but to everyone in the labor force, native-born and immigrant alike, so that employers will have no excuse for failing to demand proper identification.
Of course, the universal identity card is what evokes cries of Big Brother and the Police State.

But would it really be that bad? Such an identity card would have only two elements: first, some foolproof (and forgery-proof) means of linking the card to the physical presence of its holder (here biometric techniques might be useful), and second, the person’s immigration status. Nothing else would be on the card. Furthermore, such an identity card wouldn’t really be universal; it need be carried only by those who might seek employment. (Retired people, for example, wouldn’t need one)

Criticism of identity cards involves two aspects: what the card contains, and how it is used (e.g., it might be used to track library checkouts, travel, etc.) The identity cards I am thinking about would contain only one thing, namely immigration status; and they would be used for only one purpose, namely applying for a job; that would be the only information that could be tracked. As a proud card-carrying member of the ACLU, I ask my fellow members: What is wrong with that?


Yes, I know the arguments against amnesty: It rewards illegality. And it’s unfair to those who have come in legally. Nevertheless it is necessary now. Without amnesty, the millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S. will go/stay underground and remain a huge undigested lump in the body politic. Trying to root them out is futile. The only alternative is to absorb them.

The amnesty program should operate along much the same line as has been proposed: At a certain time all illegal aliens could apply; they would go through a process of applying for citizenship according to set provisions (and perhaps paying certain penalties, though I don’t see how the penalties accomplish anything). And after a certain date all those who were not on their way to citizenship would be subject to deportation. (And two-time offenders should perhaps be imprisoned, if there is room for them.)

The amnesty program could be complemented by what we might call an “anti-amnesty” program, i.e. ways of penalizing those who opt to remain illegal. For example, they might be refused certain social services, or their children, even those born within the U.S., might be denied citizenship. (The latter might require amending the Constitution, but I doubt that would be a problem.)

This five-point program of immigration control would cost a lot of money, but if illegal immigration is as serious as claimed, we should be willing to spend whatever is needed.

Those who champion partial solutions aren’t really giving illegal immigration the serious consideration they claim it deserves. I suspect they have some other agenda in mind, ahead of, or instead of, immigration control. The hardliners who propose a fence and punitive measures are fooling themselves if they think that those two measures alone will solve the problem. Or maybe they’re not fooling themselves, but rather pandering to the anti-foreigner bias of a certain type of voter.

As for those on the other end of the spectrum – those who protest against any measures to crack down on immigrants, illegal or otherwise – I just don’t know what to think of them. Do they really want to erase the distinction between legality and illegality? Or are they just trying to show their sympathetic natures, in contrast to their mean-spirited opponents? They will have to explain their reasoning; I’m not up to it.
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Volume 3, Issue 2, Posted 9:09 PM, 01.12.07