Monday, October 17, 2011

Illegal Immigration

Generally speaking, I've avoided blogging on political subjects, but this one I can no longer ignore. I read in the paper this morning (yesterday's paper, actually -- current news is sometimes a casualty of country living) that over the weekend both Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann spoke out on the subject of illegal immigration.

Cain wanted to electrify the (mostly non-existent) border fence at a lethal level, potentially killing those attempting to get into the U.S.. Or, he offered as an alternative, the National Guard could just shoot them.

Bachmann railed against the "illegality" of immigrant's entry into the U.S. (an argument I've heard a lot, which usually starts with "What is it about illegal they don't understand..."), and wants to build a "secure double fence", whatever that is.

Folks, I just don't understand the (apparent) conservative position on this subject at all. And I've been a conservative voter all my life!

There are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Most of these are Hispanic, with the largest group coming from Mexico. Why do they come to the U.S. despite the obvious dangers? Economic opportunity, combined with a sentence of horrible poverty in their home country. If you want to get a sense of the desperation faced by these people, spend a little time in an underdeveloped country. I have, and it is truly eye-opening. These immigrants aren't poor because they're lazy or stupid, and are looking for a "free ride" -- they lack a chance! There are minds equivalent to today's Nobel prize winners trapped in the bush somewhere because they have NO WAY to improve their lot. Most of the European immigrants coming to the United States in prior centuries arrived for similar reasons.

I don't find it odd that these immigrants want to enter the U.S., but it still must be a frightening undertaking. In fact, you might generally characterize illegal immigrants as brave, bold and willing to take a chance to better themselves -- the kind of people we would want in our country. And the legality or illegality of crossing a border, when compared to permanent punishing poverty in their home country probably represents little more than a speed-bump. If you are willing to abandon family, culture, and language (eventually), for opportunity, what does the often flaunted U.S. law on immigration matter? It's just another risk to be dealt with.

I think most illegal immigrants would enter the United States legally, however, if there was ever any hope of them getting a visa to do so. The chances of them obtaining one are about as good as you or I hitting the lottery.

U.S. legal immigration policies are a part of this equation. Over the previous decade, the United States permitted roughly 1 million people to annually enter the country legally -- 700 thousand if you subtract those leaving. That number equals approximately 0.2% population growth per year, hardly a large percentage. Of these, approximately 1/3 are from Hispanic countries. The inflow of illegals is twice this level. This looks like basic economics to me -- unmet demand (a shortage of domestic candidates for low skilled jobs), and artificially constrained supply (not enough legal immigrants allowed to enter the U.S.) creates the temptation for people to enter the United States illegally.

Overall economic impact is hard to assess, when it comes to illegal immigrants. There appear to be opinions across the board ranging from those who tally up only costs (education for children -- many of whom are U.S. born, and rightfully citizens -- government services, and criminal justice), to those who make theoretical arguments that Social Security would be insolvent without the payments of illegal aliens -- payments which will never be claimed in benefits.

I put my stock in the near-consensus opinion of economists. In a 2006 survey by the Wall Street Journal, 46 noted economists were asked if illegal immigrants had an overall positive or negative impact on the U.S. economy. All but two believed the net impact was positive.

Is illegal immigration then a victim-less crime?

Not completely. There are some citizens who will suffer as a result of illegal immigration. A person injured in a car accident where the fault lies with an illegal immigrant. The victim of a crime committed by an illegal immigrant. And there is evidence that the availability of an illegal immigrant workforce does depress wage levels slightly in some low skill job classifications.

But on balance, I don't believe illegal immigrants are the "problem" many people make them out to be. And there are other uglier explanations for anti-immigrant attitudes. Things like fear of loss of political power, concerns over "sharing the pie" (although most economists will tell you population growth causes the pie to get bigger), or perhaps xenophobia.

So what's the solution? Certainly it isn't rounding up 11 million illegal immigrants and shipping them back to their country of origin. That would be inhumane in the extreme, in addition to being completely impractical. How can there be any other solution than to provide a path to eventual citizenship for these people?

As to border control -- I can't support Cain's plan to electrify the (mostly non-existent) fence, and or shoot anyone who wants to enter. I could support tighter border controls, but in conjunction with a more liberal (yikes, did I really use that word?) legal immigration policy which gives those living with the prospect of permanent poverty a realistic chance to enter the U.S.

None of my ideas, however, will counter the potential loss of political power of conservatives. Let's face it, the democratic party has done a good job making themselves the friends of immigrants, something the Republicans should ponder a bit. And it might mean we will continue to see more dual language signs, instructions, and the like -- a small price to pay for economic growth, IMHO. And, there is nothing in my thoughts to pacify outright racism, although I don't believe that motive deserves any pacification.

So, my conservative friends -- let's hear your arguments. Tell me where I've got it wrong.


  1. Thank you Tom for this straightforward presentation. The subject has become so emotionally charged that the facts behind immigration are lost in the dust. Thank you for bringing them back to the forefront, this is the only way to generate a healthy discussion.

  2. You have made many insightful points. I especially liked the idea of revising immigration numbers. You must adhere to the law, so modify it to be valid given the situation.

    I'd like to add this. The U.S. government needs to quit talking about "our good neighbor" to the south if they are also going to talk about how terrible it would be to send Mexican citizens back to Mexico. Call the Mexican government what it is -- oppressive and terrible.

    A final point I feel must be made. I pray my family doesn't have to experience it, giving me the opportunity to know if my next statement is truly correct. There are too many people in the U.S. that don't get cold enough and hungry enough. Enough to do without a cell phone and cable TV while on government assistance. Enough to have a job, any job, to get a little warmer and little less hungry. Maybe we could figure out a way to deport such "Americans" and let the illegal immigrant who really wants to work stay and earn a better life.