I favor immigration. America is defined not by ethnicity but by a set of political ideas, and if others will embrace those ideas, I welcome them. I have helped people immigrate here, and they have made good Americans. I married an immigrant.
But I also realize that the very culture that embraces immigrants has certain historical roots and depends on a critical mass of support, much of which has to do with the ability to live a good life here. In today’s world of global TV and cheap and easy transport, to throw the doors of America wide open, as they were a century ago, would invite a swamping of American values. It would destroy the market floor on wages, bringing back servants and Hoovervilles. It would tend to create large blocks of foreign-born people who thought and voted and married in ethnic unity, all of which would undermine the carefully nurtured ethic of antiracism. For these reasons, and others, I have argued against unrestricted immigration twice in Liberty, in February 1993 (“The Half-Open Door”) and in February 2002 (“The Limits of the Melting Pot”).
I am not arguing that immigration needs to be further restricted, though maybe it does. Maybe it needs to be differently restricted. I don’t know. My argument here is that the absorptive power of any culture is limited, and that if you’re dedicated to the political survival of liberty inside America (such as it is), you will have to manage access to America in some way. In doing so you will have to make some uncomfortable concessions to state power and the closer you look at these concessions the uglier they appear.
I saw the ugliness up close in 1980. I was a freelancer, and I went to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary to cover the arrival of the Marielitos. In a jolly gift to Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro had emptied his prisons, put the convicts on boats and pushed them off toward Florida. The Coast Guard intercepted them, and here they were, penned up on a chilly island in Puget Sound.
Legally, they had not been admitted to the United States. Each had to appear at the gray and forbidding Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Seattle to petition a federal employee for admission. I attended a couple of these hearings. One of the Cubans said he had been imprisoned for stealing a shirt. The official didn’t believe it and why should he? As soon as the Cubans arrived at McNeil, they made homemade knives, as convicts typically do. This Cuban could have been a murderer or a rapist. The official a sort of a judge denied the application.
I went home and the Cuban went back to McNeil. I thought, the INS (now broken into several parts of the Department of Homeland Security) is one powerful outfit. Native-born Americans have no idea how powerful it is. And yet, would I have admitted those Cubans to the United States? Would I have allowed Cuba, and every other country in the world, to offload its convicts on me?
The open-borders folks would have to say Yes.
But that means I am siding with federal authority. And it can be a very discretionary authority, as I saw with the Marielitos.
Consider the view from China. The U.S. government maintains an embassy or consulate in four cities. To get a visa to enter the United States, Chinese have to apply in person (which Americans do not have to do, to go to China). This may mean traveling to a distant city and standing in line for hours. Applicants have only a couple of minutes with the overworked State Department employee, who is instructed not to admit any person likely to stay in America illegally. It is a judgment call, and over his decision there is no appeal.
The open-borders folks would say: get rid of the visa. Jettison the State Department employee. I would not, though that employee’s exercise of raw authority bothers me.
It is the same with the border fence with Mexico. Intellectually, I am not against it. If you don’t control your borders you cannot keep anyone out. This is not the Berlin Wall, which was designed to hold people in. Still, it looks like the Berlin Wall. It does not feel good.
Libertarians might concede to barriers at the border, or at foreign consulates, or keeping out foreign prisoners, but immigration control requires more than this. It requires controls inside the country.
The current system in America is that the federal government tries to control the borders, and undoubtedly blocks many people from entering. But some do enter illegally. Much of the attempt to catch and deport them relates to employment. The last time I changed jobs, in 2000, I had to show my birth certificate to prove that I was a legal resident. Obviously not every business requires this, or if it does, the certificates may easily be forged, because businesses are raided by federal immigration police. As I write, the orchard owners are complaining of a shortage of labor caused by immigration enforcement.
My modern-liberal friends blame the failure of enforcement on the greed of private employers. They advocate giving more power to the federal government. In Congress there are bills about database systems and such, and one very quickly gets to the idea of a national ID card. I am not opposed to ID cards (“Privacy Unbound?”, Liberty, July 1999) but I want to limit how often I would have to show one, and for what.
Where I live, the Mexican consulate issues ID cards to Mexicans, some of them here illegally. The city of Seattle accepts these ID cards, and has forbidden police to ask for proof of citizenship. The idea is that such requests will be racially and ethnically discriminatory that is, that the police will demand papers of people who look like Mexicans. Well, yes. That is what would happen, and in this city that is not tolerable. We don’t want to have a class of persons who are afraid to call the police. We don’t want people who refuse to send their kids to public school, or refuse to go to the public hospital, or refuse to check out a book from the public library, for fear of the federales. Everywhere the local government touches the people, where I live it has chosen not to enforce the immigration laws.
If you squeeze private employers more, some of them may be put out of business. My state produces more apples than any other, and almost every apple is picked by a person of Mexican ethnicity, illegal or not. Picking quickly without bruising the fruit is a skill, and also hard work. I suppose my state’s apples do not have to be picked by Mexicans; several years ago when I crossed the 49th parallel into the Okanagan Valley, I saw that the apples were being picked by previously unemployed French Canadians. I was told that the Quebec government paid their airfare to British Columbia in order to get them off the dole. The Americans believe their industry would be dead without Mexicans, and I cannot prove they are wrong.
The U.S. farm organizations want any tightening of immigration rules to come with a migrant-labor program, which would allow Mexicans to harvest crops and return to Mexico. Probably this is necessary for the continued farming of crops harvested with hand labor. I suppose Americans could live without such crops: recently the last asparagus processor has left my state, replaced by imports from Peru. Probably the former asparagus land is being used for some other crop, and the former asparagus pickers are doing something else. Yet I do not want to be too eager to consign whole industries to the wastebasket of history.
Suppose, then, a migrant-labor program. Having a new group of people with restricted rights raises a new set of issues. Can they change jobs? Can they organize under federal labor laws? Can they eventually become citizens? What if they quit and walk into the sunset? How enforceable is the system?
Americans are not competing with Mexican farm workers, so labor’s voice hasn’t been heard much. But illegals from Mexico do not stick to farm work. In my area, many roofing crews and drywall subcontractors are all Mexican, as are the employees of all Mexican restaurants and many KFCs, Jack in the Boxes, and McDonalds. Who is legal and who is not I do not know, but some are not legal. It’s difficult to prove it, but logic tells you they are depressing the wage rate. Open the immigration doors, and this would happen much more. Ordinary Americans would have servants. It would be a new world, and a lot of people would not like it.
Politically it is more acceptable to have foreign competition at the top of the wage scale. In my area this includes the software writers at Microsoft. Its policy is to hire the smartest software people in the world. It employs them in Dublin, Tel Aviv, Beijing, and Madras, but it wants some of the best of them in Redmond, Wash. There is value to America in that, and in offering them citizenship: these are very smart people. They are an asset to the economy and also the gene pool. But having an employment-based visa system also requires discretionary federal power and employer involvement with the state.
The employers have a business quota. Much larger are the country quotas, which are designed to spread out immigration so that it is not dominated by one country. Immigration from many sources is better for the Melting Pot. And yet if you look at the totals of immigration, it is not that spread out. Mexico is the original home of 10.8 million residents of the United States. China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, comes in at 1.8 million; the Philippines, 1.5 million; India, 1.4 million; El Salvador, 1.1 million; and Vietnam, 1 million. The country quotas regulate the inflow, but imperfectly. Still they do matter: I know people who waited ten years to immigrate because they were in a place with many more applicants than allowed by the annual quota.
Currently, much of the quota is filled by family members. It works this way: one person gets in, perhaps as a foreign student who is hired by a U.S. company that sponsors him. He files for his brothers and sisters, and their spouses and children, and perhaps his parents. Once his in-laws are in, they may file for their brothers and sisters, etc. This may take years, and not all the brothers and sisters, etc., will want to come, but still it amounts to much of the immigration to the United States.
This system is popular with its beneficiaries. That is even more the case with refugees and political asylees. With asylees, you may have persons who are extremely grateful to be admitted to the United States, and who are more dedicated to liberty than the people here. I have met those, and was glad the government admitted them.
Sentiment is a tricky thing. There are good people everywhere in the world. Any system of immigration control will slam the door in the faces of some of them.
Finally, there are the illegals already here. Some of them have been here ten or twenty years. Many are upstanding people, even business owners who have provided a livelihood for others. They have had children, and according to the 14th Amendment, as interpreted by the courts, those children are American citizens. The parents are illegal and the kids are legal. Then what? Deport the parents and leave the kids? What of the kids who are illegal, because their parents brought them across the border when they were 2 years old? Are they to be denied entrance to the state university, even though they speak English, have graduated from high school, and show every sign of fitting in?
And thus we arrive at the idea of amnesty, which appears to be a humane, workable compromise at the moment, but undermines the system in the long run.
For all these questions I offer only some answers, all of them subject to challenge. Controlled immigration the half-open door is a messy position. It means setting up a system of filters run by the state. To call them “filters” brings to mind the filtering of dirt in engine oil, or of bacteria in drinking water. These are people.
The whole idea of it makes me uncomfortable, but I am resigned to the necessity of doing it.
This article is reprinted with permission from the October 2006 issue of Liberty. Send editorial comments to [email protected]. All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.
September 15, 2006