To grasp American immigration policy, to the extent that it can be grasped, one need only remember that the United States forbids smoking while subsidizing tobacco growers.
We say to impoverished Mexicans, See this river? Don’t cross it. If you do, we’ll give you good jobs, a driver’s license, citizenship for your kids born here and eventually for you, school for said kids, public assistance, governmental documents in Spanish for your convenience, and a much better future. There is no penalty for getting caught. Now, don’t cross this river, hear?
How smart is that? We’re baiting them. It’s like putting out a salt lick and then complaining when deer come. As parents, the immigrants would be irresponsible not to cross.
The problem of immigration, note, is entirely self-inflicted. The US chose to let them in. It didn’t have to. They came to work. If Americans hadn’t hired them, they would have gone back.
We have immigration because we want immigration. Liberals favor immigration because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy and international and all, and from a genuine streak of decency. Conservative Republican businessman favor immigration, frequently sotto voce, because they want cheap labor that actually shows up and works.
It’s a story I’ve heard many times — from a landscaper, a construction firm, a junkyard owner, a group of plant nurserymen, and so on. We need Mexicans. You could yell Migra! in a lot of restaurants in Washington, and the entire staff would disappear out the back door. Do we expect businessmen to vote themselves out of business? That’s why we don’t take the obvious steps to control immigration (a thousand-dollar-a-day fine for hiring illegals, half to go anonymously to whoever informed on the employer).
In Jalisco, Mexico, where I live, crossing illegally is regarded as casually as pirating music or smoking a joint, and the coyotes who smuggle people across as a public utility, like light rail. The smuggling is frequently done by bribing the border guards, who are notoriously corrupt.
Why corrupt? Money. In the book De Los Maras a Los Zetas, by a Mexican journalist, I find an account of a transborder tunnel he knew of that could put 150 illegals a day across the border. (I can’t confirm this.) The price is about $2000 a person. That’s $300,000 a day, tax-free. What does a border guard make? (And where can I find a shovel?) The author estimated that perhaps forty tunnels were active at any give time. Certainly some are. A woman I know says she came up in a restaurant and just walked out the door. Let’s hear it for Homeland Security: All together now .
The amusing thing is the extent to which American policy is not to have a policy. The open floodgates to the south are changing — have changed, will continue to change — the nature of the country forever. You may think this a good thing or a bad thing. It is certainly an important thing — the most important for us in at least a century. Surely (one might think) it deserves careful thought, national debate, prudence, things like that.
But no. In the clownishness that we regard as presidential campaigning, none of the contenders has much to say on the matter. In a dance of evasion that has become customary, the candidates carefully ignore those matters of most import for the nation, since considering hard questions might be divisive. War, peace, race, immigration, affirmative action, the militarization of the economy, the desirability of empire — these play no part in the electoral discussion. We seem to regard large issues as we might the weather: interesting, but beyond control. It’s linger, loiter, dawdle and fumble and see what happens.
And so, while various conservative groups (not including businessmen) rush out to guard the borders, nice liberal professors in the Northeast hurried to learn Spanish to help local illegals settle in. Many people, alienated from the United States by policies and trends they find odious, no longer care. There is no national consensus. The country fractures into a congeries of warring agglomerations and the resulting paralysis manifests itself in drift.
The problem with muddling through is that one may not like what lies on the other side of the muddle. Some day we may look back on the question of immigration and see that it all worked out well in the end and wonder what the fuss was about. Or we may not. No one will be able to charge us with having thought things through.
There is much billingsgate about whether to grant amnesty. The question strikes me as cosmetic. We are not going to round up millions of people and physically throw them across the border. Whether we should doesn’t matter. It’s fantasy. Too many people want them here, or don’t care that they are here, or don’t want to uproot families who have established new lives here. Ethnic cleansing is ugly. Further, the legal Latino population votes. It’s just starting to vote. A bumper crop of Mexican-American kids, possessed of citizenship, are growing headlong toward voting age. These are not throwable-out, even in principle.
People complain that Mexico doesn’t seal the borders. Huh? Mexico is a country, not a prison. It has no obligation to enforce American laws that America declines to enforce. Then there was the uproar when some fast-food restaurant in the US began accepting pesos. Why? Mexican border towns accept dollars. Next came outrage against Mexico because its consulates were issuing ID cards to illegals, which they then used to get drivers licenses. Why outrage? A country has every right to issue ID to its citizens. America doesn’t have to accept them. If it does, whose problem is that?
If you want to see a reasonable immigration policy, look to Mexico. You automatically get a ninety-day tourist visa when you land. No border Nazis. To get residency papers, you need two things (apart from photographs, passport, etc.) First, a valid tourist visa to show that you entered the country legally. Mexico doesn’t do illegal aliens. Second, a demonstrable income of $1000 a month. You are welcome to live in Mexico, but you are going to pay your own way. Sounds reasonable to me.
You want a Mexican passport? Mexico allows dual citizenship. You (usually) have to be a resident for five years before applying. You also have to speak Spanish. It’s the national language. What sense does it make to have citizens who can’t talk to anybody?
It looks to me as though America thoughtlessly adopted an unwise policy, continued it until reversal became approximately impossible, and now doesn’t like the results. It must be Mexico’s fault.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.