What’s wrong with securing the borders?

Virtually everything I know about immigration I learned at a single session of the Sorensen Institute Political Leaders Program. I know it’s a complex issue, because every approach to it is fraught with non-obvious effects, both short- and long-term, in everything from voting patterns to religion, Social Security to national security.

That said.

It only seems obvious that we should control entry to the United States. As a state, we have borders that we use to define the difference between us and them. (My real estate law professor once told my class that the one and only purpose of private property is to prohibit others from using it. It was an excellent point.) This is for reasons of security, sovereignty, and resource allocation, among other things. Frankly, I feel it’s a point so duh that it’s hardly worth explaining.

Border TrafficGiven that we need to control entry to our nation, it likewise follows that we have to actually do it. To allow thousands of people to enter the nation without being tallied or reviewed or even noticed is a failure to accomplish that goal.

The fact that we have a particularly large number of people streaming over the Mexican border indicates to me that we need we prevent this from happening. The clearest way of doing this is setting up physical obstacles like fences, such that people can’t simply stroll across the border. We do this at border crossings—there are guards, gates, and inspections. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of 1,989 miles of fence between Mexico and the United States. It’s a terrible symbol, bringing to mind both Israel and Berlin. But the alternative seems to be to continue to have a sort of a borders charade, in which we have strong security at a few points and virtually none at the areas where so many people are crossing.

Border TrafficIt’s important to understand that I have no problem with immigrants. In fact, I’m not certain that we have too many immigrants (documented and otherwise) right now, though that’s a different discussion entirely. But it’s important that we be collectively able to have a discussion about how many new residents that we want each year, decide on a number, and be able to enforce it.

The United States has over 100,000 miles of border. We can never secure it fully. I certainly don’t buy the line that strengthening our border with Mexico will keep out terrorists; that’s nonsense. Anybody of moderate means who is determined to get into the United States will surely be able to do so. Putting up fences is no substitute for proper international economic policies, good foreign intelligence, or common sense.

And that’s virtually everything that I know about the problem of people slipping into the United States from Mexico without proper documentation. So I turn to you, Dear Reader—if we shouldn’t erect fences on our southern border, why? And if we don’t, what’s to be done to make our borders less porous, if anything?

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

40 replies on “What’s wrong with securing the borders?”

  1. There’s a good argument to be made that the way we have tightened border security in the past few years is precisely one reason for the current problems with illegals residing in the U.S. A couple of decades ago, when we had relatively porous borders, it was fairly easy for illegal immigrants to follow the flow of jobs back and forth. You could come here, work for a few months, send money home, and then go back home yourself when you’d earned enough money or seasonal work was over. But as border walls went up in the urbanized areas and crossing became considerably more difficult and dangerous, an immigrant who manages to get into the U.S. is a lot more likely to stay put and not try his luck a second time. And the criminalization of the border has gotten worse as security has tightened. Just as Prohibition created a semi-professional class of smugglers and moonshiners, tight border security creates job opportunities for human smugglers.

    A lot of Americans are unaware that tens of thousands of Mexicans cross into the U.S. legally every day. They come to shop or take classes in San Diego (I’ve taught ESL there to them), Tucson, El Paso, just as Americans cross back and forth to Mexico and Canada. But those are middle- and upper-class Mexicans who have the resources to jump through the considerable hoops of paperwork to prove that they are gainfully employed in Mexico, legitimate students in the U.S., or whatever. A poor rural Mexican wanting work in the U.S. has very little opportunity to get legal entrance.

    Seems to me that we’d be better off loosening things on the border (which is already militarized like crazy–when I was back in Arizona a couple of years ago and traveled through Douglas, on the border, I couldn’t believe how much things had changed–it seemed like I was in occupied Palestine, with almost literally a Border Patrol vehicle on every city block, observation balloons at points in the sky, towers, fences, you name it) and implementing a guest worker program that (1) makes it easy for willing workers to get documentation for little or no expense, (2) protects American workers by making guest worker permits responsive to U.S. employment levels, and (3) cracks down severely on anyone using or manufacturing counterfeit documents, or hiring workers without documentation.

  2. The cheapest way of actually reducing the number of illegal immigrants is to get rid of their reason to be here. And to do that we should have a major, no-kidding crack-down on people and businesses that hire illegal immigrants. This should be a sustained effort rather than a week of putting on a show. Follow cars home from ‘Home Depot’ after they pick up immigrants to hire for home repairs. Let the illegal immigrant go since it’s too expensive to send him back to Mexico. Fine the homeowner thousands of dollars. Raid landscaping companies and small businesses. Give them a fine and a warning for the first offense and prison time for the second. Bust large corporations that use illegals in factories or to harvest crops.

    Give law enforcement the option of levying appropriate, meaningful fines based on the means of the perpetrator. If Joe Homeowner hires an illegal, fine him $2,000. If Walmart does it, make it $30M for the first offense. It should hurt but not kill. Don’t let the penalties be a mosquito bite for large corporations and don’t let it make ordinary people homeless and broke. Again, repeat offenders should get prison time.

    Add, say, 5,000 new officers to Border Patrol and distribute them to states where the illegals are working in rather than just to the border. Assign them solely to busting employers of illegals. If we did this for 6 months in a serious and sustained way then *nobody* will want to hire an illegal immigrant.

    As an American employer, avoiding giving someone minimum wage is just not worth going to prison for. Wheras if you are a destitute Mexican with a family to feed, risking prison for a $3 an hour job is very much worthwhile. So it seems to me that the weak link to strike is the employer. He’s the one with something to lose. Then we’re also not dealing with building detention centers, paying to transport thousands of people across the country and a lengthy legal process for all those illegal immigrants. It is so much better financially to focus on one guy who was employing a dozen illegals and not deal with extradition and all that.

    6 months of this and illegal immigrants will not be able to find jobs here in macroeconomically significant numbers. And they will leave voluntarily under their own steam without extensive legal processes for us to deal with. You also avoid a diplomatic mess that would be the inevitable result of mass deportations.

    The lawyers reading this could say better than I could whether it might be a good idea to encourage states and localities to pass their own local laws against hiring illegal workers. But I suggest that if this happens, then suddenly they can collect the big fines from the criminals hiring those workers. Suddenly you’ve got a very compelling reason for local law enforcement to start dealing with this problem. It acts as a force multiplier. Look at what’s happened in many cities and states with traffic tickets. It becomes a profit center.

  3. The other option, I mention after stating that I have not considered many complications resulting from this, though doubtless there are plenty, is making it easier for people to immigrate to the US. Perhaps National Security is an issue on this, but if we make it easier for people to enter legally, and require them to pay appropriate taxes, it is better than encouraging them to inter illegally.

    Here’s a list of particularly un-thought-out ideas:
    Have a registry of low-skill, untaken, minimum wage jobs, that is easy for immigrants to access and get employment for.
    Make minimum wage higher for citizens than for immigrants.
    Make it easier for people to become citizens, while still encouraging them to learn about our history, language, and culture.
    Give work credit for attempting to become a citizen, so if you log X-thousand of legal hours of labor in the US, it’s easier to get your paperwork through for citizenship.

    Just some thoughts,


  4. A lot of the arguments made about illegal immigration suffer from, in my opinion, a lack of conceptual clarity. If “controlling the borders” is our goal, then why the Mexican border as opposed to the Canadian border? The Canadian border is longer, less controlled and it has already been the subject of multiple terrorist crossings. (Mohammed Atta and Ahmed Ressam)

    More recently, a “human-smuggling ring” that had been “running illegal immigrants into the United States through Canada” was broken up. Among their “imports” were “dozens [of] Pakistani immigrants”. What’s more, Canada has a much larger Muslim community than does Mexico and, according to Peter Beinart in the WaPo, “Canadian authorities estimate that roughly 50 terrorist groups operate in” Canada.

    Yet, we focus almost exclusively on the people crossing the Mexican border, threatening to wash our dishes and mow our yards. I know the Washington Post editorial board gets all weepy-eyed at the thought that Americans might be suffering from all this labor competition, but as Thomas Knapp wrote a while back, “really stupid economic beliefs do not, strictly speaking, constitute a “homeland security” matter”.

    If we’re genuinely concerned about “security”, then we could just welcome immigrants in legally. So long as they come in through designated checkpoints so we can check their identity and weed out the criminals and terrorists, we’ll say “welcome to America, the taxi is over there”. Since the undesirables would not get past the welcome centers, they would self-segregate, doing our job for us. No more finding needles in the haystack. Finding the bad would be easier, since they would be the only ones who found it necessary to cross the borders elsewhere.

    Of course, if people are not merely concerned about security, then we’ll get demands to build a “wall” or to militarize the border. But only the Mexican border. Which is what we have now.

  5. The problem with making minimum wage less for illegals than for legals is that it encourages companies to hire illegals. Parity deincentivizes the hiring of illegal immigrants.

  6. Gradually I find that I’m coming to align with the conclusion of the Manifesto for the Abolition of International Apartheid, which states:

    Since the end of interracial apartheid in South Africa, no longer any state in the world openly practices discrimination between humans based on the arbitrary criterion of skin colour. Today, however, another equally arbitrary criterion is still accepted and applied by virtually every state in the world. For a human individual to have been born in some a particular place, from parents of some particular nationality, and thus to possess emself some particular nationality, is a matter of chance, and cannot be taken as a non-arbitrary criterion of discrimination.

    This philosophy touches on a good number of matters, from immigration to due process for enemy combatants, but I find it compelling. While an unmonitored border is an invitation for trouble, I have to say that I find the President’s proposal for a guest worker permit a compassionate proposal. The object should not be strictly keeping people out, but rather to guide the subculture of undocumented workers and those who employ them into the light of modern labor regulation.

  7. If you were referring to my proposals, Tim, I was suggesting lower minimum wages for legal immigrants vs. citizens. This would, indeed, encourage companies to hire legal immigrants over citizens for certain jobs, but would also encourage companies to hire legal immigrants over illegal immigrants.

  8. First, businesses should be punished with large fines for hiring illegals. That removes the incentive for any business to undercut American workers. Second, the minimum wage should be strictly enforced. That removes the incentive for businesses to hire anybody below the minimum wage. Third, immigration laws should be strictly enforced, like they were 30+ years ago when it was much more difficult to enter the country illegally. Non-immigrant visas will disappear automatically, because businesses will not have an incentive to import cheap foreign labor if they have to pay them the same as American workers including benefits.
    Clearly, there is not a big problem with illegal Canadian immigration, because there is hardly an economic gap between the two countries. This is also the reason that a “free trade agreement” with countries like Canada will work, while it will NOT work with Mexico, El Salvador or Guatemala, because you are dealing with a developed country (USA) and very poor countries with lax labor laws. It impoverishes those countries even more, since for corporations this is a very easy way to make very large profits on the backs of very poor people, while American workers lose out because their jobs went overseas. Currently, those very poor people want to come to the U.S. for better wages, even if those wages are below minimum.

  9. Ok, Ok, I know that I am a bit of an idealist. But immigration is what has helped elevate this country to the status that it now maintains. Furthermore, I think that immigration is necessary to our future. Now, while this original debate is not about immigration in general, I think that it is important to zoom out a little.

    Increased border security (especially by 6,000 Army Reservists) will not solve anything. If anything, it will make the trip into the southern US more dangerous and much more expensive. This is a play at compromise. But it also sets a dangerous precedent. A focus of energy on increasing security but not dealing with the issue. Remember the War on Drugs? Where did the focus lie? Punishment. We have made little to no progress in that battle because we refused to admit the reality of the situation.

    So what is the reality? The reality is that the US is seen as a place of opportunity. A place of hope. Many of these illegal immigrants have a much greater appreciation of this country than average citizens. The reality is that, generally speaking, people emigrate from their native countries to come here and make MONEY. Not to accrue debt. Not to collect unemployment. Not to evade taxes. Have you ever worked with an illegal immigrant? Many spend a lot of money to obtain a fake social security number so that they can get a ‘legal’ job. So they pay towards a social security fund that they can never access. Also, they pay sales tax. They contribute to the building of roads, schools, hospitals, congressional salaries. And for what? To be threated with deportation?

    Many will argue that this is a security issue. I understand that in the short term. In the short term we have a large concern of someone crossing the border to do this country and its people harm. BUT that is the short term. The curse of public perception. I believe that in the LONG TERM clearly and accessible paths to immigration will make us stronger against outside agression. The more languages that we speak, the more cultures that we understand, and the more peoples that we embrace can only serve to make us stronger internationally. Isolation will increasingly polarize the world into us vs. them, and they (them) occupy much more of this planet than we do.

  10. Well, the original post is right in that it’s a complicated issue. Probably too complicated for slogan-driven us-or-them politics to fix, or even cope with.

    One of the things that occurs to me is that parts of the problem can be dealt with more easily than others. We can’t fix Mexico’s economy, or solve its social problems. A wall guarded by a permanent army sounds like an expensive nightmare to me. However, if the United States really wanted to reduce the draft from the construction industry that pulls at people south of the border, pulls in a way they feel — there’s plenty of off-the-books work available — it could do it.

    The powers that be in the USA could have cracked down on the companies that hire such willing labor and punished them enough to make an impact. This has not happened. It’s not likely to happen soon. No. Too many fat cats are quite content with the way undocumented workers are helping to keep the cost of labor down.

    Who can stay? Who should go back? That’s more difficult. Border Security? Right now that’s just another oxymoron. Some aspects of this tide of history may actually be out of our control — like it or lump it. Instead of dwelling entirely on reversing this trend, maybe we should give some thought to how to better cope with it?

    Anyway, I say we start with what we can do easily, then study the rest of it. So, let’s toss a few scofflaw construction industry CEOs in jail, then let’s talk more about “illegal immigration.”

  11. If “controlling the borders” is our goal, then why the Mexican border as opposed to the Canadian border?

    Illegal crossings from the Canadian Border (5000 miles shared with the US) into the U.S. numbers in the neighborhood of around 40,000 per year. While illegal crossings from the mexican border (2000 miles shared with the U.S.) number about 3 million.

    Additionally the Canadian government works with the U.S. to control our shared border. Their participation is exemplary, unlike Mexico where the Mexican government does nothing to control our shared (their northern) border. (And I mention it as Mexico’s northern border because, mexico heavily polices it’s southern border to keep illegal immigrants out of their country.)

  12. I have long been active on the offshore outsourcing and worker replacement issues affecting the white collar information technology workforce. (I’m a software engineer who has directly experienced this new politically-enabled business practice.) I see this current (misnamed) “immigration” debate as closely linked to my present activism.

    One we strip away the nonsense about some sort of inherent “right” of non-Americans to work and live anywhere in the U.S. they choose, we come to the claim that jobs can’t be filled and the economy can’t grow without the presence of millions of illegal aliens. (No one is arguing that legal aliens with green cards should be deported or that all legal immigration should be ended.) I completely disagree with the claim that Americans won’t take certain jobs now being filled by illegal aliens.

    The reality is that many American employers do not want to offer jobs at anything but poverty wages and no benefits. This is clearly understood and stated by some here.

    The evidence supports the view that many American businesses will use lower wage replacements whenever possible — especially if it means violating largely unenforced laws with minimal penalties. They could easily conclude that this is a reasonable business risk given the indifference shown by immigration enforcement agencies. It’s a low risk, low cost gamble with a far greater possibility for profit by using illegal aliens for labor arbitrage.

    Of course, this hurts our communities by driving down wage scales and employment opportunities for American workers and places honest American business people who follow the rules and don’t hire illegal aliens at a competitive disadvantage. The presence of large numbers of underpaid low wage illegal aliens in our communities further compounds the burden on middle and working class Americans by placing additional stress on our social programs, public health system and educational system at a time when wages are stagnant and middle class jobs are disappearing.

    The real winners in this present scenario are the business owners who use illegal aliens. Like the companies which outsource, they enjoy a competitive advantage over others by practicing labor arbitrage and reap a windfall of profits not broadly shared by middle and working class Americans. The presence of illegal aliens in our society are, in contrast, regressive — especially devastating to working class Americans attempting to climb the ladder into the middle class.

    I shall not discuss race in the context of this issue. I think that reasonable people have concluded that this is a multi-racial society. I hold no animosity to any racial or ethnic groups and am well aware of the fact that members of my own family have faced racial discrimination and bigotry. However, that said, I don’t believe that Mexicans or any other group have some sort of “superior” claim to enter the U.S.

    I am an American and this is the United States. Whatever one’s race or ethnic origins, this country’s national leadership is charged with serving the general welfare of all Americans; this should be the driving force behind all national policy. The fact that millions of people have entered the U.S. illegally and are being used to beat down the wages, working conditions and quality of life for Americans is at issue here.

  13. I just got back from a visit to Arizona, where I happened to discuss this very topic with a restaurant owner there. He very happily employs illegal aliens in his Mexican restaurant. He hires them because he feels they do a better job than their American counterparts: they are hard workers who always show up for work, or send another in their place if for some reason they cannot be there. The restaurant owner does not hire them for cheap labor – he pays them the going wage with raises if they learn english or how to drive. He hires them because they are better employees than the Americans he has hired in the past. He is also quite committed to them: his wife is taking the entire summer off of work so that she can start an ESL program with them.

    It was a fascinating conversation with someone who is really in the thick of this issue as opposed to folks who take one side or the other with no direct knowledge of the situation. The conversation certainly shook up some of my notions.

  14. I find it difficult to accept the word of admitted law breakers which Malena has done. The restaurant owner cited in her post is an admitted law-breaker. His rationale for hiring illegal aliens is interesting but just as likely, self-serving.

    Meanwhile, I personally know unemployed Americans who cannot find employment in the construction industry. Many business have chosen to hire illegal alien labor in preference to Americans. (For an even more ironic twist, I know of information technology workers and call center workers who lost their jobs to offshore outsourcing and can’t even get the most low paid labor jobs in construction.)

    I don’t deny that some employers may treat their illegal alien workers well paying them the prevailing wage, etc. I suggest that such anecdotal stories are irrelevant to the larger trend of labor arbitrage.

  15. Info_Tech_Guy, *I* wouldn’t have hired myself or most of the people I knew in the industry when the dot-com crash happened for a construction job, and that has nothing to do with wages. It’s bad enough working with tech industry people on software projects, I can’t imagine dealing with them on a construction project.

    I’m not saying that there’s any sort of causation there, but I reject the suggested correlation necessary for irony that illegal immigrants were the cause of tech workers not being able to get work in a construction company.

  16. While I stay firm on my proposal for a massive crackdown on people who hire illegal immigrants, it is true that Mexican immigrants make generally better employees for the types of jobs they look for than the Americans who pursue those jobs do.

    In the construction industry, around a third of people employed in that industry have felony criminal records. Its hard to think of many other industries like that. This wasn’t the case 50 years ago. But for some reason, working with your hands as well as your brain has fallen into disrepute among Americans. Construction companies are forced to deal overwhelmingly with criminals, alcoholics, morons and those who are just plain lazy. Few intelligent, honest young people in America dream of a career in the construction industry. But there are plenty of intelligent, honest young Mexicans who would love such an opportunity. If I owned a construction company, I would absolutely make an effort to recruit new employees from among legal immigrant communities.

    Ditto for dishwashers, landscaping, etc. If you want honest, hardworking employees who will show up every day and do their best, you want a Mexi-can – not an ‘Ameri-can’t.’

    So while I do think that people who hire illegals should be prosecuted and fined, I also think that it is in America’s best interest that we dramatically increase our annual quotas for Mexican immigrants for both residency and citizenship. They make pretty good Americans.

  17. Brian: As I said before, I don’t place the focus of the argument in anecdotal stories. I merely pointed out this situation reported to me by others with whom I’ve been in contact. (I did say that the people I mentioned were not seeking highly skilled work, right? The were seeking entry level work. I would have found it illogical to hire engineers when I needed skilled carpenters, for example but this was not the situation reported to me.)

    In any case, I agree with you: “illegal immigrants were [not] the cause of tech workers not being able to get work in a construction company.” The illegal aliens are not the cause of labor arbitrage; they are a tool. The blame for this situation lies with politicians, government administrators, law enforcement, and business owners who violate the law.

  18. Jack: I’m afraid that with the massive offshore outsourcing and skilled labor worker replacement programs (H-1b, L-1 and new F-4 NIV/”business visas”) the white collar information age/knowledge age jobs are becoming increasingly scarce along with manufacturing/industrial work. If people want to survive in this society, they no longer have the luxury of staying out of skilled trades and manual labor. It will take a little while for this new reality to fully penetrate our society but the trends are clear. Check out the BLS analysis done by economist Paul Craig Roberts over at Counterpunch.com. (Search on his name in the CP archives.)

  19. Info_Tech_Guy,

    I think you are in dangerous water when you conflate the issues of outsourcing with immigrant labour issues. It is an easy connection to make, but a false connection.

    If I where you I would be more concerned with legal and high skilled immigrants our government is actively encouraging to come to this country.

    The squeeze on middle income America is, like you say, the lose of high paid blue collar jobs, stagnation of salaries in the face of rising health care, food, gas, and housing costs. Also the shifting of the tax burden in the face of rising college tuition, and shrinking government support for higher education.

    Mexican immigrants simply are not the reason for these stagnate salaries. They are not competing for these middle class jobs.

    And in tangible way cheap immigrant labor is helping to mitigate the rising costs for middle income Americans.

    Now, of course you will say that immigrants are burdening the welfare system. There is no real hard evidence, that I know of, for ether side of this argument.

    I personally know many immigrant families who rely on their own social and family networks for welfare, much more than they do the government. In these cases, they are actually putting in way more money into the system than they are taking out.

    Now, you anti-types will find an anecdote that says the opposite, and then I will come up with another to support my position: which leads me to the conclusions, that the burden and benefits in the end wash one another out, and have no net effect

    Also it is dangerous to conflate corporations and small businesses, I know very, very many small contractors, who for the longest time simply could not find reliable help for the wages they could afford to pay, Or even for wages they could not afford to pay.

    Now these are mom and pop businesses, not fat cats, guys who if they where lucky after it was all said and done, were only going to bring home between $30,000 – $40,000 a year.

    Also, this argument about jobs Americans will or will not do has been taking way out of context.

    First of all, nationally it may be accurate to say that immigrants are competing with Americans for these service sector jobs, but in specific regions this is simply not true.

    It is a simple fact that in agriculture regions, if the immigrant labour force was seriously contracted, food prices would shoot through the roof, some estimates are between 25%-35%, that is not even accounting for lost production. This is a fact that just wont go away. Now, do you really want to add another 25% to the cost of food, on top of the increase that is happening because of rising transpiration costs? What kind of poltical firestorm will that create!?

    So, now what is the solution?

    There is a demand: the government only lets in 50,000 low skilled laborers a year, the immigrant work force is around 1,000,000-2,000,000. You all claim that you are willing to pay higher prices–not only caused by higher salaries (which I am more than willing to pay for), but higher prices caused simply by a contraction in the labor supply?

    There is also the demographic issues that no one wants to touch. We need a large influx of new populations to maintain our current tax base in regards to our welfare programs. Look at the numbers, you need positive population growth to support Social Security, and Medicare.

    Without legal AND illegal immigration we DO NOT have a positive population growth! There is no way around that. Todays illegals are going to have babies who are legal who are going to pay payroll taxes and make SS and Medicare more secure.

    Its funny, you drive around and you see mexican laborers everywhere. but what I don’t see is anyone boycotting the services they provide.

    No one is boycotting lettuce.

  20. Beyond being impractical and serving as a sad counter-symbol to the Statue of Liberty, building fence would be like a physician treating symptons instead of curing the problem. The problem is that current employment laws are not being enforced. It’s a joke. Make it hard for companies to hire illegals, and the flow will stop. The people are coming here because there are many jobs to be had. Everyone on this blog who found themselves in similar circumstances would fall in line, walking North, with the Mexicans and Central Americans.

  21. I want to point out that my lack of commenting here is because I’m reading everything and learning, and because I have the good sense (for once) to keep my mouth shut when people smarter than me are talking. :)

  22. Not to worry, Info_Tech_Guy, I wasn’t so concerned with the crux of your real argument as I was with the use of irony. I am very strict with people on irony. It is, I fear, a failing.

  23. I may have mentioned this in an earlier post, but it’s perhaps worth bringing up again. I see all of the major debate on this issue this way:

    1) It’s only a “controversial” issue in the news because it divides conservatives; issues on which conservatives agree with each other but liberals oppose them are rarely, if ever, described as “controversial.” (i.e., the war is only “controversial” now that conservatives oppose it)

    2) It’s divisive to Republicans because it splits their party into two major elements; a) racists who want to kick all the non-white people out of the country, and b) rich people who don’t care about racism, and want to keep illegal immigrants here so they can continue to exploit them for their labor. Those, as I see it, are the two major groups under the “big tent” of the Republican Party; apolagies to any readers here who don’t fall into one of those two categories.

    This is how neo-conservatives succeed, politically: the economic elite finds a social issue (abortion, gay marriage) through which they can convince the working classes to identify with the rich, against their own economic and political self-interests. The reason it doesn’t work here is because immigration is an issue where the goals of racist xenophobia and capitalist exploitation are incompatable. So, they’re gonna have to find a new way of framing this one in the media to get the people behind this idea; or, more likely, they’re just going to do it anyway, and they’ll pay for it dearly in the 2006 and 2008 elections.


    My suggestion is this: anyone who wants to become an American should be allowed to do so, provided they have no history of being a terrorist.* We should try to find them jobs just as hard as we should be trying to find jobs for all impoverished all 3rd-and-4th-generation Americans, and we should pay them all an acceptable living wage. Companies who treat their employees well should get some help from the government, and companies who treat their employees poorly should be penalized.

    *And frankly, we could be a lot smarter about figuring out who’s a terrorist. I have a close friend who gets hassled every time she enters the country, because she’s Basque; to all immigration officials, she’s automatically suspected of membership in E.T.A. The practice of identifying terrorists by ethnic group is not only an imfringement on the basic human rights of all “potential suspects,” it’s also highly ineffective and, so far, it seems to be our only strategy.

    Why have we forgotten to quickly that the second-largest terrorist attack in the past 15 years was committed by working-class Red-Staters? Because it doesn’t fit the way neo-cons have framed the story in the media. They want the working-class people of the midwest on their side, so they’ll have their support for the “War on Terror” — the end result is that Bush gets to invade whichever countries he wants, nothing is done to stop terrorism (in fact, it’s worse), and working-class people are encouraged to be xenophobic (whites against non-whites, citizens against non-citizens, etc.)

    It’s hardly the best solution to the problem of terrorism; and there are plenty of things I’m worried about a lot more than I’m worried about terrorism.

  24. This is totally tangential, but…

    Speaking of Spain, I’m hugely jealous that they have Zapatero as their president; he seems like the best leader a leftist like me could ask for. Within two years of his election: there are no more Spanish troops in Iraq or Afganistan, gay marriage has been legalized, fundamentalist religious groups no longer get funding from the government, and the major terrorist organization in the country has declared a permanent cease-fire.

    …all of this in a country with a substantial conservative Catholic population, which was suffering under a fascist dictatorship as recently as thirty years ago. And he has a 58% approval rating.

    I’m hoping the backlash against Bush might lead to something similar in the U.S., but unfortunately it’s not very likely; Zapatero’s willingness to engage in open-minded debate on every issue would just be branded as inconsistent weakness by the U.S. media.

    However, if we could find somebody that shares his beliefs, but talks like a cowboy…

  25. here is a great article on the history of immigration:


    here are some of the money quotes:

    “The Germans refused for decades to give up their native tongue and raucous beer gardens. The Irish of Hell’s Kitchen brawled and clung to political sinecures. The Jews crowded into the Lower East Side, speaking Yiddish, fomenting socialism and resisting forced assimilation. And by their sheer numbers, the immigrants depressed wages in the city.”

    Most of the concerns voiced today — that too many immigrants seek economic advantage and fail to understand democracy, that they refuse to learn English, overcrowd homes and overwhelm public services — were heard a century ago. And there was a nub of truth to some complaints, not least that the vast influx of immigrants drove down working-class wages.

    The majority of jobs in this country come from small businesses, these are businesses who cant afford to pay benefits (because the cost of benefits are so high), these are small business whose prices they charge to determined by what us the consumers are willing to pay! These meme of demonize the employers is kind of sicking, my family owns its own business, and we are barley scraping by.

    Yet historians and demographers are clear about the bottom line: In the long run, New York City — and the United States — owes much of its economic resilience to replenishing waves of immigrants. The descendants of those Italians, Jews, Irish and Germans have assimilated.”

    “It would be easy to say the short-run costs of immigration outweighed the benefits,” said Joe Salvo, a director at New York’s City Planning Department. “But the benefits are longer term. We wouldn’t be the superpower we are if we hadn’t let them in.”

    “Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, wrote about her Irish forebears in a Wall Street Journal column: “They waited in line. They passed the tests. They had to get permission to come. . . . They had to get through Ellis Island . . . get questioned and eyeballed by a bureaucrat with a badge.”

    But these accounts are flawed, historians say. Until 1918, the United States did not require passports; the term “illegal immigrant” had no meaning. New arrivals were required only to prove their identity and find a relative or friend who could vouch for them”

  26. The sense that I’m getting from this discussion is that putting up a fence to deal with illegal immigration problems is like scratching to eliminate the chicken pox. It feels good, it’s only natural, but it doesn’t address the problem.

  27. Brian, I understand :-) all too well. One final anecdote. One of my former colleagues, a highly skilled engineer, DBA and programmer is now working in a lumber yard. We both worked for a Fortune 500 technology and services company once rated among the best places to work by a well -known IT magazine.

    Jon, You said: “I think you are in dangerous water when you conflate the issues of outsourcing with immigrant labour issues. It is an easy connection to make, but a false connection.”

    Hmm. I don’t think that I’ve conflated issues. I’ve attempted to note similarities. I find labor arbitrage at work in both the white collar/blue collar offshore outsourcing as well as in the importation of foreign workers.

    And I really don’t think that your nasty comment about “you anti-types” was in any way appropriate here. I’ve attempted to reasonably make a case without insulting anyone or impuning people’s motives. Do I really deserve that response? You may not share all of my positions just as I may not share yours but I think that we can discuss this reasonably.

    Now, to continue…

    Offshore outsourcing is only one piece of the global labor arbitrage situation. Without the use of “guest workers” on “business visas” (actually called, “non-immigrant visas”) the offshore outsourcing of much white collar work wouldn’t be possible. And, the H-1b, L-1, and the newly proposed F-4 categories of NIV are used by companies to bypass American workers altogether — a situation even beyond “worker replacement”.
    These “business visa” programs permit corporations to import low-wage foreign labor into the U.S. on a permanent basis — a situation I find strikingly similar to the situation in which millions of largely Mexican national illegal aliens work in the U.S…

    I also note that hidden in the Senate versions of “immigration reform” there are provisions to widen the flow of skilled foreign labor into the U.S. Sen Dorgan has courageously attempted to strip these provisions out and has been outspoken on this subject. (See for example, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/5/16/155148/133) One can also see this labor arbitrage in the so-called “SKIL bill” of which Dr. Norman Matloff (a registered Democrat) writes at http://www.cis.org/articles/2006/back506.html Interestingly many of the same people who support these provisions aimed directly at American white collar workers also support massive “legalisation”, no/minimal border enforcement, no/minimal labor enforcement. I find this far more than mere coincidence.

    Yes, it is true that most illegal aliens are entering lower paying jobs and are not in direct competition for the sort of middle class white collar jobs which college grads desire. However, the continuing destruction of the American middle class white collar and blue collar jobs base because of offshore outsourcing and NIV/”business visa” programs brings new attention to loss of any middle class jobs and any additional burdens placed on citizens due to business use of illegal aliens. (Construction jobs can indeed be middle class jobs and business use of illegal aliens closes off employment opportunities for Americans in this sector — one of the few sectors creating middle class jobs in the midst of the massive middle class jobs die-off of the last 6 years.)

    In terms of “burdening the welfare system” as you put it, I will point to some specific problems widely reported in the media. 1) schools are faced with the children of illegal aliens usually unable to speak english or with minimal english skills necessitating the services of additional paid staff able to help them in their native language (usually spanish) and school class sizes increase making the quality of education inferior for all other legal resident children, legal immigrant children and American children. Beyond enlarged classes, it is usually necessary to add more teaching staff and even make building expansions to accomodate the additional numbers of children. All of this has to be paid for by someone. The stress on American health care has been documented as well… Hospitals unable to turn people away must provide service on demand while they have no choice but to shift their costs to those who can pay — Americans, legal immigrants, legal residents…

    You attempt to make the distinction between labor arbitrage practiced by small business and that of large business. I reject the distinction. Again pointing to the white collar employment sector, many small business make use of offshore outsourcing and use H-1b labor. Using H-1b labor is not limited to large corporations. I’m unsympathetic to small businesses which choose to practice labor arbitrage.

    “the government only lets in 50,000 low skilled laborers a year, the immigrant work force is around 1,000,000-2,000,000.” So, your answer is to allow corporatations to keep wages low and push off the social costs on the wider society? This reminds me of McCain’s off the cuff comment that no one would do the work of illegals in agriculture for $50 an hour. I sure as hell would and so would alot of other people.

    “You all claim that you are willing to pay higher prices–not only caused by higher salaries (which I am more than willing to pay for), but higher prices caused simply by a contraction in the labor supply?” I don’t know where you find I made such a claim. Please don’t ascribe things to me unless I’ve said something on the subject.

    Ironically, Harris Miller got his start by helping agri-business undermine the wages and working conditions of American farm workers and the farm labor movement. He moved on to do the same for the “high tech” industry. Anyone interested in this can Google “Harris Miller” and ITAA and find a wealth of information on the subject. There are indeed tremendous similarities between the jobs situation of working class Americans and those of white collar workers… Labor arbitrage is labor arbitrage.

  28. Waldo: Putting up a fence can only be part of the solution. By itself, it is incomplete and merely symbolic. The reason why illegal aliens come from Mexico across the border is because of the economic incentives. Without ready access to employment and services, the attraction isn’t nearly so great.

  29. Info_Tech_Guy,

    You’re saying that Americans should start looking at blue collar trades as real careers and make a good point about why it’s a good idea. And that’s great – I agree that we need smart, honest people to become construction workers, machinists, etc. But the simple, nearly indisputable fact is that thus far young, intelligent and honest Americans are not flocking to these trades. Maybe they will in 10 years? Sure, it’s possible. Meanwhile, if we have a massive, successful crackdown on people who hire illegals (which is what I want), then we’re going to have to address the question of labor supply immediately. Waiting 5 to 10 years for macroeconomic labor trends to reveal themselves won’t be good enough for small businesses that need construction workers for buildings immediately.

    We’ve got the entire Gulf coast that needs to be rebuilt now. There is a massive need for that type of labor which simply cannot wait.

    Free market types will say that there is no need for government to do anything – the forces of supply and demand will eventually create a situation where businesses will pay Americans extremely high wages for menial work, the cost of housing and construction skyrockets to absorb the cost and everything balances its self out perfectly along the tangled bank. Except that allowing nature to take it’s course completely ignores America’s actual goals in terms of quality of life and other matters. I’m not interested in trusting in social Darwinism in that respect any more than I’d want to eliminate the practice of medicine in order to produce a more physically resiliant race of Americans.

  30. Jack: There are alot of displaced workers who need work now. They would be happy to fill the jobs you mentioned. Businesses are just not interested.

    There are alot of middle aged white collar and blue collar workers who can’t find work and they are not counted in present employment and unemployment stats. I think that these people should be given every consideration possible. We need government involvement to get these people working again. This should involve programs for retraining and education, if necessary.

    I’m not opposed to closely monitored guest worker programs when existing labor is unavailable but permanent, long term reliance on foreign workers is not in our best interest. Based on the way that corporations have gamed our system, I’m very skeptical of labor shortage claims and do not readily accept anything that CEOs say.

  31. It’s divisive to Republicans because it splits their party into two major elements; a) racists who want to kick all the non-white people out of the country, and b) rich people who don’t care about racism, and want to keep illegal immigrants here so they can continue to exploit them for their labor.

    It’s not about racism. It’s divisive to Republicans because it divides their party into two elements; a) the ‘national security and law and order” crowd, and b) the rich people who’d rather keep labor costs low and reap obscene profits from the exploitation of illegal immigrant labor (and George Bush falls into this latter pro exploitation catagory).

    It’s also divisive to Democrats. The Democratic party used to be the party of the working man. This issue has labor written all over it. But the portion of the Democratic party that supports illegal immigration is doing so out of a misguided (my opinion) sense that they are supporting a humanitarian cause (people seeking a better life). When in fact they’re just ignoring working class American citizens, legal immigrants and the erosion to the gains of the labor movement that illegal immigration causes.

    The issue is divisive to politicans of both parties because a big chunk of them can’t decide if the illegal immigrants currently in this country might represent future voters, and how positively or negatively that might affect them.

    Illegal immigration is indeed a complex issue and the solution to it is not any one specific action, but a series of concerted actions. Vigorous enforcement of the laws already on the books. Going after employers that hire illegal immigrants with huge fines and criminal penalties. More personel for the border patrol agency and ancillary resources. More beds in detention centers so the “catch and release” farce can be eliminated. And sure even fences, remember that old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” I believe that’s true in this situation as well. After things like this are in place and working, then I’d be willing to consider possiblities for Amnesty. Though personally I’d be inclined to limit amnesty to those who already have family ties to legal immigrants or citizens.

  32. Info_Tech_guy,

    Then here’s what I’d do if I were President: I’d implement a major crackdown against those who hire illegals (as I outlined earlier) under my own executive authority. Just enforcing the laws that are already on the books. Then I’d roll out a bill providing funding to hire a few thousand extra border patrol agents to supplement the effort across the country. In the same bill, I would want a broader scale of fines that can be imposed . Following this I would give instructions to federal prosecutors that I want them to request fines against first time offenders that are appropriate to the guilty party and will hurt but not bankrupt them.

    Here’s the kicker; I’d also want a provision in the bill that would give me the authority to significantly increase the number of legal immigrants from Mexico without requiring that I do so.

    I’d want a 2 year sunset clause. So that you wait and watch what happens to the labor system and review economic data as the crackdown’s effects are felt. If American citizens are filling those jobs then I would not increase the number of legal immigrants. If Americans continue to thumb their noses at blue collar work and a dangerously high number of small businesses seem to be going out of business even though they are offering minimum wage or better, then I would execute my authority to let more migrants in.

    I think that’s a pretty fair deal all around. Find out who’s theory is right and be able to react swiftly if there’s trouble.

  33. Info_Tech_guy,

    First, I didn’t not mean to be offensive with my off the cuff comment. I apologize.

    Secondly, I do not know exactly what you are talking about when you say businesses are just not interested in native labor.

    I have worked in the construction industry extensively (I went to college for Art, so when I have needed money there has not been much else for me to do).

    I also have many friends who work in the industry, or have their own businesses in the industry. You make no distinctions between small businesses and large businesses and paint everyone with the same smear brush.

    You say you do not trust the statistics regarding labor shortages, but you can only provided anecdotal evidence to prop up your doubt.

    Well my family owns a small business and my friends own small businesses, I have worked for them, I have worked for other small business and I can tell you getting good workers is very difficult.

    Small businesses do not have huge margins, most small businesses barely make it, small businesses are stuck charging the prices that the customers demand, what the public demands. Are there bad small businesses, of course there are! There are also just simple bad people as well.

    But I have great anecdote. I once worked in a camera shop and got in trouble with my boss because I convinced him to cary a made in America camera bag line. We made a big sign, but the bags in front, put the cheaper bags in the back. And for two months did not sell one bag, unless we pulled the made in china bags out of the back!

    But back to other things:

    The problem is simply one of quality, not quantity of natives workers.

    I have worked along side Ph.D. candidates, ex-professors, if they where willing to do the work, then they have found the work.

    Now, I live in the Albemarle county area, so it might be different than where you live. There in lies your problem, if you are only relying on anecdotal evidence. These problems vary from region to region.

    Also, Do you envision an economy where there will be upper-middle class jobs in construction? The guys banging the hammers? servicing the septic tanks? I have had to clean out a septic tank, you do not want to do it.

    If this is the economy you envision there would be no construction, because no-one could afford it. There will always be the higher-skilled jobs: the finish work, the electrical, hvac, pluming: but it is a bleak, bleak world you are imaging if the only jobs left for the middle class are the framing, roofing, insulation, dry walling class of jobs. This is hard, hard and nasty work, this is nothing to get romantic about.

    Bleak indeed.

    Also, all the problems concerning our welfare infrastructure that you listed . . . These are all problems endemic to the system even without immigrants!!!

    Give me a % . . . lets see we can get it roughly, there are about 18-20 million americans currently living below the poverty line, what is it 45 million without any health care coverage, what % of those people are immigrants?

    I don’t know, can someone tell us? (I also might be wrong about those numbers)

    You don’t seem to want to go near the facts that our country has gone through this before, and that despite the concerns the immigration ended up making us stronger.

    You do not seem to want to go near the demographic issues:

    That currently we are going to have major major entitlement problems based on an aging population, we need population growth to prop up those entitlements.

  34. Jack,

    You should go to NPR and check out their piece on the morale problems the Border Patrol is having. Its a dreadful job, very low pay and also, it seems that they do not have the facilities to train numbers that are being asked of them.

    Also, check out the consumer inflation numbers, is it just fuel costs or are me already seeing the Minute Man Effect?

    Also, via NPR, supposedly farmers in Idaho are already having a hard time finding laborers.

    I am actually quite concerned about some of the issues Info_Tech_Guy raises concerning off-shoring and the “business visas”.

    There was a great piece in the March/April Foreign Affairs by Alan S. Blinder, called Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution. Basically its about how radical offshoring will actually be, and that there is a critical “lack of imagination” concerning its long term effects.

  35. This debate is getting better all the time. To the info tech guy who relates immigration to outsourcing, perhaps there is a correlation. If the immigration debate is about jobs then it is time for the US to take a tough look at it’s education and labor market. Our labor force is DEcreasingly competitive with foreign markets. Ergo outsourcing. Our laborers are increasingly finding competion here at home for unskilled jobs. Ergo nuanced immigration debate.
    Once again we must look at the short term vs. the long term.
    Was it 2002 when GW bush imposed the tariffs on imported steel? Whenever it was, it was an effort to stem losses on domestic steel production in the short term. After a year and a half the tariffs were shot down by the World Trade Organization. After that year and a half honeymoon where did it leave the US steel industry? Non-competitive. Instead of taking that time to modernize and streamline the industry, US steel manufacturers seemed to act as if the tariffs were permanent. So after the tariffs the steel industry was in as much trouble as it was in 2002. And did the tariffs protect jobs in the US steel industry? Sure. But many analysts agree that it ended up costing more jobs in the auto manufacturing side than it saved in the steel industry.
    I bring this up because the immigration debate is like a dodecahedron, and every side is worth consideration. If you want to worry about jobs, then instead of taking the parochial view let’s consider the big picture. We cannot safeguard US jobs against immigrants and foreign countries. What we should be doing is taking steps as individuals and as a country to remain competitive. Higher education, industry innovation, and leading technologies are some answers for the future. We cant grip so tightly onto today that we lose tomorrow.

  36. I have heard different things about the census count and illegal aliens. Are illegal aliens counted in the census and used when determining representation? If this is true that seems extremely unfair to legal Americans who don’t have as much electoral power.

  37. I worry greatly about the two teir minimum wage proposal made at the beginning of this conversation.

    I have worked minimum wage jobs. I have worked with people who had not one, but multiple fake SSNs. One of my favorite coworkers had three social security cards, not one was real. Foreigners are willing to work minimum wage. In fact, illegal imigrants are willing to work 2+ minimum wage jobs a day. Why? Most understand that they can live on a meager income and send money home to Mexico, Brazil, Russia, whereever. By doing so, they increase the value of their income. Perhaps they are decreasing the wages of natural citizens who are also forced to work these jobs?

    By creating a ‘lower’ minimum wage, and asking foreigners to work for these wages, we may be institutionalizing second-class citizenship. I could be wrong, but this is my concern.

    On the other hand, if we raised minimum wage, would Americans be willing to work more of these jobs? Would we begin to compete with illegal workers? Would this slow imigration? I just don’t know, but I have to wonder . . . if we raised minimum wage, instead of walls, would we better control illegal imigration?

  38. What’s the use of building walls if we don’t sever power to the big eletromagnet that draws our latino brothers in so hastily? The Texan has had practice in turning his back while the various businesses continue to pay these folks (in essence, ripping them off) under the table. Let Haliburtin build that wall, it ain’t gonna do a bit of good!

    The Tramp

    P.S. I love the crack about the techies working construction.

  39. For another take on the immigration debate, check out the first chapter in Dean Baker’s new book The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the State to Stay Rich and Get Richer.

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