Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A rap on immigration

While today's Courier editorial is entertaining in its clueless confusion, I'm going to depart from accustomed practice today and try to say something more substantive than usual, from the perspective of a tenth-generation American citizen who's also had some experience as an illegal immigrant.

Only North Korean spies, Russian mobsters and American military get into Japan without some sort of documentation, so "undocumented" doesn't work for me, but I don't mind "illegal" at all. The Japanese immigration system is a maze of catch-22s, so most anyone who goes there for the work has to play the margins, working illegally until you can get someone substantial with a company to personally sponsor a work permit. This can take years. Meanwhile you're in more or less constant danger of sudden deportation if you run afoul of the notoriously rule-embracing authorities. Did I break the law? Yes, repeatedly and at length. Did I hurt anyone by it? It's quite safe to say no. Neither did the 35,000 other foreigners living in Tokyo at the time, serving the needs of businesses and individuals in an affluent and expanding economy.

So it is with illegals in the US. Crossing the border without official permission violates the law, but of itself it hurts nothing and no one. What matters is what you do after that.

So as the furor over AZ'a new anti-immigrant (or, materially, anti-Mexican) law plays out in the national media, I start there. If we seriously hope to resolve this issue and move on in a civilized, practical manner, we have to look past the political pantomime to the real, living challenges we face.

Immigration, legal and illegal, is an issue only because of political choices that ignore nature and practical reality. The idea that we can use an imaginary line in the sand to keep poor, hungry people from filling available jobs and taking the money back to their families is as dumb as a box of rocks, anyone with half a brain can see that. The people running this country for the last 200-odd years, their peace officers, their military, their businesspeople, their criminals and clergy, have generally been of at least average intelligence. So it's safe to conclude that the system is rigged to not work -- for a purpose.

That's how it was for me and thousands of other illegals in Japan. The system's official purpose is to protect Japanese jobs and society at large from international miscreants. But, like I said, the mobsters, spies and other criminals have no difficulty getting around it, nor do most legitimate job-seekers. Its true functions, demonstrated every day on the ground for anyone who cares to look, are to placate the voters' fear of foreigners while creating a cheap, pliable pool of off-the-books, politically powerless laborers. The same is true here, and it has been since immigration controls were first imposed.

Periodically, when economic conditions erode slightly here in the richest nation on earth, public attention turns to the 'foreigner problem' and how to address it. It's always been an easy sell politically, so it's been exploited by fearmongers since time began. This time is no different.

Today's illegal immigration is qualitatively the same as at any time since we've had a southern border, and quantitatively it only varies with the relative economic conditions in the US and the nations of Central America -- as you may have noticed, when Arizona's economy went south for a spell, lots of immigrants split for greener pastures. There is always a small contingent of people for whom fear of foreigners is the top concern, but the only reason we've seen "immigration" become a big public issue in recent years is that it's politically convenient for certain interests to make it so.

When you're selling something, you have to keep stock on hand, and if your product is fear you have to have an object for it. When the commies imploded, the fearmongers started selling Muslims. That pitch got old, and now they're flogging brown people from the south. It's so juvenile it would be funny if it didn't have such serious implications for our economy and national character.

But here we are. Lots of Americans are invested in the idea that illegal immigrants are suddenly "flooding in" to steal their jobs and stereos, make "anchor babies," defile their daughters, empty the government ATMs and cause general mayhem. Many shady businesses large and small depend on illegal workers to make their plans and balance sheets work. Many underqualified politicians need to provide voters with a reason to elect them. And I don't care if you throw a trillion dollars and every state militia at the border, you're not going to do much to separate poor, hungry people from available cash without an ocean. They're better motivated than we are.

For decades, immigration has been a safe issue for fearmongering authoritarians. They knew in their hearts that no amount of effort would actually have much real effect, so they could demand pretty much anything without risking success -- and losing the issue -- or substantially threatening the balance sheets of their buddies in the chambers of commerce. It was perfect.

But this time their shortsightedness has come home to roost. Having failed so miserably and spectacularly at governance for so long, they ran out of other issues to run on, and so had to ramp up the immigration issue to such a pitch that something had to give.

Enter the Arizona legislature, facing an election year with nothing to show but a bankrupt government and every fifth home in or on the brink of foreclosure, and its governor, Peter-Principled by happenstance into an office which she has neither the intellectual depth nor the leadership qualities to fulfill. When an out-of-state front group for old-school upperclass white-supremacists dangled what looked like a robust response to the "problem" of illegal immigration, our elected officials took the bait like a pike on a wiggler.

It's completely illegal, of course, the consensus among those who know is pretty clear. There will be an injunction, probably at the state level but perhaps from the federal level as well, and this legislation will not stand. The Rs only need it to get through the midterm elections, and I expect most of the survivors will back away from it after that.

But there's a new factor to bring the old edifice down. The Obama administration and the Congress are making noises about doing something, perhaps before the midterms, to intercept the ball and take back some yardage.

Obviously they can't out-fascist the fascists, so what could they do to successfully address the voters' fears and maybe do some good for us economically at the same time?

My answer is to expand NAFTA to include labor. Don't try to close a border that can't be closed -- open it further, and handle it like an adult.

Speaking as an illegal immigrant again, nobody with any sense prefers shady status. We have illegal immigrants because we impose artificial limits on how many we allow to be legal. The job demand exceeds the supply of legal visas, so more people come however they can. We can only eliminate illegals by making them legal.

We can live up to our rhetoric about free trade. We can allow Mexican (and Canadian) workers to compete on a level playing field, under the same worker protections and minimum wages, and paying the same taxes. After work we can let them go home to their families rather than force them to live as a vulnerable underclass. They can be free to speak up against criminals without fear of the legal system breaking up their homes and livelihoods. They can pay a fair share for the government services we all need. We can live up to our principles as we never have, and accept them into our society as people with dignity and and important roles to play. And we can fairly ask the Mexican (and Canadian!) government to reciprocate for US workers.

The mechanics of this are simple and relatively cheap -- way less than trying to build and staff a 2,000-mile Berlin Wall. We'll need to register everyone individually so they can be tracked and taxed, the same way we citizens are, and check them in and out at the border. Registration will not convey the vote -- only citizenship can do that, and that will remain an arduous road. We'll probably also have to modify the Constitution, though, to eliminate the blanket grant of citizenship based on birth on US soil, and instead require parents who are citizens or legal permanent residents. We're not trying to fulfill Manifest Destiny anymore.

We'll still get some criminals, of course. Everyone's human, and seven to ten percent of all humans are bad enough to be criminals. We won't keep them out as long as there is profit in smuggling. We can talk later about drug laws. But they won't be smuggling people anymore, and that's a big plus for us all. There will be challenges -- language, tax cheating, health care, education -- but we're already dealing with all of those, badly. They'll be more easily handled when the people involved aren't classed as criminals.

The businesses that have benefited from unfair compensation will have to find new ways to get by, and the fearmongers will have to find a new boogeyman to scare us with. We win. Show me the downside.

The hard part is getting past the core fear of The Other. Americans are not much different from any other group in that we identify as a group only when faced with people in other groups. For this to ever work, and if we're to ever resolve the "immigration" issue, we have to get past that irrational fear and start seeing not scary invaders but ordinary people, just like us, living in different circumstances but with the same human values.