Pop Rocket, May 2012
As we await the Supreme Court's ruling on the basket of Arizona anti-immigrant laws collectively known as SB1070, I'm compelled to haul out my rap on being both a tenth-generation American citizen and, for a time, an illegal immigrant.
I went to Japan to seek my fortune in 1986, and lived there for most of seven years, building the business that still pays the bills today. The Japanese immigration system is a maze of catch-22s, so most everyone who goes there for the work has to play the margins, working illegally until they can get someone substantial with a proper corporation 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 metro 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 that hurts nothing and no one. What matters is what you do after that.
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 on a map 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. The people running this country for the last 200-odd years, our peace officers, our military, our businesspeople, our criminals and clergy, have generally been of at least average intelligence. So it's reasonable to infer 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 the mobsters, spies and other criminals had no difficulty getting around it, nor did most legitimate job-seekers. Its true functions, demonstrated every day on the ground for anyone who cared to look, was 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, lots of immigrants split for greener pastures, new laws notwithstanding.
Still, many Americans are invested in the idea that illegal immigrants are "flooding in" to steal their jobs and stereos, make "anchor babies," defile their daughters, empty the government ATMs and cause general mayhem. Many 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.
Speaking as a former 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. Whenever job demand exceeds the supply of legal visas, 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 foreign 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 pay a fair share for the government services everyone needs. 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 those other governments to reciprocate for US workers.
The mechanics of this are simple and way cheaper 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, just as 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 still get some criminals, of course. Seven to ten percent of all humans are bad enough to be criminals, wherever they come from, and we won't keep them out as long as there is profit in smuggling. But they won't be smuggling many 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 people in that we instantly identify as a group when faced with people that we see as a different group. 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.