I know this will be a divisive issue so, as usual, I'm going to request that you be polite in your comments. I'm not pretending to be an expert on anything or to have all the answers. I'm just writing about issues that are on my mind and you are welcome to disagree.
The topic today is immigration. I know! Scary!
It's funny because I was thinking about writing this post for a couple of weeks and then I just got off the phone with my grandfather and he brought it up. We were having a perfectly pleasant Father's Day chat (for instance, I learned that his first car cost $25!) and then out of the blue:
Grandfather: "So, what do you think about what's going on down at the border?"
Me: "I don't know; what is going on down at the border?"
Grandfather: "All these illegal immigrants are sneaking across."
OK, to be fair, we actually had a pretty reasonable discussion about it. I disagree with my grandfather about almost everything but he's generally pretty open to listening to other people's opinions.
A fellow blogger Big Ass Belle had a post recently about how her politics are completely different from those of her family. I was raised by liberal parents thousands of miles away from my conservative extended family in rural Illinois (several thousand miles; I was raised in Hawaii)and I don't actually have a great deal of contact with them so I don't have to worry about it too much. But it does make the occasional family reunion awkward. For instance, at my father's memorial service a couple of years ago I somehow ended up in an argument with my uncle about gun control. That was really the last thing I needed right then. I finally just said, "Fine, all schoolchildren should be given hand guns. Then we'll all be safe. Whatever."
Anyway, back to illegal immigrants. My grandfather pointed out two of the non-facts that are often brought up: that we have pay to educate their children and that they are a major cause unemployment. First of all, most illegal immigrants actually pay taxes. I'm sure people will dispute this and I don't have exact figure on it, but from what I understand most illegal immigrants either have payroll taxes deducted because they've provided a false social security number, or (and I just learned about this recently) they voluntarily pay taxes by setting up IRS accounts that don't require social security numbers. Illegal immigrants do this because it will look good if they eventually apply for citizenship. The IRS does this because their job is to collect taxes and not do the work of the INS. And, obviously, illegal immigrants also pay sales tax. You can argue that they don't pay their fair share (I would argue that many US citizens don't pay their fair share) and I don't know whether they do or not; like I said, I don't have the exact figures; But the point is, you can't argue that they pay no taxes.
Secondly, the United States has very low unemployment compared to most of the world, anyway. But most of the unemployment we have is probably due to outsourcing of technology jobs to India and manufacturing jobs to China. Most unemployment in this country is not caused by Mexican immigrants coming into this country to pick strawberries. Now, I'm using generalizations here; I know there are illegal immigrants who are taking some construction and manufacturing jobs that US citizens might want. But there are many manual labor jobs in this country that US citizens don't want and there are people risking their lives coming to this country in order to do them. There are some growers, for instance, who have crops rotting in their orchards because they can't find enough workers. Some argue that these growers would be forced to pay higher wages that would attract US citizens if it weren't for illegal immigrants who are willing to work so cheap. But if field workers got $15 an hour and full benefits, consumers wouldn't be able to afford to buy American fruit. Obviously, this is a complicated issue because I think people should be paid a living wage; but I also know that if wages are too high, the jobs will simply go to other countries.
Let me add here a quick discussion on security: terrorism is, of course, another issue brought up when it comes to illegal immigration. But, as far as I know, we don't have a major problem with Islamic terrorists illegally crossing the border from Mexico. Most terrorists have no problem getting valid visas and flying right into JFK. Spending trillions of dollars on a stupid border wall would not stop terrorists from getting into the country. So I think the security argument is a ruse.
The major issue seems to be economic. It's apparently based on the previously mentioned ideas that illegal immigrants cost us so much money because they take our jobs and we have to pay to educate their children. As I've already pointed out, I think these ideas are questionable if not completely false. But let's assume for a moment that they are valid points. Then my question is this:
If we are so concerned about how much illegal immigrants cost us by coming into this country, why are we willing to spend unlimited amounts of money trying to keep them out?
That just doesn't make economic sense to me. We could actually use some of that money to try to improve people's lives instead of wasting it trying to keep people from taking jobs that need to be done. Since opposition to immigrant workers doesn't make financial sense, what is the real motivation? My first instinct is to think that it's racism or the irrational fear that soon we will all be forced to speak Spanish as our primary language. But, of course, that probably isn't it. I actually think it's just one of those wedge issues, like flag burning and gay marriage, that is used to distract the American people from the real problems in this country.
So, again, I don't have a simple solution; just writing down my thoughts. I'm not theoretically opposed to a guest worker program, though I think it could cause a bureaucratic nightmare and I don't know if it would actually solve any problems. I was surprised to hear that many Republicans who opposed Bush's immigration bill actually think we should use a point system for allowing immigrants into the country. Apparently other countries use a system that awards points to an immigration application based on how skilled or educated the worker is. This seems like a particularly strange suggestion coming from the same people who are supposedly worried about immigrants taking all the good jobs. I don't get it.
Several months ago I heard an interview with a man who studies immigration patterns. He said that in situations where countries have more open border policies, workers cross temporarily and then move back after a few years. A closed border actually creates a situation where workers cross a border and then try to stay permanently because they don't want to risk leaving. This certainly makes sense. We've created our own immigration problem; by trying to keep people out we actually keep them in.
So one radical solution is simply to open the border (while maintaining security, of course). It's just a wild suggestion, but one that needs to be seriously discussed. Think of all the good things we could do with all the money we save by not building a wall around the country. Think of how much more secure we would be if all the energy put into catching illegal immigrants (and also recreational drug users) was instead put into catching terrorists and other real criminals.
After I started writing this post I read an interesting financial page in the New Yorker about the current guest worker bill (James Surowiecki, "Be our guest!" New Yorker, 11-18 June 2007). First of all, it recommends the bill as an imperfect but good solution. It points out that we already have small-scale guest worker programs and most of the immigrants involved do not overstay their visas, which is one of the concerns. What I found most surprising in the article was that there is very little evidence to suggest that immigrant workers actually drive down wages. The article cites a recent study by the economists Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri, who found that "between 1990 and 2004 immigration actually boosted the wages of most American workers." The explanation is that immigrant and native worker skills actually compliment each other instead of being in direct competition. The article also reiterates the point I mentioned above about the fact that most immigrant workers would actually prefer to work a job for a few years and then return home. They don't all want to stay here permanently.
Again, I welcome intelligent discussion; I just don't welcome insults and rants. Thank you!