People have always been migrating, for both economical and political reasons. From an historical perspective, current immigration issues in America are nothing new and nothing special.
Presently, the United States is one of the most attractive, if not the most attractive, country to migrate to. For Americans, it is instinctive to be concerned that an unregulated influx of immigrants might destabilize the country. However, when it comes to a legislative approach, Americans need to strike a golden balance between the benefits and the economical and political costs of accommodating newcomers.
The question is: how do we determine what is best for the country when it comes to the number of foreigners arriving here every year to work, considering that some might stay and eventually naturalize. If less aliens were to arrive, what would be the magic number that that would cause the economy to grow more slowly than it might with them? If more aliens were to arrive, what would be the magic number that would cause a burden to the society here? Is anyone knowledgeable enough to see into the future and tell us how many immigrants and from which countries would be good for the USA in the year 2007? What about the year 2027? Is anyone arrogant enough to tell us that he or she might know these numbers?
The very assumption that there is an authority that can plan and manage the influx of immigrants into American society is an example of a political conviction that a government administration can plan the economy. It is pure socialism. Mean people wanting gulags, food rationing, and a failed economy did not invent socialism as a concept. Socialism is a product of intellectuals who look at the human aspects of economy; intellectuals that are capable of elevating themselves above the greed of capitalists, and who consider the good of the people as a whole. Consequently, it has to end up as it did in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc.
There are plenty of intellectuals in America, proud of being able to lookout for the good of the people as a whole, and of being able to elevate themselves above the greed of capitalists who want to hire the cheapest labor available to do the job. Some of them were elected, some of them got nominated into top political positions in Washington, and some of them were influential enough to forge their ideas into law, such as our current immigration law that has built into it numerous quotas limiting the number of foreigners allowed to immigrate or come here to work every year. Twenty years ago, some bureaucrats looked into a crystal ball and came out with the number of immigrants that should be allowed into the country every year. About 12 million more people arrived than had been expected. The unemployment is currently at historic lows, and major economical indicators show that the USA is doing better than most other countries. We are enjoying a time of prosperity that is one of the best in the history of the nation. Should we mess with this for the sake of complying with what politicians envisioned twenty years ago?
In countries where socialism governed totally, like in the former Soviet Bloc, the law forbade almost every free-spirited human activity. In order to take care of their basic needs, most people over there were breaking at least some laws everyday. Just a little bit of socialism practiced here turned 12 million hard working people into lawbreakers. It is time to toss socialistic ideas into the history graveyard, where they belong. It is time to take a free market approach with our immigration dilemmas.
Why do they come?
For a Dutch farmer, America’s vast land might be the attraction. Some of these farmers immigrate to America. In the same way, America might be attractive to Germans, French, and Canadians, for numerous personal reasons. However, immigrants from these countries do not cause many immigration problems in America.
If we would open our borders to Haitians, within 24 hours most people living there would be on the boats heading up north. They would not want to come here because America is attractive, but because life in Haiti is miserable.
We have to see the difference between people coming to America due to opportunities available here, and those who are desperate to leave their mother country under any circumstances. Holland and Haiti are two extreme examples. In the case of most other countries, both factors – opportunities here and desperation to leave the mother country – might be equal or meaningful reasons in an individual’s decisions to migrate. Mexico seems to be a good example of a country where both factors play an important role in prompting people to migrate here.
Can we stop them?
Most countries of the world outside of the USA have populations of higher density than here. Most of these countries have much lower standards of living than here. From the basic laws of physics, we know that different potentials create a movement of medium. Some who do not like the laws of physics would build barriers, bureaucratic or actual concrete walls, to stop the flow – in this case – of people. Those artificial barriers earlier or later will fall, usually when least expected, and cause damage.
The world has become a small village, and it is naïve to believe that we can stop people from moving around. We can only facilitate this natural process. Our options are somewhat limited as millions of people from abroad want to come here so desperately that even killing on the spot those caught at illegal border crossing would not stop others from trying.
Without even considering the costs, if we will build a wall along the Mexican border, or even two parallel walls as I read in one editorial; and if we will saturate this border with cameras, sensors and armed patrols; it will only change the way the border is crossed. More people will use boats. More people will try to bribe border guards, which would be easy because there will be plenty of them. Soon, the border patrol would become the most corrupted government agency, and we would need to hire other guards to guard the border guards. “Coyotes” would raise their fees, and this additional cash intake will allow them to build cruel but powerful and efficient crime syndicates. Crossing the border would become as hard as having a beer during the Prohibition, or as hard as it is to buy marijuana now. Even more people, acting in their best interest or with their basic human instincts of compassion, would be breaking a law. The whole sector of economy would be criminalized.
Let us imagine the impossible: that we would build the wall and guard the border so efficiently that even a mouse could not cross it undetected. Without cash from illegal immigrants, the economy of Mexico and other South American countries would suffer. Even more people would see crossing the border as their only chance. Five million of them would camp in nearby Tijuana. Tired, hungry, and desperate; one day they would storm the border with bare hands, hammers, ladders, and trucks. Four hours later, they would ransack San Diego, and then Los Angeles the next day. The only effective way to stop them would be by dropping an atomic bomb at the border. This is not an exaggeration. We need to be this graphic at these times when we have so much evidence that the current leadership of the country lacks ability to foresee consequences of its political actions.
Country of immigrants?
Reaching back to the end of the ninetieth century, many restrictions had been put on immigration, mostly due to fears that newcomers would change the ethnic make-up of the country. First, there was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, practically banning immigration of Chinese. This ban with mild softening in 1943 and 1952 lasted until 1965. The first comprehensive immigration law, the Immigration Act of 1924 was structured to limit immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, and in the view of many was intended to prevent the immigration of three million Polish Jews. Until 1965, essentially all immigration of Asians was banned. Plainly, racism was the undertone of all of the immigration laws until 1965.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted because natives were afraid of competition from low-paid Chinese workers. Fear of competition continues to drive anti-immigrations laws today. It sounds strange, but in a country that is proud of building its prosperity on the free market principle, there seems to be a consensus that competition on the labor market is no good.
After 1882, America’s claim to be a country of immigrants could be challenged. Since 1924, calling America a country of immigrants is a plain lie. All the immigration laws ever passed have tried to limit immigration, not encourage it.
An immigrant, even with a little or no education, somehow manages to get a job within the first week after arriving into States. It is likely, that even with English that is very far from perfect, that person will earn the means to buy a six-flat five years later. Because of the success of these immigrants, natives feel that those jobs and those six-flat properties are being taken away from them. Therefore, their thinking is that with fewer immigrants, there will be more jobs and more six-flat buildings left for them. Contemporary Americans, born to the prosperity of their nation, tend to focus on securing their own share of the wealth accumulated by the previous generations. Immigrants, legal or otherwise, are perceived as taking away the inheritance of natives.
This static approach ignores the fact that immigrants, by their work and consumption of products and services, stimulate the growth of the economy. Someone in America is making a profit from their work. They need food, clothes, cars, and apartments. There is additional employment and profit made from producing and delivering these goods and services. According to some estimates, about 850,000 illegal immigrants come here every year. Within the first year, many of them buy a car here. It might be a beat-up used car, but at the same time, someone selling that used car buys another one. It is a fair assumption that 850,000 immigrants generate sales of about 200,000 new cars every year. For example, let us assume that no illegal immigrants would arrive this year. It would not be Toyota or Honda but GM who would suffer the most due to lower car sales. GM might even not survive, and all the well-paid union jobs and hefty pension plans might disappear.
In another scenario, let us assume that the restrictive immigration law would be passed; and fearing persecution and deportation, three million illegal immigrants would depart the country voluntarily within a month or two. That would leave about one million unoccupied apartments. The need for building new houses would also shrink, so there would be jobs available in construction related businesses, as well. The available houses might be cheaper, but fewer people would be able to afford them anyway. Many might not be able to pay the mortgage.
Another anti-immigration myth is that aliens agree to work for less, lowering wages of natives. In terms of numbers, most newcomers take simple, low-paid jobs. Those jobs pay bare survival wages and regardless of legal status, any person living here needs to get them in order to pay for necessities. Therefore, on the level of low-paid jobs, there is very little room for employers to pay aliens less then natives. However, it might be true that immigrants might take away some of those low-paid jobs from natives. Americans that are capable of taking only low-end jobs are often coming from the most dysfunctional margins of the society. Frequently, they are troubled workers; immigrants are more appreciative.
Skilled foreign workers often accept meaningfully lower wages at the beginning of their employment. This could be justified by the fact that an alien might need some time to adjust to American standards and customs, and therefore might be less productive at the beginning. Usually, aspirations to match the standard of living of others within a profession prevail, and aliens quickly make as much as locals. In private conversations however, some employers in high tech industries expressed to me that they prefer to hire foreigners over Americans. I have heard that Americans more often tend to see a job as an entitlement, and focus more on what they deserve, when aliens are thankful for the opportunity and tend to focus more on what they can deliver. Therefore, there might be some true to bitter anecdotal testimonials of some skilled Americans losing jobs to immigrants.
The irony of the attention given to immigration is in the fact that the real job loss that Americans suffer is not due to foreigners coming here but due to jobs going abroad. Moving a factory to China or Mexico is not a theoretical speculation anymore. We may joke about poor quality of service from call centers in India, but theirs will be the last laugh – just like it was with Japanese car makers forty years ago.
A Mexican or Chinese not allowed to come and work here would be forced to find employment in their own countries, likely at the incomparably lower earnings than here. With restricted immigration, the surplus of workers there would be greater; hence, they would be paid less. As a result, there will be greater incentive for American corporations to move factories abroad, and more Americans would lose their jobs. Mexicans or Chinese that come here might work for slightly less than natives, but the profits of their productivity here stay here, benefiting natives with lower prices for services and goods. Those Mexican or Chinese workers that arrived here lowered the worker surplus in their countries; therefore, those who stayed there are getting better pay, so it is less attractive for American corporation to move factories there. Consequently, more Americans keep their jobs here.
The times of splendid isolation are gone forever. Today, American workers compete directly with their foreign counterparts. The only choice Americans have is to compete with a Mexican or Chinese workers being paid local wages over there, or with Mexican or Chinese workers paid local wages here. As long as foreigners can find work here, it is in the best interest of Americans to have them working here, not over there.
The pass to paradise?
When the Chinese were banned in 1882, Japanese and Koreans started arriving. When they were also stopped, Mexicans became a source of low paid labor. The economy needed that labor, and the law could not change that fact – it could only affect the way this need was fulfilled. About a hundred years ago, many people who arrived to America stayed here only for a period of time. Some took their savings and started better lives in their mother countries. Some left when there was no work here. During the Depression, in the decade of 1920-30, more migrant workers left than arrived here.
Things got complicated once politicians took upon themselves the task of improving this free market mechanism. Before 1924, only those migrants who could find employment stayed here. After 1924, it became harder to arrive here. With limited immigration, work was easy to find, especially during the boom after the World War II. The shortage of workers during that time made labor unions stronger. At that time, they negotiated contracts that continue to strangle General Motors and Ford today.
With tightened borders and with the availability of work here, permission to stay and work here became a highly desirable commodity. It was like winning a lottery ticket; even the biggest loser could make a good life just by coming to America. This created a disconnect between the actual need of the American economy for labor and the skills of the immigrants. The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 even enforced this disassociation. Of course, the Act paid some lip service about visas for high skilled workers, but in essence, it turned the right to immigrate here into a gift the U.S. government was giving away here and there out of generosity. Family reunification became one of the major directives of the immigration policy. In other words, people were admitted here not because someone with their qualifications was needed here, but because coincidentally a close family member was already living here. In order to assure that those gifts of admission to the United States were spread evenly, in recent years U.S. government had a lottery system. People were given immigration visas not because there was any economical need for them to come here at that time, but just because they had good luck at the lottery. The absurdity of this action becomes obvious when we realize that those randomly selected immigrants later filled the labor market here. Can one imagine a sane employer who would hire workers by a lottery system?
Fortunately for America, most immigrants, regardless how they came here, had realistic expectations, and they worked hard on their way up. However, some critics of the current immigration policy complain that some new immigrants tend to take advantage of entitlements. Please send a thank you letter to your congressional representative for putting the government in charge of an immigrant’s admission.
How many of them can we accommodate?
The average population density in the European Union is 115 people per square kilometer. In the USA, it is 32 people per square kilometer. For Germany, this factor is 236; in Belgium it is 339, and it is 484 in the Netherlands. In the ten most populous U.S. states in the northeast part of the country, with a geographical structure similar to that in Germany or Belgium, the population density averages at 154 people per square kilometer.
If it works in Europe, it would work here as well. In other words, the territory of the United States can support a much larger number of habitants living here, at the same standard of living as we enjoy now. About 298 million people live in the USA today. Judging by European numbers, it looks obvious that 500 million people could live here today equally well as we do, forming a proportionally larger economy.
Some economic projections indicate that twenty years from now, China will be the world’s greatest economy. How will things be one hundred years from now? The territory of China is almost exactly the same as that of the USA. However, China’s population is not only its biggest burden, but it is its biggest opportunity as well. If the USA wants to maintain its super power status among nations, it can do it only by one way, by expedited population increase.
Congressional representatives look at the immigration issue in the context of the next election. The decisions made today will affect the strength of the country for decades to come. Finding smart solutions for the immigration dilemma today will define the country to a horizon reaching beyond 2050.
There is a concern that an increased influx of foreigners would change the identity of America. For those who understand this as a domination of Anglo-Saxon ethnics, the answer is yes, new immigrants would make America more colorful, as it already has happened to some extent within the last few decades.
America is home to people who are fortunate to be born here. America also represents the concept of a political system built on the respect of individual’s rights. It is the pure luck of today’s Americans that about two hundred thirty years ago – by the random coincidence of numerous circumstances – the great democratic system was created right here rather than in South America, for example. It is also not the fault of people born there that the political systems in their countries are flawed, corrupted, or sometimes plainly criminal.
Opponents of increased immigration often say that foreigners come here to take advantage of the higher standards of living here. They do; however, most of them work hard at more than one job, paying a hefty price for reaching this higher standard of living. What immigrants value the most is the freedom to pursue happiness. As long as America maintains this, every foreigner coming here with an intention to work for a short time or forever, will become an American patriot.
The rule of the bad law
Alexis de Tocqueville prized the wisdom of Americans because, according to his testimony, if Americans see that the law does not work, they conclude that the law is bad and abandon it. Something must have changed since then. Opponents of the amnesty for illegal immigrants say that immigration is no exception to the principle that the rule of law requires the fair, firm, and equitable enforcement of the law.
The law that is not enforced and not obeyed by most concerned parties is a bad law. The current immigration law is bad big time, in the same way that the law of Prohibition was bad because it turned everybody who had a taste for a beer into a criminal. Most illegal immigrants here are illegal not because this is their choice. They stay illegal because we want them to stay but we do not give them a realistic opportunity to legalize their status, and at the same time, intentionally we did not give the government enough power to execute the existing laws. This situation resulted from the compromise between those who believe that government should be in the full control of the immigration process, and those who believe that the free market would do the better job.
We can effectively seal the borders. Soviet Union did it, so it is do-able; likely with the same outcome. If it was our determination that we needed to do so, we could easily identify most of the illegal immigrants here, just by compiling records available to the government: social security, taxes, driving licenses, and school registries, and get them deported on a short notice. The fact that we do not do it does not mean that it cannot be done. We do not do it because first, it would turn the country into a totalitarian police state. Second, it would hurt the economy. Therefore, it is an unspoken but conscious decision to let people come and stay illegally.
Opponents of amnesty say that we cannot reward 12 million people for breaking the law. They keep forgetting that nearly every other political nominee in Washington has a nanny problem. Let Americans look straight into each other’s eyes and ask ourselves: how many times have we had our lawn mowed by a crew that, although we may not have known for sure, we had reason to believe that they were probably undocumented workers? How many times has this happened when we had some construction work done? How many times has it happened when we dined in a restaurant? We kept our mouths shut, and enjoyed the price. As it was said once before, let the one who has no sin throw the first stone.
Verbally, most Americans support the current immigration law and ask for its enforcement. However, when making individual decisions, they feel and see an absurdity of this law and feel excused from obeying it. Most Americans would like to have all illegal workers deported, except those that cut their own grass. The current immigration law is bad because every American taking care of his or her daily business is continuously at risk and temptation of breaking it. The greatest evil of the current immigration law is not in the presence of 12 million undocumented aliens, it is in the fact that in the minds and hearts of most Americans, respect for the law in general has diminished.
We can resolve the problem of illegal immigrants by one stroke of a pen, by doing the right thing, by acknowledging that this is a faulty law, that it could never work, and it should be abolished.
Is it dangerous?
It appears that the solution to our immigration problems is in relaxing current immigration laws and allowing even bigger number of foreigners to come here for work. The number of foreigners crossing our borders would increase significantly. Presently, an illegal immigrant will not travel abroad, as it would be difficult to return. A legal guest worker would likely travel back and forth. This may help the bottom lines of United and American. One may ask if this increased border traffic could be detrimental to the security of the United States of America. Additionally, we risk that terrorists and criminals might find shelters within communities of foreign workers here.
If it could be worse, it would have been already. There are about 12 million foreigners in the country of which we know very little; who they are, where they came from, and what they are doing. If immigration were an effective venue to attract and harbor terrorists, we would see some action already. No doubt there might be some sleeper cells here and there; however in society as a whole, we already have many disenchanted people that under some circumstance might take a gun and shoot at random, or bomb the federal building as it was done in Oklahoma.
In other words, it looks that even 12 million illegal aliens have not compromised security of our nation. With more realistic laws, most visitors would be able to maintain legal status easily, and the government would have better insight into who is coming and staying here. Only a sparse few with criminal intentions would be staying illegally. They would be easier to spot.
It is time to recover from the September 11 shock. Analyzing events of that day, we can see it as a one time stunt that our enemy was able to pull on us, mostly due to the negligence of the government security agencies. It is meaningful that the hijackers of Flight 93 did not complete their mission. Within just a few hours after the first hit at the World Trade Center, Americans aboard Flight 93 realized that the rules of engagement had changed, and they acted accordingly. Therefore, since that moment, potential similar attacks will be much harder to execute. The shock effect of the September 11 attack was actually over at about 11:00 AM on September 11, 2001.
With laws making it easy for foreigners to come here for work, many people currently having a hostile attitude toward America would come here as well. If we believe that we are a genuine free country, we have to assume that most of these workers after returning home would have their hearts on our side.
What is the ideal solution?
This is an ideological question. For those Americans who believe that the government should be empowered to run the country, the ideal solution would be in the very detailed and strictly enforced immigration and temporary workers laws. For those Americans who believe that the country would do better under the rules of the free market with the government focusing on maintaining security, the ideal solution would be in very relaxed immigrations laws, where practically everyone who is willing would be able to come and work here at his or her wish and risk.
First and foremost, the concept of immigration as a gift or winning lottery ticket should be scrapped. Family reunification programs should be abandoned. If an American wants to help his brother living abroad to come here, it should be at his own risk. If he can find a job for his brother, let him come. If his brother then loses his job, let them figure it out between themselves what to do. However, if this American wants to bring his elderly parents here from the old country so at their retirement age they could enjoy entitlements available to the members of this society, it should be not allowed. To be precise, they should be allowed to come, however their living and health care expenses should be a sole responsibility of their American son, not that of the U.S. government.
Besides some exceptions such as political refugees, there should be only one way to immigrate to the USA: by finding employment here. Those who can stay employed for, let say, five years, pay taxes, and do not break the laws, they should be entitled to the green card, opening up for them the way to citizenship.
Helen E. Krieble of the Heritage Foundation came up with an interesting concept as to how the private sector could manage a guest worker program. “If there is a job and there is a worker who wishes to have that job, put them together with the profit motive that employment agencies have, which makes them be efficient and do the job well.” – writes Helen E. Krieble. Such agencies should be licensed by the government and should be authorized to issue workers identification cards with the date of the expiration of the job. In this solution, fees charged by employment agencies would cover all the costs of managing the guest worker program.
The goal is in creating a system where obtaining a guest worker visa would be a simple and easy process. In such a system, following the law would be simple, and breaking the law would bring very little or no benefits for people with honest intentions. With the ease of coming here, the emotional, often irrational attraction to the ability to come to the USA would be gone.
This mechanism would likely work very well in self-regulating the incursion of low-paid labor from Mexico that today makes up most of the illegal aliens here. Today, those who stay here illegally do not return home even if there is no job for them, because they realize, that they might never be able to make it here again. Consequently, they accept lower wages and lower standards of living here than they otherwise would. At the same time, some who saved some money here would be more prompted to return to Mexico, knowing that if the need arose, they would be able to come here again easily.
How to make it from here to there?
We cannot open the borders tomorrow. However, we can start the program with the intention of having them practically open for almost everyone within the next five to ten years.
We cannot abolish the current quota system overnight; however, we should stop taking immigration applications based on lotteries and family reunification criteria. At the same time, we should gradually increase yearly quotas for workers’ visas, using as a starting point a realistic estimate of the number of foreigners that actually arrived to work annually in recent years. We should monitor the market response to these changes. By market response, we should understand unemployment and GDP, not complaints of individuals that could not withstand competition on the marketplace. The purpose is to reach the point at which the quotas would meet the number of new workers that the economy can absorb, and at that point quotas should be abandoned and market should take over.
We should also monitor the number of foreigners expressing interest in work in the USA. It is expected that originally those numbers would be astronomical, as it is a dream of millions to come here. By widening the opportunity, we will give more people a chance to have an American experience. Within a short time, most people around the world would have expectations that are more realistic, and less of them would try to come here.
Dealing with situations such as that occurring in Haiti should fall within the scope of our foreign policy, not immigration. However, with a relaxed guest worker program, in times of crisis we may assist some Haitians by helping them finding temporary work here, along with an enticement prompting them to return home. This way, Americans’ ideas can propagate faster over the long term, allowing more people pursuing happiness in their native countries.
We have to assure our friends south of the border that with these intended changes we anticipate more job openings in the near future; therefore, patience in following the new rules would be more beneficial that trying to cross the border illegally. We also have to explain to our proud Mexican friends that corruption of their political system is also our problem, as people who cannot pursue happiness there cross the border to pursue it here.
Cleaning up the mess caused by our current system will be the challenge. If legal purists oppose amnesty for currently illegal workers, we have to find a good euphemism to give all these workers a fair chance to obtain a worker’s visa. As with any worker visa applications in the future, a criminal record should be only one disqualifying factor.
Looking back toward the future
Immigration is out of control, and our nation has difficulty with finding a consensus how to deal with this situation. Legislators cannot agree on almost anything on this agenda. Some frustrated Americans flood the media with requests for swift anti-immigration action. Frustrated immigrants flood the streets to appeal for their cause. Solution for a major crisis like this one is not in following the wheel that squeaks the most. Americans need to look back at ideas that were laid at the foundation of this nation, and ask ourselves how those ideas apply to our problems of today.
America was built on the concept of denying privileges, on the principle that all people are created equal and should have freedom to pursue their idea of happiness. This very simple concept made this country wealthy and powerful. Today, being born as an American is being born to the privilege. The question we face today is: do we still believe that all men are created equal, or should we rephrase it that all Americans are created equal? Should we empower our government to build walls to protect the privileged positions of Americans? Or, should we return to the principle that every individual should have an equal right to pursue happiness regardless of religion, race, gender, and the place of birth?
If we decide to close the borders, how this will affect the future of this country? Furthermore, is it realistic that we could create an isolated oasis of prosperity next to the vast areas of misery? If so, for how long we can keep it?
Will opening the borders bring all the world’s miseries into our back yard? Or, will opening our borders make our nation even richer and more powerful, easing the world’s miseries at the same time?
These questions sound like they are about immigration, but they are also essential questions about the nation’s identity for the century to come. Americans need some time to discuss these issues, to understand them, and to sleep on them before making decision. Clearly, Congress is not ready to pass any immigration law now. Pressure to legislate an immigration law within the next few weeks can produce a law that might be slightly better or slightly worse that the current one, but it would not resolve anything.
First printed at author’s expense as a display ad in the Chicago Tribune, April 27, 2006.