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March 27, 2006


Oliver's "no-cutting-in-line" stance on illegal immigration, while intuitively appealing, isn't realistic. The question isn't whether we should reward bad behavior -- though I've trouble defining bad behavior as a life-threatening trek across the desert in order to do backbreaking, essential labor for appallingly low wages -- but how we deal with a policy problem.

Illegal immigrants are here. Deportation would be impossible, both logistically and, assuming you could surmount those insurmountable obstacles, economically. Enforcement is a sham. Since 1986, we've increased border funding by a tenfold. We have built walls stretching into the desert. We have fined employers. And the flow of immigrants hasn't stopped, or slowed, but accelerated. Worse yet, there's a been a set of perverse consequences: not only do more come, but more succeed. We used to stop around 40 percent, now we halt 10 percent. Where immigrants used to use the main roads, now they slip into the deep reaches of the desert. Coyotes (smuggling operations), too, have increased the sophistication of crossborder migration. But because the Coyotes are necessary, and because their fees have grown as their utility has increased, those who arrive are more in debt than ever, leading them to stay longer and return home less frequently.

So enforcement doesn't work. Deportation doesn't work. Fining businesses -- which we did try, to some degree, for awhile -- is totally unworkable. The question, then, isn't how we feel about illegal immigration, but how we handle it in order to ensure the most desirable policy outcomes. And while I'm not precisely sure what the answer is, I'm fairly certain what it's not: the failed, moralistic, xenophobic policies of the past.

March 27, 2006 | Permalink


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I'm going to post about it, but "no-cutting-in-line" isn't an accurate portrayal of the situation. There is no line. No, really. If you are from Mexico or Canada there is no way to gain citizenship legally unless you have a parent who is a citizen, a spouse who is a citizen, or qualify for one of the various skilled worker visas.

If you are from Haiti, the DR, Central or South America, or really the rest of the world besides Mexico and Canda, and you don't have a spouse or family member and can't qualify for a skilled worker visa, you can enter the diversity lottery and get permanet resident status. Your chanes there are less than one percent.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 27, 2006 1:00:26 PM

You're right about the higher Coyote fees resulting in immigrants staying longer...and the longer they stay the more likely they are to stay for a LONG time. Policy? Heh, who hasn't thrown up their hands on this one. I suppose making an actual defensible border in combination with a worker visa program would work, but everybody would have to be on the same page to may a go of it--which may take communist style enforcement.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Mar 27, 2006 1:04:41 PM

Gee, I'm hearing an echo in here. Everything you're saying about immigration policy is reminding me of another (failed) policy. Now what is it?...let me think...oh yes, now I remember: can anybody say "War on Drugs?"

Posted by: Rebecca Allen,PhD,ARNP | Mar 27, 2006 1:11:27 PM

Naturalizing illegal aliens who have been working here for years and have no criminal record arguably rewards good behavior. (And like you, I can't really consider it 'bad behavior' to be forced by economic necessity to undergo incredible hardship in order to work like a slave in the US.)

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Mar 27, 2006 1:46:27 PM

Here's what I want to see. First off, we are an independent country with a right to control our borders...but be that as it may, I sure as hell don't want an American Berlin Wall at the US-Mexico border. Instead, I propose to simply legalize immigrant labor. Require that companies and individuals who hire workers do it above board and pay them a viable wage, AT LEAST minimum wage. The workers must also pay taxes. If you are going to come here, work here, and tap into our social services (which cost real money) then you are going to help pay for those services.

We punish, really punish, any company or persons who do not obey the pay laws and do not ensure everything is above-board such that laborers are paying their taxes. No under-the-table crap to avoid paying proper wages or to avoid the tax man.

They can all stay, so long as they have work. They can all tap into the social services net too, so long as they are paying their fair part into the pie.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates | Mar 27, 2006 1:52:05 PM

Build a fucking wall. Make it 100 feet high and 50 feet wide. Equip it with cameras and machine guns. Refuse to allow anyone to come in from Mexico. Spend as much money as it takes to completely dry up all immigration, legal and otherwise from Mexico - hell, any poor country.

Wait a few months, watch the American economy collapse, and then we can have a rational, intelligent conversation about "illegal" immigration.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 27, 2006 1:52:10 PM

The fees charged to migrants by the coyote's are collected after arrival in the US by drug dealers, who use the migrants (especially teenagers) as their street sellers. This activity has been extensively reported here in Portland, where the street dealers work the public transit stations day and night.

So, our immigration policy is making the drug problem worse. Talk about messed up.

If they are arrested, they are turned over to immigration, shipped back to Mexico, and then return via another coyote.

A revealing article on WaPo's front page on 3/27/06 looks at the work force in the Wash. DC area.

A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that unauthorized immigrants make up nearly 5 percent of the labor force. In the Washington region, they make up nearly 10 percent of the 3.1 million-strong workforce, providing mainly unskilled labor. They show a breakout of 51% of building cleaning/maintenance are not authorized to work; 43% of construction workers; 22% of food preparation; 14% of production workers.

The construction business in DC would have to shut down if these workers are forced to leave.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Mar 27, 2006 1:59:54 PM

I knew it was them! Even when it was the bears, I knew it was illegal immigrants!

Posted by: Moe The Bartender | Mar 27, 2006 2:09:24 PM

"The construction business in DC would have to shut down if these workers are forced to leave."

Well, no; wages would rise a bit, and construction profits would fall. I think the estimate is for high-school dropouts, the immigrant workforce lowers wages by about 8%. For high school degree holders, its probably a slightly smaller drop. 8% of $20,000 (roughly the annual income for dropouts) is $1600, so we're talking about a substantial raise. A 5% raise for high school-but-no-college workers would be around $1600 as well.

There are other issues in play as well. The phrase "immigrants take jobs Americans don't want" is can apparently be construed as "the black underclass is lazy". This ignores both mobility problems (it's tough to take agricultural jobs when you live in Dowtown Baltimore) and social/cultural problems. If my great grandfather's grandfather was a victim of slavery, to say nothing of the migrant farmer lifestyle of poor blacks in, say, the Mississippi Delta, the last job I would want would be working on a farm.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 27, 2006 2:20:36 PM

True. I was listening to the radio and some guy was saying that OTMs (Other Than Mexicans) when captured get catalogged, but released on U.S. Soil. Mexicans, on the otherhand, get released back in Mexico. Its costs too much to fly OTMs back. (Drug dealers/gang members do get sent back though, I believe.) Seems like a double standard, and one that is irrational. The worker pool next door gets the shaft? Cmon.

There is a lot of huff and puff on this issue from some people who promise to be 'tough' on illegals. These people should be called out for what they are, blowhards. There is no reasonably cost effective solution that involves getting them all out of the country. To pretend differently is a demonstration of an ignorant brain, willful or otherwise.

Posted by: Adrock | Mar 27, 2006 2:26:26 PM

"They terk r jrbs."

Posted by: Adrock | Mar 27, 2006 2:29:02 PM

I think the key issue here was addressed on "This Week" on Sunday by none other than George Will.

We can moralize all we want about how illegal immigrants are here illegally, and we shouldn't reward "illegal" behavior.

But, as Will said, morality without practicality isn't morality at all. Practically, if we were to deport 11 million people from our country, we'd have to break up millions of families, some of whom have legalized children. So the parents have to go -- but do the children stay or go? Should we kick out American citizens?

We do turn a blind eye to certain other illegal things in this country: college drug use, jaywalking, ticket scalping, et cetera.

If we truly don't want to "reward illegal behavior," why don't we crack down on everybody who has stated they did drugs in college but never did jail time? Let's spend billions of dollars rooting out those college-drug-use "illegals" and put them in prison. Otherwise, aren't we "rewarding illegal behavior"?

The bottom line is: It's not moral to break up millions of families -- even though it might be "rewarding illegal behavior" -- the same way it's not moral to round up everybody who behaved illegally in college, et cetera.

The logic of immigration is a tough one to wrap around, but I feel the "morality without practicality isn't morality at all" is a great way to put the debate in context.

Posted by: J. Puckett | Mar 27, 2006 2:45:19 PM

Shorter Ezra: "Why not just give up give up already!"

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 27, 2006 2:46:18 PM

I thought it was, Shorter Ezra: "No, Virginia, there are no easy solutions."

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 27, 2006 3:23:36 PM

Shorter Fred Jones: "Nothing is complicated! My solution is right!"

Posted by: Kylroy | Mar 27, 2006 3:28:54 PM

Anyone here live in So Cal (or AZ or NM or TX) and work in Emergency Medical Services?

Yes, illegal alien GOOD, recognizing the infrastructure paid for by taxpayers is collapsing ....?


Posted by: Darleen | Mar 27, 2006 4:44:27 PM

Given sufficient political will I doubt there are actually significant practical obstacles to stopping most illegal immigration and deporting most of the illegals already here.

It is amusing however to see lefties arguing that the US economy will collapse without an ample supply of cheap scab labor.

Posted by: James B. Shearer | Mar 27, 2006 5:57:33 PM

"It is amusing however to see lefties arguing that the US economy will collapse without an ample supply of cheap scab labor."

It definately is. If the US economy would collapse without illegal labor, that means that "minimum wage" is entirely unsustainable, and should therefore be abolished.

I'm open to amnesty, reform of immigration laws to allow unskilled labor, and other options. But several things need to happen. 1) minimum wage needs to be minimum wage, regardless. 2) Standard taxes need to be taken out regardless. 3) Immigration needs to be an actual process and documented. If we wan't to declare amnesty, that's fine, but continuing to reward people sneaking in will result in 1 and 2 NEVER happening, and that will become a drain on the economy.

Posted by: Tito | Mar 27, 2006 6:21:03 PM

Undoubtedly Oliver has never had to get anything accomplished with either the old INS or the new ICE, for he would soon learn as Nicholas Beaudrot notes, there is no line.

He would also learn that the very nature of the system encourages fraud and punishes those who play by the rules. Why? Because they are underfunded and because many of their staff are incompetent.

When my wife and I applied for her citizenship it took more three years from when we filed her naturalization papers until she was sworn in. When we applied for her green card, they were unable to get her file from a room three floors above the place where the interviews took place in less than eight months.

Oliver is a clever guy, but often he spouts off on things he doesn't really know much about. This is one of those times.

Posted by: Randy Paul | Mar 27, 2006 7:28:24 PM

I'm listening to Alex Bennett on Sirus Talk Left right now and you would be amazed by the amount of anti-immigrant lefties spouting "They trk r jrbs!"

Darleen, these immigrants should be paying into the system just like everyone else. So yes, that means prices will rise because wages will rise. Which means everyone is going to start paying more for their strawberries. Thats the bottom line. Everyone is fine with the labor until their own costs rise.

Posted by: Adrock | Mar 28, 2006 9:39:18 AM

So yes, that means prices will rise because wages will rise.

As someone that takes WalMart to task regularly for low wages, why can't you get behind getting those who are here unlawfully out? For starters, they simply thumbed their noses at our laws. More importantly from your viewpoint, wages would rise, particulary those who are at the low end of the earning spectrum....those who need it most. This would be a boon for low income earners as the supply of labor tightens. They would be in much better bargaining position for benefits as well.

You seem to be willing to get behind unions and bully American Businesses for higher wages, but unwilling to hold illegal foreigners to task for tubing the labor market in your own country...

What's with that?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 28, 2006 10:55:49 AM

I was really taking a position, simply pointing out what a lot of people will eventually complain about. There is alot of talk about all the tax-payer funded resources immigrants use and Ezra has indicated how much they really do consume in this blog and elsewhere. But beyond that, I contend that ultimately people who share my viewpoint will start to flip when prices rise. That is, we are ultimately pretty comfortable with the current situation because they provide a cheap labor pool.

I really don't understand your Walmart comparison, in both cases its the employers who are setting the bars so low. Cause and effect. I suppose I see the employers as supporting the pool, not the other way around. If there were no employers, there would be no pool.

What I do see is that our viewpoints square quite nicely with conservative and liberal worldviews. You blame employees (workers), I blame employers (businesses.) That, I'm afraid, is not going to change, I'm sure you agree.

I also see you view this is as a matter of legality whereas I see it as a matter of practicality. Considering I don't think there even exists a practical solution that includes actually getting them all out of the country (beyond whether that would be a good or bad thing,) I don't see a need to even address the possiblity. But if you pro-deporters have solid plans, I'll listen.

Posted by: Adrock | Mar 28, 2006 11:38:18 AM

That first was should be a wasn't.

Posted by: Adrock | Mar 28, 2006 11:39:31 AM

You blame employees (workers), I blame employers (businesses.) That, I'm afraid, is not going to change, I'm sure you agree.

You don't know me. I blame them both. They are both involved in unlawful activity. This latest bill punishes the employers as well....as they should be. I don't want to make them the police, but when *I* apply for a job, they want my SS card and a gov't issued ID. Is that too much to ask of anyone else?

I also see you view this is as a matter of legality whereas I see it as a matter of practicality.

What the fuck good are laws if everyone does what you do and "evaluate" each one to see if it furthers your agenda or not? Hey, these are the rules that we have all agreed to follow in advance, promulgated by democratic processes.....and now you blithely decide they aren't important??!

Perhaps, then, you can make excuses for the president for not getting the warrants for eavesdropping, eh? You could call it a matter of 'practicality' and let it slide....

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