Immigration is one of the most controversial issues facing the American people today. Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, loud voices in the media are pointing to “open borders” and hinting at dangerous “illegal aliens” who are stealing jobs and overburdening public services. Last year, the voices finally reached the House of Representatives. In December, it passed a bill that calls for arresting and deporting all illegal aliens, imposing stiff penalties on employers who are employing them, and building a 698-mile $2.2 billion fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. Since then, the Senate has been trying to inject a touch of moderation and compromise which presently looks as if it is going to fail.
It is difficult to imagine the state of mind and the grasp of legal knowledge of the legislators who voted for the bill. They would make it a felony to be in the United States illegally and penalize employers for hiring illegals. A felony is a grave crime which, in federal law, is punishable by more than one year’s imprisonment. It must be tried by a jury which takes an oath to act fairly and without preconception. The jurors must hear witnesses testifying against the accused and, if they believe that there is sufficient evidence, the accused may be indicted. The court then must appoint counsel for the accused, who may challenge the indictment. At the close, the judge instructs the jury concerning the verdict; if found guilty, the accused is condemned to serve more than one year in a federal penitentiary. Of course, the convict is free to apply to a higher court for appeal.
If the House Bill should become the law of the land, we must brace for federal indictments of millions of people found to be illegal residents and for imprisonment of millions of men and women who are found guilty. This simple scribe cannot fathom the time and effort it will take to prosecute some ten million illegal aliens. He cannot imagine the magnitude of police effort to find them, arrest them, and haul them to court. And he cannot fancy the new federal prisons needed to incarcerate millions of illegal aliens. He is saddened by the Bill that would incarcerate more millions in the country that already has the one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
The House Bill would make it a felony for businessmen to hire illegal workers. If found guilty of knowingly employing illegal aliens, they would have to share prison cells with the workers they hired. And employers who do not properly check the nationality of their employees and who incorrectly fill out the required paperwork could be fined up to $25,000. “It does not take too many of those fines to drive small business out of business,” says John Gay of the National Restaurant Association. And this scribe would like to add, it does not take too many of those fines to drive some American farmers off their land. And he can only conjecture what federal marshals will do to a farmer who simply refuses to investigate and ascertain the nationality of his hired hands.
Human nature is the same everywhere; people are suspicious of everything alien. They may admire themselves and their institutions but dislike and disdain foreigners. Immigrants may speak a foreign language and often live in distinct ethnic neighborhoods, frequently shunned and feared, but they come because they are eager to improve their living conditions. Adventuresome poor young people strike out for a new country. They may do whatever it takes, even risking their lives and their families’ livelihood to improve their lot in life. Early immigrants usually assist later immigrants, especially other members of the family. Until recent times, agriculture was their main occupation. Since a given area of land supports only a certain population, young men and women moved to the new world where land was believed to be available. People also moved because social and economic laws were too rigid and political and religious regulations too disagreeable. During the colonial period, many immigrants came to America as indentured servants who were bound for a period of service, usually seven years. While many died during their servitude, some later rose to wealth and influence.
During the nineteenth century, American railroads received large areas of land which they used to attract young men working on construction and settling on their land. American industry, which expanded rapidly, contracted for immigrant laborers, even paying their passage to the United States. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States was the favorite country of immigration, attracting some 60 percent of all migrants. Yet, they always were the objects of suspicion, mistrust, and apprehension, especially when they arrived in large numbers. During the mid-nineteenth century, many Roman Catholic immigrants arrived and settled in Eastern cities; they were the targets of a Know-Nothing Movement which sought to elect only native-born Americans and agitated for a 25-year residence qualification for citizenship. It swept the polls in Massachusetts and Delaware, and almost captured New York State in the 1854 election. During the 1860s and 1870s, Chinese workers were imported to California in great numbers to work on the construction of railroads. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between the Chinese and U.S. governments actually encouraged Chinese immigration, but as soon as the railroad construction slowed down and the economic boom gave way to a recession, the heavy influx of Chinese caused much apprehension and friction. Ethnic tension and conflict soon led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
During the 1890s, the pattern of immigration changed significantly. The majority of immigrants came from Eastern and Southern Europe, from Poland, Russia, the Balkans, and Italy. They were disliked and distrusted just like all earlier newcomers. After much agitation, wrangling, and dispute, Congress practically closed the borders to all aliens except Northern and Western Europeans in 1924 by passing the National Origins Act. Setting quotas by nationality as recorded by the 1890 census, it granted the largest quotas to British and German nationals. Forty-one years later, in 1965, Congress responded to President L. B. Johnson’s skillful prodding by enacting a sweeping Civil Rights Act replacing the national-origin-quota system with a “relations system” welcoming children, spouses, and parents of U.S. citizens. President Johnson tried to lay to rest old ethnic tension and conflict, and instead concentrate on economic conflict. He called for a nationwide war against poverty, and proposed a vast program of welfare legislation designed to create what he called “the Great Society.” Most successors have labored hard and long to make it ever greater.
Soon after the national-origins system had been abolished, Asian and Hispanic immigration began to surge. By 1986, several million aliens were at work in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Congress tried to stem the tide by passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act, imposing heavy fines on employers who deliberately hired undocumented workers. The law also granted amnesty to some three million illegal aliens. Soon thereafter, they arrived in ever larger numbers from Mexico and other Central American countries, which rekindled the old hostility to alien newcomers, but the ethnic arguments were old-fashioned and out-of-date; they were supplanted by arguments of employer greed and labor exploitation. The news media and the politicians who echoed them charged that illegal immigrants steal jobs, over-burden public services, pay no taxes, and refuse to assimilate. Labor union leaders who face their unemployed members never tire of pointing at illegal servants and fruit pickers.
This academic observer is dismayed and disheartened by the old Marxian arguments of employer greed and labor exploitation; their growing popularity is a bad omen for future economic policies, but he also remembers the age-old sway of ethnic argumentation of religious, social, national, and cultural differences. He is appalled by the two-faced newsmen and politicians who are advancing economic arguments, but pointing at aliens who visibly differ from them in racial characteristics. Nearly all Hispanic immigrants are Amerindians or mestizos, that is, persons of mixed European (Spanish) and native Indian descent. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, only fifteen percent of Mexicans are white, two percent of Hondurans, and 1.6 percent of El Salvadorans. The racial ratios are similar in all Central American countries.
Whatever the motivation of our legislators may be, the conflict is growing and threatening. It may lead to one of the ugliest civil discords and struggles in U.S. history. The pressures of illegal immigration are bound to continue as the differences between U.S. and Central American standards of living are substantial and may continue to grow. Present U.S. Gross Domestic Product per capita is estimated at $38,000 a year; that of Mexico at $6,700; Honduras at $7,300; El Salvador at $2,350; and Nicaragua at $800. If all expand at a satisfactory rate of 3 to 5 percent, the differences would continue to widen and to increase the pressures of migration.
The present road of legislation and regulation as delineated by the House Bill leads straight to insoluble conflict and strife. Legions of demonstrators, legal and illegal, in cities from coast to coast, are making this point. Some 500,000 people recently marched in Los Angeles; 300,000 in Chicago; and tens of thousands more in cities like Phoenix and Denver. They included many native-born Americans, marching out of compassion for those the House Bill might criminalize; however, many politicians, mostly Republicans, expect to gather more votes by promising more border fences, mass deportation, and other measures to protect the culture. The legislature of Georgia already passed a Security and Immigration Compliance Act which eliminates income-tax deductions for companies hiring illegal aliens. The legislators of 30 other states presently are debating some 75 Bills imposing similar restrictions on employers. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is implementing a new, revolutionary, state-of-the-art approach to the illegal immigration problem. It will crack down on employers who “knowingly and recklessly” hire illegal aliens, and, 54 private groups, such as the border-patrolling Minutemen, announced that they will boycott companies that favor liberal immigration laws; they may picket Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart Stores, Bank of America, and many others.
Some legislators may want to work out a compromise reform bill that would combine tougher border controls with a path toward legalization for most of the ten million illegal immigrants already inside the United States, but a compromise is likely to include provisions that force employers to confirm the legal status of all employees and prospective hires. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare costing employers billions of dollars and destroying countless businesses and thousands of jobs. The economic and social consequences are too ghastly to contemplate. A Bill authored by Senator John McCain and Senator Ted Kennedy would legalize all illegal immigrants in the United States, open the door to 400,000 temporary “essential” workers per year and improve border security. Illegals would have to pay $2,000 fines, learn English, undergo a background check, wait six years to apply for a green card, and then head to the back of the citizenship line. Such a bill obviously follows in the footsteps of the 1986 Control Act that legalized more than three million undocumented people and triggered the fresh surge of Latin American immigration. It would provide a steady supply of labor but alienate many native-born Americans.
This academic observer also questions such a compromise. He is doubtful that some ten million men, women, and children can be made to jump through numerous new political hoops to justify their existence and presence. Surely, a few illegals will submit, pay a $2,000 fine, undergo a background check, wait six years for a green card, and get in line for citizenship, but a large majority, millions of them, may defy the new law and continue in their labors. They also may march in the streets and wait to be arrested–by the thousands and even hundreds of thousands. Last year, 1.2 million undocumented workers were arrested inside U.S. boundaries, nearly 600,000 of them in Arizona. The new law may double and triple these numbers which, sooner or later, may trigger tragic events. As the candidates of both political parties out-tough each other and the political crackdown on illegal aliens is getting ever harsher, enforcement of the law, too, may become more arduous and hardheaded. It may even lead to some maltreatment and injury of prisoners, which the media are likely to reveal to the world. And if some illegal workers, for any reason, should ever be brutalized or killed by border guards and trigger-happy policemen, no matter how few there may be, the reports and pictures would horrify the American public and dismay the world. Surely, such a law, just like the Bill adopted by the House, would only intensify the storm that is swirling at the border.
It is unlikely that Congress will emerge with a sensible solution. Republican Party leaders who determine the Congressional agenda are calling for ever higher barriers along southern borders. They do not miss a day exclaiming: “Enforce the law, enforce the law. This is a nation of law.” They may prevail, but will discredit the party with every drop of Latino blood spilled at the border. As the storm intensifies, the Republican Party is likely to lose its political clout for many years to come.
Politics, as practiced today, is the systematic organization of economic conflict. This observer is saddened and hurt by political follies and fury that threaten social peace and cooperation. He would make social peace the primary objective and mission of his course of action. Peace be to this country and prosperity within its borders. A one- or two-year cooling-off or truce in political agitation and Congressional legislation may calm the tempers and clear the minds. He would walk in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers who, in 1790, passed the Naturalization Act granting citizenship to people “of good moral character” who had been in the country for two years. He would grant amnesty to all illegal aliens “of good moral character” who have been working for two years, as well as to their spouses and children. Since frightened employers could not be expected to testify about employment and good moral character, he would accept the testimony of a worker’s priest. Nearly all Latinos are members of the Roman Catholic Church. If they wish to become U.S. citizens, he would expect them to return to their native countries, at their leisure, and then re-enter the United States, with their working papers in hand, and commence the usual five-year naturalization process. It is the way of peace.
The pressures of migration will continue to grow as long as the difference between the rates of labor productivity and standards of living continues to widen. No matter how high the border barriers may be and how many armed Minutemen may patrol the border, they will come, risking their lives, in order to find a new beginning in the country forged by earlier immigrants. To mitigate and alleviate this pressure of migration, a sensible United States policy would strive to reduce the pressures by diminishing the difference. It could promote an unhampered private-property market order in Mexico and other Central American countries, which would lead to rapid economic expansion, rising labor productivity, and immediate reduction in the migration pressures. It would appoint the most successful and knowledgeable American-Latino entrepreneurs to positions of ambassador and consul in every Central American city, and expect them to share their know-how freely. As the people hear them and follow their example, as wage rates and standards of living approach U.S. rates, many illegal aliens may even decide to leave their unfriendly environment and go back home.
It is unlikely that these dreams will come to pass. No federal government, whether Republican or Democratic, is likely to promote an unhampered market order in Mexico or anywhere else. New Deal, Fair Deal, and New-Republican administrations like to conduct policies that closely resemble those enacted in Mexico. Surely, Mexico is a one-party country. Its Partido Revolutionare Institutional (PRI) has ruled the country from 1929 to 2000 and is likely to return to power in this year’s election. Charismatic Vicente Fox of the center-right National Acton Party managed to interrupt the one-party rule in the 2000 election. As PRI returns to power, the country must brace for more center-left to radical-left policies that have characterized its policies since the beginning. We can expect new rules and regulations, more social reforms, more redistribution of land, and higher expenditures on education, housing, and healthcare. The rate of inflation may accelerate again as the new administration increases its deficit spending, and powerful labor unions such as the 90,000-member union of the nationalized oil industry PEMEX and the huge national teachers’ union make their demands. The government-dominated communications media can be expected to support all political interventions and controls. Economic conditions are likely to deteriorate again, and more millions of young unemployed workers will stream across the border and join their relatives and friends in California, Arizona, and many other states.
Woodrow Wilson once reminded his countrymen that “our interests are those of the open door–a door of friendship and mutual advantage. This is the only door we care to enter.” Many fellow-Americans would like to close it now in the name of security and job preservation, locking out the hard-working competition that made this country what it is today. If not friendship, what will tomorrow bring?