Saturday, December 15, 2012

Is it time to tear down Lady Liberty?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, immigration, policy, polemics

Just 32 years ago my wife and I were in a courtroom. I have served on juries, and even stood before a judge to plead guilty on a traffic ticket, so I am no stranger to courtrooms. This occasion was different. The room was nearly full, little children were fidgeting or playing, and the judge was smiling. After a very short ceremony, my wife and about thirty others were sworn in as naturalized citizens of the United States of America. She had been in this country for nine years, and we had been married five years.

There was a time that any person who could demonstrate, via pay stubs and utility bills, five years of residency in this country, could be naturalized with very little paperwork. Prior to 1946, the Alien Registration card (the "green card") didn't even exist. The multitudes who arrived via Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 mostly didn't have passports or visas. They were issued immigration documents upon arrival, and at least until the 1930s, those documents and a few pay stubs or rental receipts were sufficient proof of residency to be used five years later to be naturalized. Now, you must hold the "green card" for five years (three years if married to a citizen), but it can take ten years or more to get the card in the first place.

The church we attend is multi-ethnic, and the local churches with which we are affiliated, worldwide, are probably the most multi-ethnic that there are. We have hymnals and Bibles for sale in four languages; larger churches nearby have as many as eight. A couple of years ago, our home bible study included people from "here" (me and one other), Japan (my wife), China, Taiwan, Nigeria, South Korea and India. People come and go, particularly in a college town, so at present "only" four ethnicities are represented.

Over the years, we have lived in a lot of places, in seven states. We have sometimes rented rooms to students. At least a few times, a student has turned out to be either "undocumented" or to have overstayed a visa, or to be working even though on a supposedly non-work student visa. Y'know how it is said, "politics is local"? It is strange, I long held rather restrictive, nativist views about "illegal immigration" in general, even as I harbored one "illegal immigrant" or another at times. But the more and deeper I look at the situation, the less sure I am what is right.

Einstein is quoted as saying, "Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler." Politicians violate this statement in both possible ways. The modern debate over "illegal immigration" or "undocumented immigrants" has been at an unusually high pitch for about twenty years, even higher than before President Reagan signed a mis-called "amnesty" bill into law in 1986. The law legalized 3 million immigrants. The country did not fall apart. Anti-immigrant fears died down for 6 or 7 years. Then, as documented by Pilar Marrero in Killing the American Dream: How Anti-Immigration Extremists are Destroying the Nation, nativist rhetoric began heating up again, and has become partly enbodied in policy, such that at least 300,000 "illegals" have been deported yearly during each of the four years of President Obama's first administration. This in spite of Obama's promise during the 2008 campaign to pass a comprehensive immigration law during his first year.

On the campaign trail, candidates oversimplify the "immigration problem". In the chambers of government, legislators and the bureaucracy over-complicate it. Before discussing policy, it is helpful to assess a few facts.
  • Seasonal workers in agriculture, many of them "pickers", number about 5 million.
  • 3/4 are Mexican or of Mexican descent. Another 14-15% are of other minorities.
  • Only 11% are "white".
There are 11-12 million "undocumented" persons in the U.S., even after nearly a million have "self deported" because of the recession. Some 40% are children, so that leaves about 7 million working ones. Less than half of these do farm work. The other 3-4 million can be found grooming horses at racetracks; working for lawn mowing and landscaping companies; in construction, particularly roofing (dominated by Eastern Europeans and Russians, who seem fearless of heights); and working as hairdressers, nannies, and house or office cleaners.

Suppose the dream of certain folks were to come true, and all 12 million "illegals" vanished (including about 2 million kids who are natural-born citizens). Who would do the 7 million jobs they leave behind? What wages would they demand? Face it: the fruit and veggies you buy are cheap because most farm laborers earn less than minimum wage, and if they are "undocumented", even less, much less. Are you ready for produce prices to double or triple? Actually, I would be very willing to pay more for food, under these conditions:
  • Every farm worker has a documented right to be here.
  • A "guest worker" program allowed several million seasonal laborers to freely travel to and from their home, whether in Mexico, Canada, other U.S. states, or wherever.
  • All farm workers were paid minimum wage, or more, and also had health insurance provided.
  • They were provided with SSN and other identification as needed.
In the same way, I would be willing to pay more for my roof to be shingled if I were assured that the Russians on my rooftop were documented and were paid well. I actually looked hard for a company that met such objectives when I had my roof replaced a few years ago. I'll be having some tree work done soon. I don't know if the sawyers are all "legal", but as long as they are treated well and paid well, I am satisfied. The company owner knows of my feelings.

If such conditions were met, much of the "immigrant problem" would vanish. That includes a problem many people never think of. Now that so many restrictive laws can lead to someone being deported after any kind of contact with the police, recent immigrants, even legal ones, won't call 911 even when they are the victim of a crime. From their point of view, they'll just become the victim of a second crime: being jailed until they can prove their "right" to be here, or deportation if they can't. The police find it harder to solve crimes when entire neighborhoods won't talk to them.

Well, I was going to discuss more about policy, but this is getting long. Ms Marrero has quite a good section on policy, well worth the reading. I think another item is well worth reading:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lighting, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
(Emma Lazarus, 1883)
This is the entirety of the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The greatness of America was built by those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free", by other lands' "wretched refuse" and "homeless". Something happens to someone who picks up and moves. They usually do better, much better. Do we really wish to cut off the supply of ambitious, creative, usually young, hard-working people who want something better? Let's take those 12 million "illegals" and turn them into fully productive members of society, and if they wish, citizens! If we can't do that, we ought to be honest enough to blow up the "Mother of Exiles" and wall out the world.

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