Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 September 2017

Plain Talk about Immigration


[For brief comment on the possibility of President Trump actually becoming a leader, click here. For a comparison of Cohn’s with Tillerson’s response to Trump coddling bigotry, click here. For a recent essay on how and why our Civil War continues today, click here. For the usual catalogue of popular recent posts, click on the appropriate link below:]

Catalogue of Popular Recent Posts


Pundits keep saying that immigration is “complicated.” I wince every time I hear that.

Why? Because immigration is not complicated; the politics of immigration is. If we really wanted to solve all the problems of immigration, we could start by identifying and categorizing them in just five paragraphs. Here they are:

We have porous borders, at least to our south. That’s bad for at least four reasons. First, porous borders allow people to break the law to come here. Their coming here illegally in large numbers reduces general respect for the rule of law. Second, we don’t have any idea who they are, and because they quickly disperse in our society, we have no way to find out. They could be terrorists, criminals, drug dealers, gang members, or other undesirables. Third, if we don’t stop them from coming, their coming here encourages others to break the law by coming here illegally, too, thus beginning a vicious cycle. Finally, their coming here illegally enrages our citizens and many of the legal immigrants who have paid their fees, waited in line for months or years, patiently filled out reams of documents and questionnaires, and suffered innumerable vetting procedures. So the “seal-the-borders” people have a point.

We now have an estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants. The vast majority has come for jobs, and they are an integral and important part of our economy. If we deport them all, we will bash a huge hole in the nether regions of our economy. Everything from the grapes they pick, the wines from those grapes, the meat and chicken from the animals they slaughter, and the restaurant meals and hotel beds they prepare would become scarcer and more expensive. So would construction and civil engineering, which employs them in droves. All this we know without even mentioning the cruelty and waste of breaking up families and deporting people from the only country they have known for years, to one they may have known long ago but don’t know any longer. So people who advocate regularizing the undocumented already here have a point.

For the so-called “Dreamers,” deportation makes even less sense. They have lived here most of their lives. Our tax money has sent them to school, taught them English and our culture, made them part of us and (depending on age) prepared them to do useful work and enter their professional years. Do we really want to send them to another country just when they are ready to start doing useful work and give us a return on all that investment? It would be hard to imagine a better way to shoot ourselves in the foot, economically speaking. So the people who want to keep and regularize the Dreamers have a point. Not only do they have a point; they constitute a majority of both Republicans and Democrats.

Our porous borders and our large undocumented immigrant population are interrelated. (Duh?!). We have that large population because we have had porous borders for a long, long time. But there is an equally important reverse effect. The larger our undocumented population becomes, the stronger is the pressure to make our porous borders leak. Relatives and friends of those already here want to come. And the more people come illegally, the more those abroad who want to come think they can, and so the more try. Thus does so-called “amnesty” encourage further illegal immigration and therefore require stronger border enforcement lest the undocumented population explode. So the “amnesty encourages-more-illegal-immigration” people have a point, too.

The final point concerns legal immigration. It’s the lifeblood of our economy. One or more of the founders of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Tesla—just for examples—was an immigrant, raised by an immigrant (Jeff Bezos) or the grandson of immigrants (Steve Jobs). If we reduce or cut off legal immigration, we cut our own economic throats. So the people who say “invite them in legally, especially the ambitious and skilled,” have a point.

The logical outline of a solution to our immigration problem is thus pretty clear. We have to find some way to close our porous borders and vet and screen everyone who comes here. We have to regularize the undocumented, vetting and screening them along the way. We have to pay special attention to the Dreamers, who are morally innocent and are our future, and whose skills we have already paid for. We have to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t encourage yet more illegal immigration. And we have to allow legal immigration to maintain our long record of drawing the best talent from everywhere on Earth.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Virtually everyone with a college education—and most successful high-school students—could come up with the outlines of a solution after half an hour’s thought. So why have Congress and our Executive failed even to begin a solution after an entire generation of so-called effort?

The answer is not that immigration is complicated. The answer is that most of our pols have an incentive not to find a solution. What’s worse is that the pols themselves have created these perverse incentives by working consistently to increase their own political power, rather than solving the people’s problems.

How have they done so? Well, each political group has spent nearly a generation demagoguing part or parts of the problem without regard to the other parts. Republicans have focused on the porous-border problem, the presence of so many undocumented immigrants, and the effect of any “amnesty” in attracting even more. Dems have focused on the plight of the undocumented, their constant fear of deportation, their living in the shadows, and the maiming of our economy (not to mention our humanity) that deporting them all would cause.

Each side not only speaks about its “own” part of the problem; it ignores or belittles the other sides and insults the people who care about them. Why? Because by so doing each side can attract and hold voters and win elections.

The more a skewed focus attracts a rabid “base,” the stronger the demagogue’s hold on voters and the greater the political power he or she will have. Thus do pols’ political interests absolutely subvert any rational, let alone intelligent, attempts to solve the problem of immigration.

But it gets worse. After a generation of this nonsense, the multisided problem has produced a vast binary polarization, basically revolving around two extreme and simplistic non-solutions. One proposes closing the borders absolutely, for example, with a wall, and kicking most or all of the undocumented out. The other involves doing little or nothing to strengthen the borders, while granting citizenship or something resembling a green card not only to all the undocumented, but to their relatives, too.

These two camps have retreated into their corners. They have formed echo chambers in which each reinforces itself with increasingly extreme views. They don’t listen to each other. And the pols who are supposed to “lead” them are just fine with this because each group constitutes a reliable political “base” that can be led around by the nose as much as may be necessary to win elections reliably.

But it gets still worse. Our large and powerful business community has a vested interest in not solving the problem. Undocumented immigrants provide a source of cheap labor. Not only is it cheap; it’s also docile. With deportation only a phone call to ICE away, undocumented laborers don’t make trouble, demand higher wages or better working conditions, or organize unions. With cheap and docile labor our employers can build their businesses and provide the public with cheaper products and services than otherwise might be possible.

This way, everybody’s happy, almost. The employers have their cheap and docile labor. The public gets cheaper prices. The ICE agents don’t have to work too hard because no one really wants them to completely cut off the flow of cheap, docile labor. The only malcontents are the eleven million economic serfs in a supposedly free society and the honest citizens who sense that something is really rotten in Denmark.

This is a large part of what Donald J. Trump called the “swamp” in Washington.

He’s said a lot of things, many of them contradictory. But sometimes his instincts can be telling. The swamp in which pols’ corruption and selfish quest for power meets the corrupting influence of business is the place where democracy chokes on filthy, stagnant water. And immigration is right there in its deepest part, where the ‘gators, snakes and other slimy things roam.

Not every member of Trump’s base can probe the stinky swamp with a biologist’s precision. But all of them can smell the stink and see the filthy water. Most are smart enough to spot the self-interest and hypocrisy that has made the multi-sided but conceptually simple problem of immigration infinitely hard to solve. All want some man on horseback to ride in, pull some unseen plug and drain the swamp. For better or for worse, the man on horseback they’ve chosen is Trump.

Pundits seem to think that most of his base are fixated on The Wall. They have good reason to think so: Trump has repeatedly promised a wall and has made it a rallying cry.

But what if his base has more savvy and common sense than that? What if they understand that no wall ever built is so high, so deep or so strong that no one can climb over it, dig under it, or break it with some diamond drills or a few sticks of dynamite? What if someone tells them that you could stop all illegal immigration cold without any wall at all, just by raiding employers and fining those caught with undocumented workers five times the annual savings in wages for each and every undocumented worker caught on the job?

What if The Wall is only a symbol? What if the Trumpets are really clamoring for draining the swamp, taking the problem seriously, and actually trying to solve it at least as well as a rational family might?

What if their support for Donald Trump is not so much a sign of right-wing fervor or a tilt toward white supremacy, but a wish for someone with an ounce of common sense to wade into Congress and crack heads together until something gets done?

If so, hold on to your hat. The Donald had no experience in politics prior to becoming president, but he appears to be learning. He appears to sense that Congress has tied itself up so tightly in procedural knots that it can’t see a clear majority even if one stands up and shouts. He appears to see that, if we can put the non-extreme Dems together with Republicans who are not members of the Tea Party or the so-called “Freedom Caucus,” we can actually find a majority with enough common sense to do the people’s business.

Then the deal with Dems to fend off a national debt default, keep the government running, and fund the first tranche of Harvey relief may be just the beginning. There may be future deals with a majority of the whole Congress, not just the GOP or some fringe group within it. Our country actually may limp back to majority rule.

Wouldn’t that be strange? But even stranger things have happened. A narcissistic real-estate mogul and reality-TV star with absolutely no political experience got elected president. He did so in part because a great mass of voters sensed that Congress simply wasn’t doing its job. And rightly or wrongly, those same voters felt that Hillary wanted to “work with” Congress doing business as usual, rather than crack heads together.

Endnote: Last week I had a heated discussion over breakfast with two members of my extended family. One is a foreign woman who had married the other abroad. Both had gone through the long, difficult and expensive process of getting her a green card. Needless to say, neither was particularly sympathetic to immigrants who came here illegally.

Yet after an hour and a half of discussion, we all agreed on the outlines of a solution to our immigration problems. It involved the following elements: (1) greater control of our borders through technical means and increased manpower, not a wall; (2) saving the Dreamers and non-criminal undocumented immigrants by offering some sort of regularization after they have: (a) paid fees at least as high as those of legal immigrants; (b) paid all unpaid back taxes, (c) undergone thorough vetting and screening; and (d) gone to the back of the line for green cards and/or citizenship; and (3) increased requirements for future undocumented immigrants and/or employer monitoring to weaken the magnet for future illegal immigration.

Our search for solutions never bogged down in someone insisting that his or her favored part of the solution ought to come first. The solution was self-evidently comprehensive, but it could be implemented in stages.

If we relatively untrained amateurs could develop the outlines of a rational solution in less than two hours, why hasn’t Congress in a generation? The answer has to be that most members of Congress have had strong incentives not to find a solution. They wanted—and they still want—the issue as grist for election campaigns, not a solution. They care about their own jobs more than citizens’ jobs, immigrants’ jobs, and doing the people’s work.

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