Maria serves me my coffee nearly every morning. She works fast and precisely. Although she has been up for hours, she does not have a hair out of place; her discreet makeup is unsmudged; her clothing is neat and in good taste. She is one of the most steadfastly middle-class persons in this sloppy college town.
I don't know if Maria is a legal immigrant. I would be surprised if she were. Few Spanish speakers in my area are "documented." In any event, she has become a part of my life in her tiny yet important way. I have grown to like her a great deal. If the necessity arose, I would probably hide her in my basement for quite a while.
Of course, I also believe without reservation that for a country to recruit immigrants on the basis of their initial willingness to break its laws is utterly stupid and self-destructive. So here I am, split between my heart and my head. The best solution to this kind of dilemma is to do nothing, of course. Given responsibility for designing a policy with regard to future Mexican immigration into this country and illegal Mexican immigrants currently here, I (Delacroix) would be paralyzed.
Our National Paralysis
The whole country is agitated yet paralyzed before the problem of its large and growing illegal immigration, most of it from Mexico. Unlike most political issues, the division may not run mostly between pro and con camps, but right down the middle of millions of individual citizens. A president reelected with a wide popular margin in 2004, whose party controlled both houses of Congress for two years as well as many governorships, did little more than propose a vague guest-worker program that would have unknown effects on further illegal immigration. The Democratic opposition, with a majority in both houses, subsequently managed to appear at once silent and fragmented. In short, the level of public vituperation about illegal immigration is not matched by an equally high level of action or even of planning for action. During the 2008 primaries, the candidates who made immigration a major issue quickly disappeared from view.
This essay is an attempt to appraise this issue coolly (but not coldly) and to examine boldly the likely consequences of the unthinkable: opening the southern border to Mexican nationals (and only to them). It is not a policy proposal and not a work of advocacy, but an exercise in thinking, with facts and with the help of precedents. It is a kind of sampler essay explicitly aimed at nonspecialists. Each of its parts deserves more rigorous treatment than we can give it here. The only merit we claim is to have brought together most of the policy issues associated with the bold idea of an open border between the United States and Mexico.
Both of us are politically conservative immigrants who have lived for a long time in northern California, where many illegal immigrants from Mexico also live (Camarota 2007). Delacroix has a doctorate in sociology; Nikiforov has a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA, and he works in Silicon Valley in close contact with many immigrants of different origins. One of us actively likes Mexicans and uses Spanish with ease. It is not probable that either of us competes with illegal immigrant Mexicans in the job market.
Illegal Immigration: Two Problems in One
The issue of illegal immigration from Mexico can be subdivided into two related but conceptually distinct parts: what to do about further illegal migration (including impeding it) and what to do about the illegal immigrants who are already here. It would be good to find solutions--or better, a solution--to both problems.
Almost everyone agrees that recruiting immigrants selectively on the basis of their willingness to begin their relationship with the nation by breaking its laws is bad policy. There the consensus ends without generating real debate. There is no genuine liberal program about what to do. Liberals usually limit themselves to deploring the immigrants' sufferings. They criticized the Republican administration for its passivity.
They make vague representations about more vigorously punishing employers who consciously employ illegal immigrants. Yet in 2005 and again in 2006 and 2007 the sanctions already on the books were applied to employers on fewer than fifty occasions (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS] 2008). Neither Democratic nor Republican spokespersons loudly deplored those low numbers. This passivity tells us that repression of employers is another solution for which the American body politic has no enthusiasm.
In early 2008, Arizona announced unilateral measures to punish those who "knowingly" employ undocumented workers. The qualifier makes implementation impractical, and it is doubtful that states have jurisdiction over this matter anyway. Hence, we are tempted to view this state initiative as only another collective gesture of irritation.
Inaction with respect to the enforcement of laws already on the books may well express a wider problem of generalized political irresolution. A case in point is that, as of this writing, entering the country illegally is still only a federal misdemeanor, automatically relegating this infraction to a low police and judicial priority. Either the Republican majority of three years ago or the Democratic majority that replaced it could have dared the president to pay the political cost of changing this legal sanction. This issue was conspicuously absent from Barack Obama's campaign.
Conservative Positions on Immigration
Conservatives take two stances on immigration, reflecting the uneasy alliance that is the Republican Party at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Radio talk show host Bill O'Reilly and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan articulate the positions of conservatives whose cultural frame of reference is the 1950s and who are often serious Christians and self-defined patriots. The sputtering libertarian wing of the Republican Party also has a position on illegal immigration, although it is hard to discern.
O'Reilly, the millions of ordinary people who agree with him on other issues, and some members of Congress say that they would have the armed forces plug all the holes in our southern border. Then the armed forces and sundry police forces would forcibly expel most illegal immigrants, beginning with criminals, but with some humanitarian allowances. (We are trying to be fair, not to caricature, while distilling a position implicit in hundreds of statements made on television, in radio talk shows, and, more rarely, in the print news media.)
On the other side of the conservative camp, the Wall Street Journal often publishes editorials that appear to call for a fully open border with Mexico. Its position comports with its libertarian leanings in other areas. In our view, however, these editorials are overly coy. They are never followed by or developed into serious critical examinations of the likely consequences of an open southern border. The abundant open-borders sentiment among the Wall Street Journal audience, however, surfaces frequently in the paper's letters to the editor (2008). Yet the paper seldom delves into the political practicalities of implementing an open-border plan. It is difficult to discuss or criticize this second conservative position because it has so little tangible substance.
The Armed Forces as Deterrent
Supporters of firm, decisive, manly border closure through military means are only making brave noises. They have not thought through the policy they advocate, nor have they really contemplated it in their mind's eye. There are 106 million Mexicans (going on 120 millions) (CountryWatch 2008a). Although Mexico usually has a moderate unemployment rate, some Mexicans stand to earn five or six times more (including overtime) by performing on this side of the border the same services they are performing on the other side or similar ones (CountryWatch 2008b). Many of these Mexicans are young, healthy, capable, and correspondingly willing to take risks. With a little luck, a motivated, frugal, young Mexican man can work in the United States, legally or illegally, and save $20,000 in little more than two years. In much of Mexico, including some of the most pleasant and scenic parts, that is enough money to start a small business or build a modest house.
As long as the disparity between North American incomes is so large, and even if it should shrink by half, some Mexicans will try to enter the United States--unless military personnel stand elbow to elbow at the border like a human chain, the ports of entry are tightly policed, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's human resources are enormously augmented to develop several-fold its capacity for internal policing.
This approach is not what supporters of National Guard intervention have in mind, of course; the military is not nearly large enough to form a human dam, and Congress has already shown that it will not provide the financing necessary for greatly amplified internal policing, even against the more serious threat of terrorism. Thus, proponents of this view, whether they realize it or not, implicitly count on the armed forces' use of their weapons to keep would-be illegal immigrants from crossing the border. It is not surprising that they have trouble completing their thought, indulging instead in quasi-magical thinking.
Expressed in a realistically stark manner, this solution painfully contradicts our whole history. The army, the Marine Corps, the various military reserves, the National Guard, the Coast Guard, the navy, and even fed-up border county sheriffs are not going to machine-gun twenty-year-old Felipe in cold blood because he wants to come over and bus our tables. If they did it even once, it would be the last time ever. Americans are not inhumane, especially at close range.
For similar and parallel reasons, it is nearly impossible to envision the forcible mass expulsion of...