Some thoughts on illegal immigration

The Washington Post has a post up today on how two housekeepers took on the president — and revealed that his company employed undocumented immigrants. I sent it to a friend. And the exchange we had about the article made me think a bit harder about the issue. So I wanted to run some of my thoughts by you.

Framing the issue

We all know that national borders are artificial. They are created and maintained by countries to define a zone of economic dominion and social allegiance.

Think of it in the same way that a city, county or state or provincial border exists. I live about four blocks outside of Washington D.C. And there is an imaginary line that I cross nearly daily when I travel into D.C. that doesn’t correspond to geography, but does correspond to tax liabilities and social services.

When I moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, I was making a conscious decision to make myself subject to the legal dominion of that county, its taxation policy and its social services. And I also took on the the social allegiance that entails. I could just as easily have settled in Washington, DC or the neighboring counties of Arlington, VA or Prince George’s County, MD.

National boundaries are a bit different though because there is no freedom of movement across these imaginary lines. They are policed to keep people out who don’t belong, lest they pose a threat to the domestic populace or get ill-begotten gains from that populace without having the same pre-existing social allegiance to the country.

Given this difference between local and national boundaries, the question then is why that difference matters. What threat do these aliens represent and what undeserved gains could they win?

Keeping people out and getting people in

This is the way I am thinking of how and why nations have borders. Mostly, it’s to try to keep people out. Though, sometimes, in repressive regimes, it is to keep people in. But, for now, let’s focus on the desire to exclude.

Historically, people have banded together into groups in order to ensure greater safety, food security, and productivity. And while these bands traded goods with each other, they eyed non-citizens with suspicion, especially if they came in armed in large numbers. So, when people settled down into agricultural communities, it made sense to create borders to keep others out and protect one’s territory. I see borders then, first and foremost, as a way of ensuring that the fruit of a ‘nation’s’ hard labor goes only to the people who inhabit that nation. Anyone else who wants at it has to gain it through trade or by force through military invasion.

But, while it might be beneficial for the nation as a whole to exclude people in order to divide the economic spoils amongst its citizens, there are always individuals who could use an immigrant’s labor — instead of her trade — to increase their wealth or economic security. Moreover, there are also times when the nation as a whole could use the extra labor.

Take West Germany during its economic miracle in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The country signed bilateral recruitment agreements with a number of countries: Italy, Spain and Greece first, but then Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia, and Yugoslavia later. These agreements allowed ‘guest’ workers to work in industry in positions that were relatively low-skilled. Germany needed the workers. So it recruited foreigners. And the same was true all across northern Europe – in the Netherlands and Belgium, in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. too. My German father-in-law was even recruited to work as a guest worker in Luxembourg back in the 1950s.

Immigration Unease

At some point though, it’s almost as if there’s a tipping point – when even legal immigrants become so numerous that their ‘foreign’ languages, dress, manners, and customs become a ‘threat’ to the domestic population. As Benjamin Franklin put it in the 18th century regarding German and other mostly new European immigrants to the United States:

[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.

It may sound laughable that Franklin called French, Russians, Swedes and Germans “of what we call a swarthy Complexion”. But it probably had to do with the fact that the immigrants were field laborers working in the hot sun. And Franklin wanted to highlight their ‘other-ness’ to distinguish them from Anglo-Americans.

But that’s how it works. That’s, of course, how it worked when black Americans made the great exodus out of the segregated south into other parts of the United States. It’s how it worked when Irish immigrants moved to the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries. And it’s how it’s working now in the US with immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Illegal Immigration

That’s the unease people feel when there is a mass legal migration – within a national border, as with blacks in the US, or across borders, as with the Irish in England. What about illegal immigration – where people ‘sneak into’ a country without legal authorization to be there? This goes to the very heart of why national borders exist in the first place. And so, it strikes at the very heart of people’s unease with immigration.

Here’s a question for you: If I speak German and am well-qualified, why can’t I find a job in Germany and just start working there? Who am I harming by taking that job, for which I qualify? Ostensibly, I am hurting a German worker, someone who has a social allegiance to the country and, through that allegiance, ostensibly has first dibs on that job. But, if the employer can’t find a German to work for him for months and months, why shouldn’t he be able to hire me?

When you add illegal immigration into the mix – the fact that I could take the job without proper authorization to do so – the situation is mostly the same except one fact: I have no legal status in the country. Is anything else different to a legal immigrant? I can’t think of it but welcome any thoughts. Here though, my situation becomes vulnerable and easy to exploit. So I am cheaper to employ than a German and undercut their wage rate.

How do we fix that?

The fix

Here’s what I am thinking. Immigration should be easier. I mean, if I am qualified for a job and a company wants to hire me, there should only be a few hoops to make that happen. In the US, seasonal agricultural workers have this opportunity; despite their being relatively low-skilled, companies can hire them on a temporary seasonal basis without jumping through a lot of hoops. And then ostensibly they return to their native country in the off-season. Perhaps that’s the way to deal with this: temporary residency permits?

Of course, I know from Germany’s guest worker program that ‘temporary’ Turkish guest workers developed roots and social allegiance to Germany and became permanent residents. There should be a way to go from temporary to permanent without jumping through hoops and hiring a lawyer.

I think one way to do this is to vastly increase work visas to include unskilled workers, but make companies pay a lot to use those visas, say $10-15,000 per visa per year for example. That way they aren’t undercutting domestic labor. The workers then have a regular status. If they came here illegally, they could then regularize their status this way. If they stay, say, five years, they get permanent residency. Anyone else working without permission is subject to deportation.

Needless to say, immigration isn’t in my wheelhouse. So, my solution could be half-baked. But I think it’s an important issue because geographic mobility is incredibly high and only likely to increase. That makes migration a big economic and political issue. I also happen to think that ecological disaster will increase in the years to come as the climate changes. And this will make forced migration from ecology and the resultant wars even more pronounced. Migration will be a big issue going forward.

I would be interested to hear how you’re thinking about this.



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