Illegal Immigration Concerns: Mending De-Fences, Part II

Jim Amrhein continues his essay on Illegal Immigration Concerns, explaining the real reason President Bush refuses to do anything about the flood of illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico.

“Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul.” ~
Theodore Roosevelt, 1915

In the first installment of this series, I debated with myself about a topic hotly debated nowadays in the media, the blogosphere, and the government: The construction of a security wall along the U.S./Mexico border to reduce rampant illegal immigration…

To recap a bit, various plans for such a barrier have been proposed, ranging in cost from roughly $2-8 billion — at most, about the same money as it takes to prosecute the Iraq war for two months or so. And although polls indicate that 87% of American citizens support the wall, it remains to be seen whether any 2008 presidential candidate has the cohones to embrace the idea as a plank in his campaign platform. After all, such a plan is likely to cut jobs (both menial labor posts and government positions, like in the Border Patrol and INS), stall large segments of the U.S. economy, and invite all sorts of the most vehement vitriol in the media.

Also in Part I, I briefly explored some of the likely reasons why Mexico’s President Vicente Fox seems so dead set against such a plan. One would think he’d want to keep as many ambitious, able-bodied people as possible inside his country’s borders to fuel the growth and development he’s always promising (and that the United States has passed legislation and ratified trade agreements to help ensure). Despite all this, Mexico’s economy remains virtually joined at the hip with America’s, since we buy almost 90% of its exports. Our respective GNP growth has been a virtual mirror image for years.

Why hasn’t resource-rich Mexico blossomed into prosperity of its own, you’re asking? Because we’re paying them not to…

Here’s where things get dicey for me with regard to Fox and his motives (and for that matter, President Bush’s motives, as I’ll soon explain).

Illegal Immigration Concerns: Subsidizing Stagnation, Corruption, and Crime

In Part I of this essay, I likened the prodigious flow of cash back to Mexico from illegal immigrants in the United States to a “new Rio Grande of dinero.” I also equated this river of money to giving cash to a derelict — it enables only a bare-minimum existence in continued impoverishment, while doing nothing to push meaningful change that benefits all concerned. And while this comparison drew the ire of some readers, I stand by the analogy. In fact, in researching Part II of this essay, I found out just how on target I was about the “rio de dinero.” Consider:

· $15 billion southbound dollars — much of it from illegals — forms one of Mexico’s largest sources of “legitimate” revenue

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, more than $30.1 billion is remitted to countries south of the border by Latino immigrants in the U.S. If even half of this money is destined for Mexico (it’s likely far more), this $15-plus billion yearly revenue stream rivals Mexico’s largest single source of revenue — oil, at roughly $21 billion in 2004 (IEA estimates). Immigrants’ dollars sent home blow away tourism’s $10 billion in Mexican revenues. There’s another source of cash that’s even bigger, but nobody’s talking about it…

· Revenues from crimes perpetrated by illegals likely funnels another $20 billion or more into Mexico every year — off the books

According to Wikipedia, as much as 25% of Mexico’s GDP comes from crime. Depending on how you calculate GDP, that totals up to between $175-250 billion. Drug trafficking is, by far, the largest single source of criminal revenue, and of course, a large percentage of these drugs are destined for the United States. Using even conservative numbers ($200 billion in crime-related Mexican GDP, 50% from drugs, with only 60% of sales coming from the United States), it’s still no great stretch to conclude that at least $60 billion in American cash is making its way into Mexico per year from illicit drug sales. Exactly how much of this cash flow is facilitated by illegals would be hard to pin down. But since they’re surely used as border-runners, drug mules, dealers, or enforcers more often than legal Latino immigrants, it’s safe to estimate that illegals must facilitate at least $20 billion worth of the Mexico/U.S. drug trade every year. And it’s probably far more…

Now are you starting to see why Fox is reluctant to shut the door between the United States and Mexico? If you had a $40 billion river of cash flowing into your country every year that dwarfed the top two or three other sources of revenue, would you want to dam it?

Fox isn’t alone, either. According to an Associated Press article from Jan. 10, diplomats from not only Mexico, but also Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, and Panama gathered to demand that the United States institute “guest worker” programs — and that we grant legal status to all undocumented workers currently in the United States. In other words, mass amnesty, if not instant citizenship, for an estimated 11-13 million illegal immigrants…

Again. The United States already granted illegals amnesty in 1986 — and six more times since!

Will this be America’s great solution to the illegal immigration problem — to every few years render them all legal with the stroke of a pen? Yeah, that’s a real disincentive to hop the border…

Illegal Immigration Concerns: Interdiction Contradictions

President Bush is singing the same tune as many of these foreign diplomats — at least as far as the “guest worker” song goes. And he’s completely zipped lip against the rising American chorus of “build the fence!” My question is why?

To hear his staffers tell it, fighting terrorism is both the Bush administration’s No. 1 priority and its greatest collective success (again, that’s what they’re saying). Yet clearly, a 2000-mile stretch of insecure border invites not only illegal immigration, but terrorism as well. Besides this, immigration control is a major Republican issue — and this is an election year. If Bush wants his party to retain control of Congress, he’s going to have to “dance with what brung him,” so to speak…

And Bush is a Texan, for Pete’s sake! If anyone should have a hard-line stance against the flood of illegals into America, it’s someone whose own neighbors are fearful of being outside after dark on their “home on the range” because of all the crossborder drug and human traffic — especially around Laredo and points west.

So again: Why leave the back door open? What’s it gaining our president to ignore this invasion — and the wishes of 87% his constituents? More importantly, what would it lose him to stem the tide of illegal immigrants from the south?

A lot of people think it’s about courting the American Hispanic vote — a surprisingly receptive demographic for the GOP. But the data don’t universally point to this conclusion. In fact, it may point to just the opposite. According to a September 2001 Zogby survey, twice as many Hispanics claimed they’d be less likely to vote for Bush in 2004 if he supported amnesty for illegal immigrants. In another survey, conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, a majority of native-born Latinos were against granting illegals drivers licenses (something 11 U.S. states already do). These factoids contradict the conventional wisdom that Hispanics will vote for whatever policies afford the greatest rights and access to their countrymen — legal or not.

Others think Bush is reluctant to slam the door because of the depressive effects a sudden lockout and crackdown on illegal immigration might have on certain labor-dependant segments of the American economy — like the construction, custodial, restaurant, and shipping businesses. Since he’s been hyping his whistle-past-the-graveyard economic agenda (manipulate rates, borrow more than you can pay back, save nothing, spend into oblivion), he doesn’t want to do anything that might cause a slowdown — or a waking-up to the fiscal realities he’s furthering. The last thing he wants is to cause an economic downturn that’ll mar his already checkered legacy.

There’s surely some validity to this point, but I don’t think it’s the real reason he’s not taking stronger measures to stop illegal immigration…

Illegal Immigration Concerns: Bush — Waiting out a $500 Billion Catch-22?

When you think about it, President Bush is in a real jam over immigration — a bona fide Catch-22, in fact — one that’s not completely of his own making, yet one he’s nevertheless stuck with, unless he can Band-Aid the problem until the next poor schmuck arrives in the Oval Office (that’s probably his plan). Here it is:

If he does what the vast majority of Americans want him to — namely, build a fence and start deporting or imprisoning illegals — he cuts the Mexican economy off at the knees, depriving it of 20% or more of its GDP (the $200 billion or so I mentioned earlier). And although that might ultimately be what’s best for Mexico, since it would force the nation to somehow take meaningful steps toward self-development and a more forward-looking economic policy, in the short run, it would likely breed utter bedlam. Such a move might trigger a true mass invasion of desperate northern-bound migrants with nothing to lose.

As ill-equipped as we are to manage the current illegal immigration situation, that kind of human tsunami might well and truly sink us economically. Here’s what I mean:

Based on National Academy of Sciences calculations from the year 2000, the lifetime fiscal impact of the average adult Mexican immigrant on the U.S. economy — that means the estimated dollar value of taxes paid versus services used (remember, few illegals pay much in taxes, yet qualify for many benefits, including medical) — is negative $55,200.

Let’s just say there are 10 million illegals in the United States right now (there are more, though). That’s over $500 billion lost right there. This money would pay for the entire Iraq war, in all likelihood. Can you imagine what the long-term impact of an additional 20 million or so illegals would be — especially if they arrived here practically overnight, on the heels of the announcement of a full-scale U.S. crackdown on illegal immigration and driven by the hope of eventual amnesty?

Another possible reason for leaving the border open occurs to me, too (though it’s probably a bit far-fetched): oil. If the United States keeps Mexico dependant on the Stars and Stripes for its prosperity — either by calculated policies of economics or simply by luring away everyone with a little bit of ambition — we maintain the leverage to force the most favorable trading terms on their reserves of oil (the world’s 12th largest). And by thus keeping their growth relatively stagnant, we ensure that the country as a whole barely develops at all, and therefore has little use for its own oil, which means more for us…

So what if the tide of illegals makes America a bilingual, stratified, identity-less welfare nation in the process? At least we’ll be able to drive, right?

But if we slam the door on Mexico, it’ll likely sell all its oil to China (like Canada’s getting ready to do). This, we cannot afford, the Dick Cheneys of the world would claim.

Illegal Immigration Concerns: Dreamers Dream, Talkers Talk — While 40 Million Mexicans Prepare to Walk

Utopians say the solution is to create growth and prosperity in Mexico, so that Mexicans won’t want to leave. In theory, this is a good approach, and was one of the main goals of 1994’s NAFTA. But what has happened since that agreement? The number of illegals entering this country has exploded exponentially…

Two reasons for this: First, the rampant corruption and crime in Mexico (remember, it’s as much as 1/4 of their GDP) stymies any real attempts at business development and growth, NAFTA or not. Second, even if NAFTA, CAFTA, and other trade arrangements were to work exactly as planned in an ethically pure bureaucratic environment (the “perfect world” scenario), it might still be decades before real wages in Mexico approach those available just a short hop across the border. This is simply the reality, and the lure of higher wages is simply too tempting.

What’s needed is not more ways to clear the way for Mexican prosperity, but for us to force prosperity on them — not by rolling in and toppling the corrupt government (though that could work, too), but by eliminating the principal disincentive that keeps Mexico from prospering as a nation: Access to the United States.

How seductive is this “disincentive?” Well, if the 11-13 million illegals already here (many estimate it’s more like 20 million) aren’t proof enough for you, consider this: Four out of every 10 adults in Mexico claim they’d migrate to the United States if they had means and opportunity, according to a Pew Hispanic Center survey. This means that more than 30 million more Mexican citizens would emigrate to the United States if they could.

So clearly, a few extra border agents and some rhetoric from Bush and Fox aren’t going to solve the problem.

Opponents of a wall or fence along our southern border claim that it won’t be effective. Yet in zones where walls and fences have already been tried along the border, they work.. And as negative as this analogy may be, the Berlin Wall worked pretty well, too, as I remember. But even without statistics or historic examples pointing to the efficacy of a border fence, common sense tells us that a barrier of some type will work better than nothing at all. Even a 12-16-foot wall like the kind used nationwide for highway sound barriers — which could be built for less than $2 billion — with cameras mounted on it (now that would be some surveillance I could get behind), coupled with the existing Border Patrol, would surely just about lock things up. It would have to help, at least, and it would surely be a better use of money than simply expanding the impotent, catch-and-release Border Patrol…

Those whose sensibilities are offended by the idea of a walled-off America often tout the virtues of a national ID card. They say it’s cheaper than a fence and accomplishes the same purpose: denying illegals jobs and benefits (it wouldn’t do this without federal laws prohibiting employment, medical coverage, driving privileges, etc. to noncitizens). The ID card simply becomes a way of instantly proving citizenship.

As I’ve said before (Whiskey & Gunpowder, May 10, 2005), I think a “papers please” state would be a step in the wrong direction — even if such a plan would undoubtedly help sort out who’s here legally and who’s not. Do we really want to resort to a system that scans our credentials every time we go anywhere, buy anything, or seek medical attention? Do we really want to grant the federal government the power to collate and examine all of that information under the auspices of safeguarding our citizenship?

I, for one, would gladly trade the unpleasantness of a fenced-in nation and a few years of deportations for the knowledge that everyone I see on the street, in the park, on the job, or on our nation’s highways is a citizen by natural birth or legal immigration (which I believe is the engine of American excellence, by the way) or a soon-to-be citizen via naturalization. In fact, I’d pay just about any price to achieve that goal — to get to a place where everyone in the country is protected by the same rights and bound by the same laws. Where everyone belongs.

Bona fide citizenship is the only answer to this. Not inventing classes of subcitizenship like “guest worker.” And certainly not by looking the other way as our nation is overrun by people who, by virtue only of their presence within the borders, get most of the benefits (like medical care), privileges (like driving), and legal protections (like constitutional rights) of citizens — yet who bear virtually none of the burdens of taxation, civic responsibility, or even the task of being American…

It’s a bad dream we need to wake up from. Now.

Illegal Immigration Concerns: America — Land of Community… Not Just Opportunity

In Part I of this essay, I broached the subject of our “national identity.” Some readers gave me a little bit of a hard time about this, and others wanted to know more about what I meant. First, let me tell you what it isn’t: Our national identity isn’t a skin color. It isn’t a religion. It isn’t a set of moral values. It isn’t even a political system…

Rather, like Teddy Roosevelt said, it’s a state of the soul — one that’s proud to have achieved Americanism and that puts America first, regardless of place of birth or prior nationality.

It’s a common language (yes, English), a basic knowledge of America’s history, and a competency in its civic mechanisms. It’s a duty to fight, if needed. It’s a pledge to abide by American law. It’s a responsibility to pay taxes even if they aren’t fair, to submit to American democratic processes — and to participate in them. All these things are part of the existing legal immigration policy, by the way.

This “American Way” is NOT simply a series of hoops to jump through to get all the free goodies. It’s not a meaningless pledge you hold your nose and take before setting up your own miniature version of your former nation. Does this mean leaving all that’s great about your home country behind? No. The American nation owes its greatness to the diversity immigrants through the ages have bought with them…

It just means a desire to achieve naturalization and a commitment to true assimilation.

It used to be the people emigrated here to become American. And even though these people were of various colors, backgrounds, and beliefs and spoke with differing accents, they all united in their desire to become part of an American community. Now, it seems, many only want access to American opportunity. So how do we get back to a place where immigrants become Americans instead of simply being foreign nationals living in America?

In theory, it’s simple: First, we stop the flow of illegals with walls, laws, or whatever and deport or detain those already here. We have the laws in place and the ability to do this, if not the will. Second, we start actually enforcing the existing rules of naturalization — like fluency in the lingo, knowledge of the laws, basic civics (there are pages worth of these guidelines). Then we stop facilitating immigrants’ ability to NOT be American. We establish an official language (there’s no amendment against this) and print all our signs and documents in that language only. Third, we stop allowing illegal immigrants access to the perks and benefits of citizenry — things like confidential medical care, drivers licenses, welfare, public schooling, employment, etc. We make it so there’s no advantage to coming here through any but the legal channels…

In other words, we once again make it a challenge to become a naturalized American. The net effect of this will be the pride inherent once having done so. This very sense of achievement is what would form the foundation of true Americanism absent in so many immigrants, legal or otherwise, in this day and age. This is how we get back our national identity that has been steadily eroded over the last 40 years — the “soul” and “spirit” of Americanism Roosevelt was referring to.

Would doing all this be a challenge? Yes. Would things get worse before they got better? Probably. Will it be exponentially harder (if not utterly impossible) to do it tomorrow? Undoubtedly. That’s why we must suck it up and do it now — whatever the cost…

If we don’t, America will soon be no longer, and never again, a place anyone of quality aspires to emigrate to.

Defending what’s sensible — and what’s fence-able,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor
Whiskey & Gunpowder
January 31, 2006