The recent news coverage of the crisis on our southern border has driven many Americans to tears, outrage, and action. The calls for a legislative solution to a decades-old problem are louder than ever, but the likelihood of a political compromise between the hyper-partisan factions in Congress seems unthinkable. With the GOP-controlled House, Senate, and White House, all fingers are pointed directly at the Democrats to come to the table and provide compromise solutions to move a bipartisan bill forward. They, of course, have first to breach the locked doors of the GOP meeting rooms.
This voter is thoroughly exhausted by the blame games and inaction of our elected officials. And while I am not a policy expert (and I don’t play one on TV) I am confident that I could craft a solution to the immigration crisis at our southern border that would satisfy the GOP’s desire for security and controlled immigration, while giving the Democrats the humane and compassionate policy that their voters demand. After all, how hard could it be?
Let’s stipulate from the start that erecting a physical barrier or wall that will span the entire 1,989 miles of the southern US border with Mexico is not only impractical from a purely logistical standpoint, but it is also unnecessary. The terrain along much of the southern border is so rugged and mountainous that it would be a waste of resources to use a physical barrier. Nature has taken care of that for us.
While there are approximately 650 miles of physical barriers of various types in place along the border, a simple aerial survey of the border region shows many other places where a physical barrier would make illegal crossing much more difficult. Let’s figure out where those places are and build the right kind of wall or barrier.
A variety of disparate systems currently monitor the stretches of border with no physical barrier. [https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/689211.pdf] The effectiveness of these systems varies, the technology will need to continue to evolve, and newer technologies will need to be evaluated and deployed to continue to improve detection and interdiction capabilities. But there is no question that technology can provide essential coverage wherever a physical barrier is impractical or too difficult to build and maintain.
The critical challenge for Customs and Border Protection agents is the ability to detect, identify, and prevent unlawful entry into the United States. Any Border Patrol agent will tell you that the entry points are well known to both the “coyotes”—criminal smugglers who lead border crossers through the wilderness to entry points for a fee—and the Border Patrol. The combination of man-made barriers, natural barriers, electronic surveillance, river patrols, and Border Patrol agents guarding the miles of empty terrain is designed to funnel crossers to specific points along the border so they can be detected and apprehended. This system works quite well, but recent influxes of people fleeing violence and oppression in Central America have overwhelmed the system causing renewed calls for action from border residents, local and state governments, and politicians and policymakers in Washington DC.
We must have an approach to border security that deploys the right combination of technological and human resources to solve the unique challenges of a two thousand mile frontier that spans diverse environments from coastal beaches to high mountains, and muddy rivers to scorching desert. It is a difficult challenge but one that we as a nation can undoubtedly solve. A partnership between government and private industry would give us the best opportunity for devising a variety of solutions that are both effective and efficient. This approach has yielded excellent results in the design, construction, and operation of the International Space Station. A consortium of public and private entities (as well as international companies and foreign government agencies) have worked together for two decades to make the ISS a reality. The myriad technical challenges of the ISS dwarf the environmental and technological obstacles of the US-Mexico border. We can do this.
The question of who to let into the United States and for what reasons and to what end is complicated and fraught with political potholes into which a politician’s career can instantly disappear. But if one considers the benefits that the US economy derives from the status quo of illegal immigration, the reasons for the inaction by Congress become crystal clear. We cannot afford to do anything else.
Consider strawberries. Everyone loves the ripe red flavor bombs covered in chocolate, or made into a cobbler or pie, or just by themselves. My personal favorite is to dip the strawberry in sour cream then roll it gently in brown sugar. Heavenly.
What do strawberries have to do with immigration policy, you ask? Without a migrant labor force made up almost exclusively of people from Mexico and Central America (some legal, but many not), you and I would not be able to afford strawberries. Frankly, we wouldn’t have access to about 70% of the fresh produce available in our local grocery store, especially during seasons when it could not be grown and sourced locally. Let that sink in. You may have relatives still alive that lived through the Great Depression or the years of rationing during World War II. Ask them what it’s like to live on canned fruits and vegetables.
So if you like fresh produce, you are a supporter of illegal immigration. In a similar vein if you enjoy fresh linens and clean bathrooms when you stay at a hotel, clean plates, and silverware at a restaurant, and manicured landscaping in your local community, then you are a massive fan of illegal immigration. Now it may offend the sensibilities of some of my liberal friends to acknowledge that illegal immigrants from south of the border are disproportionately represented in these and many other unskilled, low wage jobs. Sorry, but it’s just the fact of the matter. To not acknowledge that reality is to dishonor the hardworking people who do the jobs others refuse to do. Such indignity is nothing new in the United States. We have a long tradition of delegating the most demanding and ignoble work to the immigrant population we deem least desirable.
There is no shortage of studies that prove the benefits to the US economy from illegal immigration are measured in the tens of billions of dollars annually. Still, many misbelieve that undocumented immigrants are a net drain on our economy because they use the social safety net programs, schools, emergency rooms, and don’t pay taxes. A few minutes with the Google machine and you can find ample evidence to the contrary. But if one is predisposed to have an unfavorable view toward undocumented immigrants, then no amount of facts are likely to change their mind. Especially in the post-fact world we currently inhabit.
To ignore the contribution that immigrants have made to this nation, regardless of the method of patriation, is to denigrate the single most significant attribute of our republic. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. Immigrants are the source of manifold diversity. This richly diverse population provides the crucible of cultures, languages, traditions, worldviews, and values which forge our unique American identity. American exceptionalism (a clarion call of pride most often trumpeted by Conservatives since Ronald Reagan) is mainly due to the continuous renewal of our national spirit by people from other places. They arrive at our shores, airports, and border crossings hearts aflame with the ardent desire to make a better life for themselves and their children. They take the demanding jobs, the dirty jobs, the jobs no one else will do. They work hard. They send their children to school and do everything they can to ensure they have a chance to live the American dream. They take nothing for granted and are grateful for every opportunity this country provides.
Frankly, it boggles my mind that this needs to be explained to anyone. After all, every one of us has an ancestor that came from “over there” unless you are 100% Native American. To think that anyone would denigrate and despise an immigrant is astonishing to me. We are quite literally them, one, two or three generations removed. Not better. Not more valuable. Not entitled to any more or any less.
With all that said, it is a simple fact that the United States cannot have open borders and cannot accommodate every person who wishes to come here. That is neither wise nor practical. So how do we decide who should be allowed to enter?
Let the Market Decide
Yes. You just heard a Liberal Democrat invoke the market as the best solution to our immigration problem. But if you think about what free markets do (when they are left to operate naturally), then it makes perfect sense to apply a market solution to the problem of immigration. Pay attention.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a free market as, “an economic market or system in which prices are based on competition among private businesses and not controlled by a government.” Simple enough. But there is not one single example of a “free market” at a national level anywhere in the world. The reality is that every government regulates the economy at some level; the United States is generally regarded as a moderately free market. So how can we use free market principles to solve the immigration problem?
Imagine for a moment that you have a factory that makes plastic parts used in a variety of products. You sell to companies all over the United States and require a steady stream of reliable, low-skill employees to produce your products at a price that is competitive with much larger manufacturers in China. To do this, you must keep your labor costs as low as possible, keep turnover to a minimum, and find workers who are content to work hard and not expect to advance. You have tried a variety of hiring strategies but find that recent immigrants work hard, don’t expect promotions, and can always recommend a friend or relative when you need to hire more people. They look out for one another and the more you hire, the more productive the whole company becomes.
What I just described is not a hypothetical example designed to make my point. It is what thousands of business owners around the country know to be true. Immigrant laborers are an essential ingredient that keeps American manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and service industries competitive and alive. While talking about it in anything but furtive whispers may be impolite to some, it is for better or worse the reality of our economy. And our politicians know it to be true.
So if American companies in a variety of sectors require a reliable source of affordable and capable labor, especially in areas or jobs that are difficult to fill with unemployment at 4%, then perhaps we should find a way to merge the interests of the business sector with the interests of those wishing to come to the United States.
Companies like Manpower, Kelly Services, and Elite Staffing have been in the business of bringing employers and job seekers together in innovative ways for decades. What would it take to create a government contract to have a for-profit company like Manpower setup at the US-Mexico border crossings and do what they have done for decades? Here’s what that experience could look like if we just used some creativity and tapped into the capabilities of companies that already have solved the core challenge.
A Better Way
Juan and his new wife Lydia arrive at the border crossing in Yuma, Arizona. They have just spent the past six weeks crossing the length of Mexico after fleeing the violence in their home country of Guatemala. Juan is a trained welder and has worked in a variety of skilled and unskilled jobs since he was 12. Lydia is an experienced seamstress and has worked in a factory that makes clothes since she was 14. They both speak Spanish and a little English they learned from watching American TV shows. They want nothing more than to enter the United States legally and find jobs.
When Juan and Lydia present themselves at the border, the Customs and Border Patrol agent asks them why they are seeking entry into the United States. They tell the agent they want to apply for permanent resident status and move to the United States. The agent asks them to present any identification they might have. They both present a Guatemala passport and driver’s license.
Next, they are ushered into a busy but comfortable processing center where over the next few hours they will be photographed, fingerprinted, have a criminal background check and be given a standard medical examination. Luckily for Juan and Lydia, the background check indicates no prior arrests or convictions, and they are deemed medically fit, so they are provisionally eligible to enter the United States.
Now here is where it gets good. The next step in Juan and Lydia’s journey to become a permanent resident of the United States is to visit with an employment advisor. The advisor conducts an interview (in Spanish) with Juan and Lydia to ascertain their previous work experience and determine if they have any in-demand job skills. Juan’s welding experience is of particular interest, and the employment advisor has multiple open job requisitions for which Juan is qualified. One of the openings is in Tempe, Arizona where Juan has a cousin who could help him and Lydia establish themselves in a new city.
Lydia is offered a job on an assembly line at a small electronics manufacturer in Phoenix, less than five miles from Juan’s job assignment. They are given the details of where and when to report to their new jobs and then moved to the next station.
Juan and Lydia then take a written and practical driving test and after passing both, are issued an Arizona driver’s license. They then meet with a representative from the Social Security Administration and fill out the documents necessary to obtain a Social Security number.
Now Juan and Lydia have been given provisional resident alien status, been thoroughly documented, been given ID and a driver’s license, and have jobs awaiting them in Phoenix (for which they will pay taxes). The last order of business is to make sure they have the financial resources to obtain transportation to Phoenix and temporary housing until they can secure a permanent residence. Because the new immigration system was thoughtfully planned to incorporate Federal, State, Corporate, and Non-profit resources, there are a variety of agencies ready to assist Juan and Lydia to travel safely to Phoenix and secure comfortable and affordable temporary accommodations.
The next day as they watch the desert slide past the windows of the bus taking them to Phoenix, they are finally able to relax and even laugh knowing that their long and dangerous journey has ended and a new exciting adventure full of hope and opportunity is beginning. The American Dream awaits them, and for that, they are grateful beyond measure.
It’s Really Not That Difficult
This fictional immigration story is, for now, just that—a story. And that is our great national shame. Instead of using our considerable talent and resources to create a functional, fair, and secure immigration system at the southern border, our politicians use desperate people and the American economy as pawns in a crass political game. And we are complicit. We let them do it year after year, election cycle after election cycle. Nothing changes, and we seem to be just fine with the status quo.
A small glimmer of hope appeared when the majority of Americans expressed their outrage at the family separations at the border beginning in May 2018. People called and wrote their congressional representative and senators, flooded the White House switchboard with calls, and took to the streets by the millions in hundreds of organized protests in cities around the country. But it shouldn’t require a humanitarian nightmare to motivate the American people to action. Anyone whose ancestors came to this country as an immigrant should be motivated to force the complete overhaul of our immigration system. We owe it to future generations of Americans.
Our country used to be good at doing difficult things. We built the intercontinental railroad. We defeated the Nazis and the Empire of Japan. We walked on the moon. We built a space station and will soon put people on Mars. Doing the impossible is part of our DNA. So when you consider the scope and complexity of the immigration problem, based on our past achievements, there is frankly no excuse for this problem to continue.
We have proven that when a majority of us are inspired enough to do the hard things, there is nothing in this world that can thwart the will and imagination of the American people. So it’s time to get inspired, friends.
John McCain reminded us, “We are Americans first, Americans last, Americans always. Let us argue our differences. But remember we are not enemies, but comrades in a war against a real enemy, and take courage from the knowledge that our military superiority is matched only by the superiority of our ideals, and our unconquerable love for them.”