Monday, June 04, 2007

The perils of illegal immigration

There are several problems, as I see it. (1) The problem of illegal immigration (2) The problem of the proposed Comprehensive Reform Bill (3) The problem of the debate on immigration/reform. I'm going to cover only the first today.

And unfortunately, before speaking on this subject, I have to establish certain bona-fides to stave off the charges of "racist" and "xenophobe."

I was a Mormon missionary in the Cali, Colombia region for 15 months. Prior to that, while awaiting Visa approval, I was in the Bell Gardens/Downey area of Los Angeles, proselytizing among Spanish-speaking immigrants.

I have eaten their food, lived in their houses, worn their clothes, spent their money, been infected by their amoebas and parasites, spoken their language, and entered hundreds of their homes. All of my companions were Colombian natives. I became partly Colombianized, to the point that returning home gave me culture shock.

After returning home, I majored in Spanish, got Bachelors and Masters degrees in Spanish and Spanish literature, and completed the PhD coursework and exams in Spanish Literature (no dissertation; long story). About half or more of my colleagues at the university came from all quarters of the Spanish-speaking world. I have met and gotten to know Latinos from the lowliest campesino to the Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas.

Therefore, Latinos are not foreign to me anymore. Spanish isn't a foreign language to me, nor are their customs strange or "threatening." And furthermore, in Colombia, there is a healthy mix of European, Native, and African blood, so I'm used to dealing with people all over the color spectrum. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt how obscenely ridiculous it is to think that skin color means anything beyond how vulnerable you are to skin cancer.

So I was peeved mightily at President Bush's statement that Americans just have to get used to the idea of diversity. Puh-leeze. From my cubicle here at work, I hear Chinese over one partition and Russian over the other. We've got Latinos, Asians, Middle-Easterners, and Europeans. (We might even have—gasp—Canadians!) Nobody cares what color you are or what your native language is. It's not 1955, for the sake of Pete.

When I first thought about the issue of illegal immigration several years ago, I was wholly indifferent to the fact that people were crossing the border for work. Que vengan was my attitude. Let them come. I knew how rotten the economic structure is in Latin America. I totally didn't blame them for being here, and I had no problem sharing my space with them (my neighborhood is just under half immigrant).

However, I also knew that I didn't know what the impact of illegal immigration was. So later I found out, and I've since determined that illegal immigration isn't the best way to run a railroad. Here's why:

(1) Legal immigrants tend to spread out when they settle down, whereas most of those who have crossed the border illegally are clustered near the border. (Those who overstay visas are also better dispersed). These agglomerations are a serious impediment to assimilation. During the first huge wave of immigration from Europe, there was some clustering in places like New York, but as they spread west, they all mixed in with immigrants from other nations. The only way a Swede could talk to an Italian was in English, and the only way a Pole could talk to a Frenchman was English.

The children of these immigrants may have been bilingual (though there was a strong ethic among immigrants to Become Americans, so they might have insisted in speaking only English in their homes). But by the third generation, the native languages were gone, and only English remained. Some of my ancestors came from Norway, Denmark, and Germany. I'm not distressed by the fact that I can't speak any of those languages. There are plenty of Norwegians, Danish, and Germans to carry on the tradition.

But when you have millions of people clustered in a small area who speak only one language, there's no impetus to learn English. When I was a missionary in LA, I met a man who had been in the US for 15 years and yet spoke no English. His children did, of course (the children almost always prefer English to their native tongue because that's the language their friends speak), but he never needed to. He was surrounded by enough Spanish speakers that he could get by without learning English.

I'm here to tell you, as one who took some Spanish in Jr. High and who has taught Spanish in college, there is no way to really learn a language except Total Immersion. Classes are nice, but they only give you an intellectual understanding of some of the concepts. Nothing can replace practice.

And because language acquisition is so incredibly difficult past puberty, few people will undertake to learn a new language unless circumstances force them to. The first four months in Colombia were downright painful. Not having anyone to talk to made me feel very lonely indeed. Even with the two-month crash course in Spanish that I took prior to arriving in Colombia, I was not able to follow conversations very well for the first two months, and it wasn't until after the fourth month that I felt I could express most of what I needed to say (and follow most conversations). And that was with total immersion: I ran into a fellow American maybe once a week, and we had to stick to Spanish to not alienate our native companions.

Why is it important that people learn English? Exhibit A: Quebec. Canada decided on the two-language solution, and they are a nation divided. Fortunately, it hasn't come to blows, but Quebec considers itself to be separate from the rest of Canada, and it comes down entirely to language. We have several sub-cultures in the US: New England, New York City, the South, Texas, the West, SoCal, NoCal, Minnesota, etc., but we consider ourselves to be of one nation because we all speak the same language and therefore have a chance at understanding each other.

Furthermore, the barrios that they create often are ghettos, where most kids drop out of high school, join gangs, conceive out of wedlock, and land in jail. The concentration of illegals is creating an whole new underclass in one place, which makes it harder to take care of.

(2) Illegal immigrants tend to have a different attitude than legal immigrants. Speaking of Quebec, there are several organizations within the Latino community who are agitating for secession even now. I am confident that most of the secessionists are here illegally. Those who came in the front door did so because they wanted to be part of a different country, not transplant their own in the heart of another. Illegals have to justify their actions by claiming that the land was "stolen" from them in 1848, even though it was ceded to us by Mexico as part of a treaty after the war in exchange for $15 million and the assumption of $3.25 million in debts. Stolen indeed.

I absolutely hate historical grievance arguments. My own Mormon ancestors were literally chased off their duly purchased land at gunpoint in Kirtland OH, Jackson County MO, and Nauvoo IL. Do I have the right to go back and claim that indisputably stolen land? No, I don't think I do. Both the people from whom the land was stolen and the people who stole the land are dead dead dead. Whoever holds that land now probably bought it from someone else, just as my ancestors did. They're no more complicit in the theft than I am.

It's a loser argument all around: Sure, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico used to be part of Mexico. But where did Mexico come from? It's a construct of the Spaniards, who obtained the land through conquest. And the original inhabitants of the Southwest US? From whom did they get the land? Dig far enough into history (to the extent that you can without written records) and you'll find that land changes hands all the time—conquest, war, disease, climate change—all lend themselves to human motility. We tend to think of the native cultures as timeless entities who were always there, but they weren't. It just seems like it.

But if Mexico wants the Cession back, they can have it—as soon as we remove all of the roads, factories, power plants, mines, businesses, farms, dams, parks, buildings, and housing developments. It would only be fair to return the land in the same condition in which we found it: a godforsaken wilderness with a cluster of Mormons around the Great Salt Lake and random trappers and gold-diggers wandering the area.

In seriousness, the argument for "returning the land" is really an argument for outright plunder. Unless you can settle a "you stole my land" argument within one or two generations, forget about it and move on. Wreak your revenge by growing where you're planted and by living well, the way my ancestors did.

(3) Latinos aren't the only poor people in the world. If turning a blind eye to illegal immigration was done with an eye toward compassion and charity, then you have to look at the fact that there are just as many Asians and Africans and Middle-Easterners who would like a stab at the American Dream, who are just as capable of harvesting cucumbers and busing tables and hanging drywall as any Latino. And just as willing to perform the "jobs that Americans won't do."

Similar to my argument in (1), there's a better chance of assimilating immigrants when they're from many different countries. The Nigerians will only be able to talk with the Argentinians in English, and the Filipinos will have to speak to the Pakistanis in English.

America is better off when it assimilates people from many lands. Bringing in huge numbers from one culture (yes, I know that Latin America has its variations, but they're overshadowed by the common language that unites them) sets us up for our own Quebec, and for unhappy conflicts.

(4) Illegal immigration strains the infrastructure. Others have talked about the schools being overcrowded and welfare being abused. I'm most concerned about what's happening with healthcare. Illegals don't have health insurance. so they congregate in the emergency department at the hospital for everything from sniffles to XDR Tuberculosis. (At Ellis Island, they turned you back if you were carrying a serious communicable disease.) Many hospitals near the border have had to close down either the emergency department or another department (such as obstetrics) to make up for all the free healthcare they're providing. To make up for the lost revenue, hospitals have to raise their prices, which soaks everyone else, especially the poorer Americans.

Closing down emergency rooms. That's serious stuff. That's way bad. And illegals almost never have car insurance, so the insurance rates rise to cover those losses. What's that you say? We're rich Americans? We can afford it? Maybe the richest Americans can, but the rest of us are hurting, thank you very much, even with Geico insurance.

(5) Illegal immigration depresses wages. OK, so you want to convert your garage into a few bedrooms. You can hire a US contractor who hires legal workers, pays them benefits, taxes, and Social Security, and who pays taxes and license for the business, or you can hire the illegals who are hanging out in front of Home Depot. Who do you think will charge less? Who has less overhead? Who is willing to work for less because he's sharing an apartment with 7 other guys and sending his money home to Mexico, where a little goes a loooooong way, rather than paying off a mortgage in the US?

If you're a US contractor who wants to compete with illegal labor, you have to cut overhead, and the only place to cut it is in wages. Or you can go out of business, which is often the case.

(6) Illegal immigrants are easily exploited. If you go with the illegal laborers to remodel your garage, guess what? If you refuse to pay them, they can't do a blasted thing about it. There are plenty of people who stiff legal laborers; they won't hesitate a second to stiff someone who can't retaliate. Furthermore, employers can mistreat illegals and threaten to tell La Migra if they complain. The fact that a bad, exploitative job in the US is better than no job in Mexico is irrelevant.

(7) We really need to know who is here. This is the argument that addresses illegals who are here to commit acts of terrorism. I'm not going to make any of my own arguments here except to note that the terrorists are serious, and they will not hesitate to cross from Mexico into the US, undetected. Most of them are desert-dwellers, after all, so the Mojave is no big deal.

But to be honest, I'm not all that concerned about the terrorists crossing the border, even though I know that they do. I think the concerns above are enough to warrant good immigration law by themselves, security issues aside.

As for solutions, I'll address them in a later post.
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1 comment:

Nick Byram said...

Well stated, and thank you for your insights!