Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Immigration Enforcement... is it Progress?

Earlier this year, Bush worked very hard to broker a compromise solution with Congress to pass broad legislation that would rework the way we approach the problem of illegal immigration on a number of different fronts. That effort failed... regretfully, in my opinion.

In discussions about that bill, more than one conservative of my acquaintance said that we simply needed to enforce the laws already on the books, rather than coming up with new laws to ignore.

It appears that the Bush administration has decided to take precisely that approach. According to this AP story, the National Guard troops and increased border resources are having a significant impact on illegal immigration. Deportations are up, and fewer illegals are attempting to get in.

(Side note: that story includes one of my pet peeves in this whole discussion... referring to illegal immigrants simply as "immigrants". "Migrants also say they feel Americans are increasingly hostile toward immigrants." No, we're not hostile toward immigrants who follow the rules!)

In general, I think this is good news. On the other hand, this part of the story gives me pause:

While some migrants try to set up new lives, others are caught between two worlds. Salvador Perez still has a pregnant wife and three small children in Bakersfield, Calif., where he worked on a pistachio ranch before he was deported. He's tried to cross the rocky, snake-infested mountains near Tecate three times this summer to get back to them, but failed each time.

I hate the idea of separating families like that. Yet, I don't think we can simply make "get married and have a kid" the automatic no-deportation card. I'm not sure how best to handle that situation. I think Bush's plan was a solid step in the right direction, and was probably better than simpy enforcing the law as it stands... but I figure enforcing the law is better than pretending it doesn't exist.

President Bush is now implementing another step of his enforcement plan, one that is allowed by current law. He was hoping for an upgrade to the ID system used by our immigration department, but lawmakers didn't approve that. So, in the interim, he is going to start enforcing valid Social Security numbers. It's possible to get a forged SS number, but it's much more easy to just make one up and hope nobody notices. It appears nobody has been bothering to notice. Now, Bush is intending to use that enforcement power to put pressure on employers to find legal workers.

I will be very interested to see how effective that is. If it is truly able to cut off much of the financial incentive for illegal immigration by making jobs for illegals harder to come by, that could be the most powerful step in preventing illegal immigration that we've seen yet.

And, when American employers who have been happily utilizing cheap illegal labor find themselves in a serious pinch, there might be a little more political will directed toward implementing a much-needed temporary worker program, so that those workers can come to America legally, and get paid for their work above-board.

These seem like positive developments to me. What do you think?



Kevin said...


Bush's Immigration Reform Act of 2007 had good and bad points, and I think one of the key questions was its ultimate interpretation and enforcement, given history. So, I agree that it is good that Bush is working on enforcement.

This may be a case where seeing the effects in practice and addressing them incrementally is better than establishing on the outset a larger, more complex theoretical framework based upon broader, perhaps awkward compromises.

I'm not well versed enough to make a solid economic argument that citizens can fill jobs instead of aliens if given a higher wage, but the principle sounds reasonable. And, as you mention, even if a temporary worker program is ideal, it is better for it to be within a legal framework than outside of it.

I hate the idea of separating families, too. I imagine Perez's family can always join him in their country of citizenship, if they so choose. It's heart wrenching but I can't help but see it as a sad dilemma directly born of immigrating illegally.

Regarding the crops rotting mentioned in the article, I'm obliquely and humorously reminded of a couple of recent Volokh.com posts: Paying Dead Farmers Not to Farm by Jonathan Adler, and a followup by Ilya Somin: The Case for Paying Dead Farmers Not to Farm Instead of Living Ones.

It's also a shame that "a significant fraction of no-match letters - including 11 percent for the work-authorized foreign born - are in error because of name changes and clerical mistakes, and could cause trouble for legal workers". It's likewise a shame if it really does spur the underground economy and identity theft.

If you can wade through and filter out the paranoia and conspicuous bitterness, a few of the sfgate article's comments are interesting. They range from analyzing the nomenclature of "undocumented workers" (unrelated link), to questioning the DREAM Act's encouragement of illegals to go to college, to asserting that labor only accounts for about 10% of a tomato, to suggesting that everybody just needs to relax.

There are also questions about how the new SSN policy will be enforced. Apparently, employers have a year to respond to no-match letters, so some suspect a yearly rotation of illegal employees might occur.

But, in the end, I agree with you and I'm hopeful.


steviepinhead said...

Just chiming in to recommend "Enrique's Journey," by Pultitzer Prize-winner Sonia Nazario, for those interested in this complex, hot-button, snakes'-nest of interrelated issues.


Kevin said...

Thanks, Stevie. "Soon to be turned into an HBO dramatic series". Has the book changed any of your opinions on the subject?

steviepinhead said...

Heh! I don't know how the HBO series worked out (or will work out...).

I should've added that the book is an expanded version of a series of articles that ran in the L.A. Times, which can be accessed starting here:

This story certainly confirmed the degree of desperation that our less-than-formal immigrants from the south feel, the risks that they are willing to run...a gauntlet that for many of them (from southern Mexico and points on down into Central and South America) is a gauntlet that begins well before our border is even approached.

I was trying to think of how to discuss this topic within the context of legality. I don't think that states and borders fall as clearly into the category of "natural moral entities" as do persons. There's an underlying artificiality about the whole thing, something that's been imposed neither from the top down--not by a deity (though there's arguably a degree of "tribalism" and xenophobia going on in the Old Testament that may lend some validity to "nationalism" in the eyes of some)--nor from the bottom up (in terms of a "universal" human moral equation)--but simply on the basis of the power and politico-military might: a matter of convenience for the "haves" against the "have-nots."

Of course, there's a whole series of underlying analogies that might be appealed to, to support the borderline concept: first in time is first in right; finder's keepers; the "sanctity" of private property; our constitutional rights to be secure in our homes and properties, from everyone from trespassers to criminal invaders to governments.

Some of these concepts and attitudes could (from my point of view, at least) be traced all the way back to animal behavior. If you get to a resource first, and utilize it before others, then you've excecised some sort of "ownership" over the resource, whether it's a water source, a food source, a shelter, a mate, nest-building materials, a "territory," whatever.

And territories, mates, and preferential access to certain other resources are physically defended against interlopers (or the resource is hidden, as nuts by a squirrel or bird), or threatening entities are lured away, or territories are "marked" in various ways.

So, if we think of ourselves (as a nation), or nations in general) as very large and sophisticated versions of natural or animal "persons" or "polities," along these same lines, then I guess there's a way to work out a "natural," non-artificial basis for national borders, and our right to defend "our" property from incroachment.

Though in a nation of uninvited colonizers and "Manifest Destiny" aggrandizers (whose current Southwestern border was very much in the possession of Colonial Spain and its successor entities in Mexico before we took it away in a fairly shabby excuse for a war of conquest), largely made up of the descendants of various kinds of desperate immigrants and refugees, there's still something that smells to me about getting to up on our high horses about whether persons crossing this conceptual line are "illegal criminals" or not...

But let's go with the notion that there are "morally" (or at least legally) "right" and "wrong" ways to enter the country and to seek the economic and political opportunities that it affords, that our forebears have worked and sacrificed (in better and worse ways, see above) to secure for us, the current occupants.

(One wonders, at times, whether on some subconscious level, this isn't such a hot-button issue in part because we recognize that our moral authority to exercise the power of exclusion is so shakily grounded...a kind of nouveau riche, johnny-come-lately boosterism.)

Whether or not any of this history or these laws make any sense to somebody external to them, somebody who may or may not understand them before committing to undertake the risks of trying to get themselves on the inside of the magic circle, the fact remains that we have the power--and at least some sketchy tradition, stretching not very far back in time--to (leakily) enforce our own notions of who gets in in the first place, and who gets tossed out again once if they are fortunate enough to get in the "wrong" way.

It seems to me that, at a minimum, we owe those clamoring at the gates (or ourselves, to the extent we claim some degree of superior entitlement) some degree of hard thinking about the whole process: to make it fair, unhypocritical, non-arbitrary, "just"...

We have indeed discussed this whole tangle before. There may be semi-legitimate economic concerns with regard to job competition, taxes, government benefits. There may be fairness issues between those who are trying to go about the process of admission "correctly" (jumping through all the right hoops, waiting their turn) and those who are not. There may even be some legitimate "security" concerns.

This is one area where, to some extent, those of us from varying backgrounds have agreed that SOMETHING needs to be done and that, despite its real or asserted failings in other areas, this is one area where the Bush administration has mounted a couple of commendable attempts to fashion a solution--to provide certain employers with an adequate labor force without allowing that labor force to be either victimized or to escape the obligations of other, "legal" workers; to punish not just the "illegal" workers who exploit the inadequacies in the system, but the employers who profit from it; to address the fairness and justice issues in a humane way; to encourage our neighbors to the south to address the political and economic shortcomings that fuel this "osmotic" pressure; and, in the meantime, to fashion some sort of sensible, fair, and just (and properly-funded and humanely-enforcible) procedures and to allow for cross-border travel and communication without breaking up families.

And without unnecessarily "criminalizing" the destitute and desperate who just happen to be a decade or two late to the party.

Welcome back, eveybody! I guess our "summer doldrums" are over. Anybody want to (briefly) share their summer adventures...?

Kevin said...


I appreciate your consideration of the morality of boundaries and ownership of limited resources, presumably codified in social and legal constructs to soften and confine the basic competition for survival and quality of life.

I think that any inherent moral violations by illegal immigrants may seem vague and artificial because most effects only become significant en masse.

By loose analogy, a man trespassing through someone's yard can be morally insignificant. He doesn't mean any harm and only negligible harm is done. But if many are doing it, then a hard line may need to be drawn for even a single trespasser. Thus, focusing on the individual may be misleading in this respect.

Do you envision open borders to be a viable solution, or perhaps the ideal solution? A worldwide "party" that never ends? :) What kind of government do you believe this would necessitate?

My guess is that, sans an overarching global government, it might require a looser, more laissez faire, libertarian government, perhaps with less of a responsibility to its citizens -- less of a distinction between citizens and non-citizens.

I wish I had summer adventures to share; they sound like fun. I'll keep thinking about it to see if any occur to me. :)


Sarah said...

I'm new to this blog. Interesting read. I just had a couple of thoughts to share:

"No, we're not hostile toward immigrants who follow the rules!"

I am a US citizen and I'm married to a Canadian (of Scottish-Irish descent). After living in Canada for 7 years, we decided to come to the states. So my husband had to immigrate. I have to disagree from personal experience with the statement above. We did everything legally. And yet, we were held for over four hours at the border (with our then 2 month old daughter) at one point while my husband was fingerprinted, retinal scanned, and threatened, "If you're a terrorist, we'll find out." Seriously. This is a true story. My husband regularly faces discrimination for not being an American. No big deal. I experienced similar discrimination when I lived in Canada (as an American). That's just life. But I do believe that America is a little on the militant side of nationalism, and I am really vexed about that. I love my country, and I really don't like a lot of where I see it going. I have to agree with a lot of what Stevie already wrote (especially about the historical context, and the superficiality of the "moral" side of immigration). That's my two cents. Nice blog. Keep it up!

MamasBoy said...


I think many of the border patrol police manning the crossings are egotistical jerks. I've only crossed a couple times, but had one experience as a middle class white male American that just made me want to flip the guy off.

On the other hand, in my experience, the Canadian border guards were real gems: professional, polite, courteous and

Mind asking your husband if we can trade?


Sarah said...

That's been my experience (for the most part) too. I think part of the difference is that the US border recruits heavily from the military, whereas the Canadian border recruits heavily among university students. Nothing against military personnel, but sometimes they may have more psychological issues (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?) and less professionalism. It's fair to say that one probably can't judge the entire national opinion on the behavior of some border gaurds...

MamasBoy said...

I travel regularly on military bases. I've NEVER had an experience on a military base like I did at the border. The police on base have always been professional and polite (whether checking my or my guest's ID before letting us through the gate or pulling me over for rolling through a stop sign).

I'm not sure what the reason is, but, personally, I doubt it's the military connection.


steviepinhead said...

Well, to be fair to the border guards--

Living in Seattle, and loving NW Coast native art and culture as I do, I have a fair amount of experience crossing back and forth to Canada via road and boat. In 1881-83, my family lived in Sardis, BC, and we had to move a truckload of household goods across the border each way.

I agree with the exasperating perception of the different attitudes--the Canadian border guards are, basically, pleasant and welcoming; the U.S. border guards are, basically, suspicious and unpleasant. Though I've certainly encountered exceptions to these "rules" (and, as I get older--and perhaps less obviously, heh heh, threatening or subversive-looking--I tend to get hassled less...).

I don't think the unpleasantness and lack of professionalism can be lightly excused. However, the underlying difference between "welcoming" and "suspicious" may have some basis in objective reality, or at least defensible policy judgments about reality.

People are trying to cross from Canada to America for all kinds of reasons, whereas the people crossing from the U.S. to Canada are mostly returning Canadian shoppers or visiting tourists. The Canadian guards are, understandably, welcoming of American tourists.

The U.S. is by far the larger economy and population: hence, discouraging American tourists from enjoying their Canadian experience poses a much larger economic risk for Canada than discouraging Canadian tourists from enjoying their American experience does for the U.S.

While some healthy percentage of persons crossing from Canada to the U.S. are returning American tourists, there is a good deal less added economic value in being welcoming to them--they already live here, they've gotta return whether the guards are friendly or not, and they're not going to contribute less or more to our economy, now or in the future, based on the perceived friendliness of the guards.

Whereas, should American tourists perceive, on any kind of sustained basis, a lack of friendliness on the part of the Canadian guards, the Canadian economy could be seriously impacted.

I think that's part of the problem.

The other aspect is that non-U.S. citizens entering from Canada could, hypothetically, come from anywhere in the world. America is a target nation, both in terms of the licit and illicit opportunities available in our world-wheelhouse economy, and in terms of geopolitics and terrorism. (Remember, as to the latter motivation for entry, where the 9/11 terrorists came from when they entered, and where Ahmed Ressam came from...)

Canada is less of a target nation (though it's a perfectly wonderful place) in both respects. From the point of view of the American border guards, everybody trying to enter--even, or perhaps especially--from Canada is a potential criminal, terrorist, or ne'er-do-well, until proven different.

From the point of view of the Canadian border guards, however, most of the people coming from the U.S. are either Canadian nationals or friendly, big-spending U.S. tourists. To the extent they're not, and come from someplace else, they've already managed to get past the nasty and suspicious U.S. border guards in the first place.

In this sense, the Canadian border guards not only have a greater economic motivation to be (perceived as) friendly and welcoming, they also run comparatively less risk if they do let their guard down, because the mean and nasty U.S. guards have, to some extent, already done the dirty work.

Finally, the American border forces seem to be relatively undermanned and underfunded (at least along the Canadian border; to the extent that the whole border security operation is chronically under-supported, the northern border tends to be even worse, since it regularly gets "stripped" to bolster the political hot-potato of the southern border). As a result, the guard/entrant ratio seems to be higher on the Canadian side; the lines aren't as long; the entrants are therefore in a more relaxed and pleasant moods themselves due to the shorter waiting times; the shifts aren't as wearing and pressure-filled; etc. (the only time I've seen this change over anything remotely like the longer term is when the relative exchange rates or commodity prices greatly favor shopping in the U.S. by Canadians).

Again, none of this is intended to take away from that innate Canadian courtesy or to excuse the less-than-professional discourtesy of the Americans.

Kevin said...

Excellent analysis, Stevie. It makes sense. This part in particular made me laugh:

"To the extent they're not, and come from someplace else, they've already managed to get past the nasty and suspicious U.S. border guards in the first place."

MamasBoy said...


I second Kevin's thanks. I've only crossed a couple times, so my experience is rather limited... not that I'd ever excuse the treatment I received by the border guards, but I now know there were many factors I had never considered.