Immigration, and the diversity that comes with it, is the single most important factor in what has made the United States a global superpower. Relatively free immigration from all over the world is what sets this country apart from and, historically at least, above nearly every other nation on Earth. Simply put, if the U.S. wasn't a mish-mash of races, ethnicities and cultures, it would be a second rate country.
The fresh ideas and hard work of immigrants has been the driving force behind this country's success at every level. The reason that people all over the world - no matter how much they hate us lately - watch our movies and TV, listen to our music, read our books and magazines, click onto our websites, want our products and inventions; and why so many of them still, in spite of everything that's gone on in the past few years, want to come here; is our diversity. There is no other country that even comes close to the diverse makeup of population that we enjoy here in the U.S.
Immigration makes us strong. Unfortunately, illegal immigration also helps make us strong. If everyone who works in, or for America got paid a fair, living wage, we'd all be paying a lot more for the relatively cheap products we buy. We get mad about outsourcing t-shirt manufacture to China and Bangladesh, but we're still happy to go to Wal-Mart and buy cheap t-shirts. We get incensed about illegal immigrants picking our crops and working on construction sites; but we already complain about the high price of construction and if we had to pay twice as much for a head of lettuce at the market, we'd be ready to take up arms.
The ugly truth is that all of us benefit from the exploitation of labor, whether it's in China, Mexico or on California's and Texas' farms. It gets complicated by the fact that some of us are also hurt by it. How do you strike a balance between the loss of jobs when you shut down a shoe factory in South Carolina that makes shoes that sell for a hundred bucks a pair that not many people can afford; and importing the same shoes from China at forty five bucks a pair that a lot more people can buy? Sure, farmers could probably find plenty of legal workers to pick their crops at ten bucks an hour. The only problem is, how much are Americans willing to pay for a tomato?
This being an election year, illegal immigrants are being exploited in more than the usual variety of ways. What the politicians, business people and even most consumers really want is to quietly maintain the status quo. Most people benefit from it. But every election year it becomes necessary for the politicians to pander to the noisy people, the true believers, the activists; the people who can raise money for your campaign or make it tougher to raise money for your campaign, the people who are actually willing to go door to door on your behalf or against you.
It's an easy, if really dumb, rallying cry: "They're breaking the law, they're taking our jobs, protect our borders!" Most of the politicians carrying on about it don't really give a shit. They just have to sound like they do in an election year.
There is one, and only one, reason why we have illegal immigration: we're a rich country with available jobs. The reason most of our illegal immigrants come from Mexico is that it is a poor country that is next door. (Mexico gets its own share of illegals from Guatemala - an even poorer country next door to it.) We don't get much, if any, illegal immigration from Canada. When a person can get a decent job at a decent wage at home, they rarely want to go somewhere else to find work.
So, what's to be done? Let's pretend for a little that politicians and business people and American consumers really do want to do something about illegal immigration. Which they don't, but let's pretend.
Sealing the border isn't realistic. It's too long, it's too underdeveloped and people will find a way around it anyhow. (We do get illegal immigration from places like China. What are the chances of shutting out our determined neighbors?)
Opening the border and just allowing everybody and anybody to come in isn't realistic either. (There are actually people who advocate this. I think they must believe in Santa Claus too.) Then we really would be swamped and all the countries that started losing most of their educated elites and huge numbers of their labor force would not be happy. (If we wanted to start another war with Mexico - it has been over 150 years after all - this might be a good way to do it.)
Amnesty for current illegals sounds humane, but what next? If it becomes an ongoing policy we might as well just throw open the border.
A guest worker program sounds okay until you start looking at other countries, like Germany, that have one. It creates a permanent, authorized underclass. It doesn't really do much to stop the exploitation of workers.
The only real solution is long term and needs to happen in Mexico, not in the U.S. Our neighbor to the south needs to economically develop. It needs to become a first world nation that can offer plenty of good jobs to its own people. It needs our help to accomplish this. If we could stop our idiotic and expensive overseas adventures, such as in Iraq, we could easily afford the modern day equivalent of a Marshall Plan (the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War) for Mexico.
The U.S. would benefit tremendously from assisting the economic development of Mexico. U.S. companies would get a lot of contracts to build everything from infrastructure to factories to shopping centers to housing. There would also be a lot of new jobs created in Mexico, so there would be a lot of people staying home to work, rather than illegally immigrating.
And, once Mexico achieved developed world status, we would benefit even more. Compare Mexico with Canada and you can see the possibilities. Despite having a population smaller than California, Canada is our largest trading partner. Mexico has more than three times the population of Canada and it is already our number two trading partner. Provide better and better paying jobs at home for Mexicans, and just imagine the potential Mexico has as an easily accessible market for U.S. products and services.
Okay, you might say, that's the long term, what do we do in the meantime?
If the U.S. were to announce a big, economic development assistance program for Mexico, it would immediately boost investment in that country. As the program got underway it would create a lot of jobs and very quickly fewer Mexicans would need to leave home to find work.
But, there would still be illegals in the U.S., so what to do about them?
Unfortunately, my solution is to, with a few changes, maintain the status quo for the time being. (After all, despite all the political posturing, it really is working reasonably well for most of the people involved.) The few changes I propose will hurt some businesses, but if they're going to hire illegals, that's a risk they will have to take.
Apply the federal minimum wage and health and safety laws to all workers, regardless of their visa status. If illegal workers are found in a factory or on a farm, treat them the way we have been treating them - send them back home. They took that risk when they came here illegally. But, also fine their employer and if they were being paid less than minimum wage or there were violations of health and safety laws, fine their employer more - a lot more. The money from the fines can be thrown into the Develop Mexico program.
Require employers to pay the appropriate taxes and fees - workers comp, etc. - for every worker they employ - illegal or not. If they don't pay, collect the back taxes and fine them some extra when they're caught.
Retain the law that grants citizenship to anyone born within our borders, but change it to exclude people who show up here only for that purpose. If, for instance, a woman has a child while she is here working - whether legally or not - her child should be eligible for citizenship. On the other hand, if she shows up in her last trimester of pregnancy just to wait it out and give birth; toss her and the kid out.
What we don't want to do is greatly tighten up our immigration laws and policies. A liberal, open, mostly welcoming attitude toward immigrants is one of the greatest strengths of our country. It is what has created the strong, powerful, affluent and creative nation we live in. And it will continue to do so if we let it.