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The problem with the idea of “an immigration problem.”

by everardo carvajal Friday, Jun. 30, 2006 at 11:47 PM

Why so many different takes to "the immigration problem?" The answer lies in the oversimplification of the issue. I will not diagnose the source(s) of these over-simplistic notions, only attempt to clear up the mud.

The problem with the idea of “an immigration problem.”

Imagine security cameras and heat sensors fastened to an enormous wall in neat rows. Now imagine those cameras transmitting live feeds to the internet for vigilant netizens to report on border crossings . Further, imagine that it was a crime to help any of these people to survive their travels . All of these are current proposals aimed at curbing undocumented immigration, and not scenes from a b-movie aired on the Sci-Fi channel.

These ideas and more are offered as responses to the simplistic idea of an “illegal immigration problem.” In fact, the so-called problem is touted like a U.S. flag on the days after September 11, 2001. Several groups of people both formally and informally and both public official and private citizen have offered their perceptions of “the problem” and ideas on what would be an appropriate response. Some examples that come to mind: The Minutemen, English only movement, National Guard border patrols, camera lined borders, gigantic fence enlargements, house bills, congress bills, anti-foreign investment movements (recall the recent Dubai ports deal).

Due to all of this, an appropriate response would aim to clarify what the problem really is. When this question is asked, we must remember that responses to the so-called issue are generally reflective of our perceptions of the de facto issues. For instance, if one were to see unemployment as an affected by “the problem”, one would likely favor some proposal addressing precisely that concern. So, if there are serious issues which need to be addressed then the utmost concern ought to be discovering the nature of “real” issues, by this I mean cases where social costs are not offset by the social benefit.

“Illegal immigration” ought to be conceived as a cluster of complaints or problems. And, in order to frame the topic as a “problem” there must be some criteria defining the idea of an immigration problem. However, from what has been written and spoken in the media and public, there is no real consensus on what the actual problem(s) is/are.

One frequent argument is the alleged over-consumption of U.S. public/social goods. Another is that these people are lawbreakers and criminals. Yet, the most common complaint is framed in a way that states “illegal immigrants” should not have access to citizenship because it would entitle them to unearned privileges. Other specific impacts cited are: a burden on schools, hospitals, employment, fair wages, language, borderland/property damage, crime, (and seemingly whatever else requires a scapegoat). However, by ignoring the benefits of the presence of these residents, the so-called issues are often oversimplified and thereby under addressed; which in turn represents a circular logic of hasty judgments.

Two things should be noted then; the first is the difficulty (and probably subjectivity) of measuring the impact of this sort of immigration on the country as a whole. The second is that it is questionable to assess that the overall impact on the country is mostly negative. The previous is especially true if one attempts to generalize from local concerns to national concerns. I mean that the impact on a community or segment of that community does not necessarily carry the conclusion that the costs outside of that community are particularly negative.

These following are the examples of actual circular reasoning representative of the oversimplifications. I want to briefly contribute to clarification by evaluating the logic of the arguments brought forth as problems.

1. A (/n) (alleged) lawbreaker is always a lawbreaker and hence should not be allowed to ever enter into the process in which was allegedly violated. Violators should be deported at all costs and made to follow established formal procedures.

2. U.S. citizenship as a concept is a reward for following rules.

3. The accused are simply consuming more resources than they are contributing to resources or overall abundances of the U.S. economy .

1. Anyone who commits a crime by being present in the U.S. without formal legal approval (suppose the truth of the claimants) ought to be removed at once without any opportunity to continue residing in the U.S. Regardless of any circumstances, once the law has been broken, there should be no opportunity for the accused to continue as s/he has been.

a. This argument is saying that regardless of the social, political and economic costs the U.S. ought to deport people so that they attempt the “legal” way. This simply assumes that (1), the individual will not attempt to do the same again, (2), that the problem lies with the lack of the individuals’ morality and not the law, and (3) that the U.S. ought to enforce any and all laws regardless of their inefficiency. The simplistic view painted by these three points is that these people are in need of a moral guidance, a morality that can only be learned by crossing a border with formal legal approval.

Response: An important point here is that if people are here illegally then they deserve no opportunity to reside in the U.S.. How does this make any sense? Why shouldn’t there be procedures for people who follow the laws and are economically and socially productive citizens to become recognized as legal citizens? It just seems too draconian to think that there ought not to be any sort of second chance for people to become ‘legal’. Besides, if it were the case that a particular moral standard were necessary for citizenship, then there are prisons and corporate boardrooms full of citizens who would deserve to be excommunicated.

Regarding the notion of teaching morality by deportation, it seems even more pompous to assume that these immigrants have crossed borders in search of moral leadership. One ought to wonder the motive or perception towards these people when it is said that they ought to be deported at almost all costs. Could it be true that border crossers are a morally wreckless bunch in search of leadership?

2. U.S. citizenship is a reward for following rules.

a. Citizenship is not a reward, it is awarded but not in the sense that it is a booby prize, although it can be (for people such as political dissidents). There is a rather distinct difference between awards and rewards. A reward is generally given in exchange for something in a way where both parties anticipate receiving the output of each others offer. As I see award, it is offered as a gift for any reason and not received in anticipation as is a reward. A reward is meant to be awarded for a given reason, but an award is thought to be intrinsically valuable. This might not be so clear, but let’s move past semantics.

Response: Nowhere in the Immigration and Nationality act of 1952 can it be found that citizenship is supposed to be given as a reward for good behavior or rule following. It does explicitly mention rule compliance in terms of eligibility of citizenship. But citizenship is not an award for good behavior, nor is it something which can only be bestowed on those with the best behavior. Eligibility criteria merely defines who can and cannot apply for citizenship. Citizenship again is not a prize although it is prized. It is awarded and even rewarded but not a legal reward. So again, rule following is only linked to eligibility for citizenship. I am sure that the U.S. has had and will continue to have its own best interest in min Citizenship is granted in anticipation that the grantee will follow rules and has a well established pattern or following them, not perfectly, but rather consistently.

3. Immigrants are consuming more tangible resources than they are contributing.

a. This conception of immigration is riddled with holes of misinformation and under-information. Consider the fact that all people pay sales taxes, one cannot leave a merchant without doing so. This includes food, fuel, disposable goods, and durable goods like homes/rent. How possible is it that these people to get around paying for the very basics of what they need to survive without paying taxes. A recent report in the NY Times discusses how most of these workers have regular paychecks and pay taxes on the monies earned. The allegation that taxes are not being contributed is misinformed . Further, it seems as if when people of this argument talk they forget about other contributions: a lower priced service industry, a whole agricultural industry, major segments of mainstream big business, and the complete social-economic system in which these people play a large contributive role.

Response: “Illegal immigrant contribution seems almost immeasurable.” Immigrants work in areas throughout the employment sector ranging from service industry, to construction and remodeling, entrepreneurial ventures (not to mention their cultural capital). A recent report quoted in the Times puts “illegal immigrant” unemployment roughly equal to that of legal citizens. Consider their ability to gain and retain employment and the fact that they produce goods and services for affordable manufacturing prices which translates into wholesale and retail prices. Not to mention the fact that the money they earn usually ends up back in the economy in the form of land, rent, cars, insurance, and non-durable goods.

In this to a brief piece, I chose to ignore other nuances of the topic. I mean the way politicians opportunists who exploit non-issues because of the sentiment they arise. Like the way many conservative politicians have chosen the issue as a platform from places unlikely as Orange County supervisor races (which has little to nothing do with immigration policy except for being the source of campaign donations) to national level politicians . Liberal types like CNN’s Lou Dobbs have even invoked ‘the issue’ as a talking point to chew on. Yes, it is a potential exploit for votes and television ratings, what isn’t? The problem though is that it leaves political constituents hanging with lofty promises and underserved concerns.

I suppose my question is this: How can we have a satisfactory answer to a question or problem without a clear understanding of the question or problem?

everardo carvajal



Claremont Graduate University

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