Page Two: Down the Drain

Even if it were possible, what would getting rid of all illegal immigration cost us?

Page Two
The online responses to last week's column were a bit surprising. Some merely evidenced the crude anger that unfortunately drenches the immigration issue, but others focused on some legitimate details that I addressed poorly. Still, only one of them addressed the main question I was trying to raise: If the goal is to get all the millions of illegal immigrants to leave the United States, how can it be achieved? Whether or not this is a good idea is a different issue; the concern here is logistical.

There are those who adamantly regard illegal immigration as one of the greatest dangers facing this country. In several polls, Republican voters rank it as the No. 1 issue of concern. They are adamant that this is a crisis that requires an immediate, sweeping response. (Keep in mind that just a few elections ago the concern was the imminent threat of Saddam Hussein.)

Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants range from 10 million to 40 million. These are the numbers being tossed around by pro- and anti-immigrant groups; the most radical of these groups are likely the sources of the highest and lowest figures. I present this range without verifying any of the numbers. On the actual social and economic impact of this population, one can find vast libraries of demographic considerations, predicted trends, and financial analyses. All these studies are very authoritative, with almost all finding that the reality of the situation exactly matches the established ideology of the groups publishing them.

Some clarifications of last week's column:

1) The 12 million figure that, for the purposes of argument, I settled on is not an average (duh) but was chosen because the most reasonable figures from the many sides seem to be in the 10 million to 15 million range. Twelve million seemed fair and workable. The higher the figure, the more the deck is stacked: Doesn't getting 15 million or 18 million people to leave sound even more impossible than doing so with 12 million?

2) An overwhelming number of Americans alarmed at the situation have made it explicitly clear that they believe any legal solution can't even hint at amnesty or any other relatively lenient or convenient route to citizenship.

The recent congressional proposals did not include amnesty but instead offered a rigorous, expensive, and lengthy application process. Regardless, the legislation was attacked on the grounds of blatantly offering amnesty, even though it really didn't.

3) Many of those most concerned about illegal immigration view the situation as a result of the complete failure of the federal government to enact stricter legislation and actively and aggressively enforce the many existing laws. The legislation that they insist needs to be passed must guarantee a permanent solution: Once and for all time, the illegal-immigration issue needs to be fixed – with serious, comprehensive legislation.

In this view, the solution has to start with taking control of our borders: Strict enforcement of existing laws, building the 700-mile fence, and hiring more border agents would be a huge step in the right direction – followed by the government's pressuring employers not to hire undocumented workers, while militantly pursuing and deporting anyone without the right papers.

Unfortunately, it really seems like this entire illegal-immigration discussion has little to do with any real consequences. There are ample and relevant statistics on both sides to indicate that as much as this population costs us, they put as much or more back into the system. Obviously, each side dismisses the other's numbers.

Since Iraq hasn't worked out, this is an ideal cause for those who are happy only when they feel threatened. The same vehemence that was aimed at Islamic terrorists a few years ago is now directed at illegal immigrants. As with Iraq, the bonus is that the issue already has sets of villains who are citizens but can be blamed. Republicans blame it on the Democrats. Meanwhile, our conspiracy hobbyist friends are in sync with much of the general public in discerning that the cause is evil, multinational corporations who want to add to their already obscene profits.

Left out of the equation is the American public's insatiable quest for ever-lower prices. That thirst trumps the deeply held ideological position every time.

Illegal immigration has become a giant Macy's-parade balloon of an issue for politicians who have discovered the electoral bonanza of turning Americans against one another. The conservative right has scored a hat trick in fighting to ban gay marriage, prohibit flag burning, and assail illegal immigration. None of these issues is worth the time legislators spend on it or really affects anyone's daily life, but they do produce both contributions and votes.

We are deep in George Orwell's 1984 territory, where one day the government's declared enemy is Iraq and the next it's illegal immigrants. Or, as Love's Arthur Lee asked, "I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me?"

For the sake of argument, let's say we all agree that it's good to send all 12 million illegal immigrants back to their home countries. Which brings us right back to: "How do you get 12 million or more people to leave?"

This question doesn't represent philosophical beliefs but is strictly logistical: If the anti-immigration coalition came into power tomorrow, how would they get these 12 million people to leave?

How could that be done? Some suggest putting pressure on employers. The harsher and more comprehensive the pressure, the more illegals won't be able to find work and may well leave. If the idea is to force more than 10 million people to move out of this country, however, the pressure will have to be extraordinary. This really means moving further toward a police state, because so many additional enforcement officers will need to be hired. Even if this method is surprisingly successful, it won't accomplish the goal of eliminating the presence of illegal immigrants in this country.

Most likely the government would find it necessary for all citizens to have their appropriate papers at all times. Imagine what it could well be like: checkpoints everywhere – all forms of public transportation, schools, large areas of development, and any business employing hundreds of people.

One of the groups opposed to illegal immigration proposes an approach that includes "many procedural reforms, beefed up investigation capacity, asylum reform, documents improvements, major improvements in INS detention and deportation procedures, limitations on judicial review, improved intelligence capacity, greatly improved state/federal cooperation, and added resources." In the abstract, this might not sound too drastic, but in reality, it fits in with those predictions above. Does anyone really think that closer and more comprehensive monitoring of all citizens can be done with moderation? Does the anti-illegal crowd really think we need a national ID system (because, given the circumstances, it would be almost a necessity)?

The good news is that, even though the direct and related costs are likely to be astronomical, they will be more than offset by the savings from what illegal immigrants now cost us. Well, at least that's what they say.

The most aggressive employer enforcement, the use of local and state police, and an increased border-guarding campaign might see a few million leave, but probably not many more. Still, if this effort proves to be astonishingly successful, it won't force the entire illegal population out of this country. There are likely to be 6 or 4 or even 2 million left – numbers significant enough to leave the issue unresolved.

The conjecture above just considers the logistics of getting the entire illegal immigrant population to leave without even beginning to address whether this is actually a good idea or not.

What would be the economic, political, and social realities of forcing at least one of every 30 people to leave this country? How do you shed an average of 140,000 people in each state (obviously, some states have more and some states less) without severe consequences?

Would losing 12 million consumers from across the country have devastating economic reverberations? What about losing a national manual-labor, lower-cost workforce? Would this drive up the prices of many goods and services? At the same time, what would happen to the vast array of businesses that serve this population?

The costs would be fantastic. Where is all this money going to be found? Undoubtedly, the answer is not to raise taxes but to squeeze it out of existing government budgets – while there are, of course, the huge supposed savings from that entire population being gone.

This vast expenditure would be used solely to send and keep people out of this country, and thus no new revenue would be generated.

One of the aspects of this debate that seems to drive people craziest is the fact that some illegal immigrants benefit from federal and local social services. Evidently, the preference is spending millions to secure the border but not a penny on human beings (for social services, education, or humanitarian support). Now that is truly compassionate conservatism!

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illegal immigration, immigration policy, Iraq war, 1984, police state

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