I admit I'm attracted to the idea that anyone who wants to move to the United States should obey our laws, put in an immigration application and wait for their number to come up. That would be fairer and more orderly.
However, our slow-moving legal immigration system seems disconnected from the reality that our economy is robust, perpetually growing, and needs more workers. The American public seems to know this intuitively and has, therefore, tolerated decades of illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, but also from other countries. We hear about the supposedly rising tide of anger about illegal immigration, especially on talk radio, but we don't vote that way, not even in the border states where the impact of illegal immigration is most felt.
Issues associated with illegal immigration do cause political backlash. Twelve years ago, it was Proposition 187, which passed overwhelmingly, but was reversed by the courts. That proposition was impractical, but I understood the sentiment behind it as an attempt to achieve rough justice. Yes, immigrants are coming, and if they're coming here to work, fine. But if they're coming here for welfare, then that's not fine.
Prop 187 foolishly went beyond welfare. It wanted to keep illegal immigrants out of public hospitals and health clinics, and their kids out of public schools. On its face, this was not entirely unreasonable. The dollars to pay for these services are scarce. The school and public health systems were designed for the native population, and can't easily absorb hundreds of thousands of non-citizens without diluting the overall delivery of services to everyone.
But let's get real. Do we really want hundreds of thousands of our neighbors with no access to health services, and with their kids receiving no education? That's a decision with devastating consequences for society as a whole. Overcrowded schools and health facilities aren't acceptable either, but if you had to make a choice between two bad outcomes, it's better to muddle through with the system we have. And don't forget, illegal immigrants pay some taxes, including the property and sales taxes that local and state governments use for the public health and education systems.
September 11 created a new slant on the problem. We already knew that a certain proportion of criminals were slipping through the border via the great migration. Isn't it now likely that among their number are members of terrorist organizations?
That's the impetus behind the spate of lawmaking on the issue of illegal immigration, which has reopened the larger debate. My brother Seth Stodder, who was a high-ranking Homeland Security official and is now an attorney in Los Angeles, cowrote with Brian C. Goebel an article now online at the New Republic's website that zeroes in on the national security dimension of the issue. Their thesis: "Only by letting more people in can we keep the bad guys out."
Each year, more people seek to cross our land borders illegally than the Border Patrol, a component of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has the resources to apprehend. The Border Patrol apprehended a million illegal immigrants last year–but it is generally believed that another 300,000 evaded law enforcement officers and successfully entered the country.
The vast majority of these people are not security risks. Instead, they are economic migrants from impoverished regions of Latin America. But intermingled in this flood of economic migrants lurk dangers, including drug smugglers and potential terrorists. Indeed, the Border Patrol apprehends thousands of people each year from countries in South America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia where Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda and its affiliates are active. Recent press reports suggest that Al Qaeda has started recruiting in Central America and has considered smuggling a weapon of mass destruction into the United States through Mexico.
Given the principal border security challenge facing the Border Patrol–identifying and apprehending a fairly small number of potential terrorists, drug smugglers, and criminals in the midst of well over a million people–Bush and moderates in both parties have correctly asserted that substantially reducing illegal crossings by economic migrants would improve our border security: With a reduced flood of economic migrants, the real dangers would stick out more prominently.
The best way to reduce the ranks of economic migrants crossing our borders illegally is to create a guest worker program.
The advocates of a guest worker program — including President Bush — are routinely condemned on talk radio as capitulating to illegal immigration advocates. But the logic of Seth and Brian's position is pretty strong. We're asking the Border Patrol to do two jobs: Protect the country from terrorists and organized crime, and enforce unrealistic immigration laws. The first job is clearly more important than the second, but the second job is making the first one near to impossible. The hard-line position would not make our country safer.
I hope Seth and Brian are given the chance to expound their views on the anti-immigrant talk radio programs and let their logic begin to dissolve the unreasoning anger out there. It would be a good idea to refocus the illegal immigration debate on what should be our most important objective — keeping our country safe from another 9/11.