Most of the recent hoopla over illegal immigration and undocumented immigrants is a smokescreen being thrown up by the current administration to deflect attention from their own bad policies. Yet there is enough of an issue there to allow many Americans to buy into it. The problem, however, is not that we do not police our borders well enough or that we are not cracking down on employers. The solution is not in national ID cards or reductions in or tighter restrictions on social services. Like so many things that are offered to the American public by our government and our media, those are simplistic analyses to a much more complex problem. To find the real problem we must look into history a bit.

Each of you can probably use your own memories to recall when this problem started to become a “problem,” but we must ask ourselves why. Really, there are two important answers we need to find before we move into our assessment:

1. Why are we suddenly unable to absorb immigrants smoothly into our society when immigration has been a constant in our nation since, and even before, we became an independent and sovereign state?


2. Why has there been an increase in immigration, both legal and illegal, especially from our southern neighbors?

While I’m sure there are statistics out there that can back this up, I am going to shoot from the hip here. From my own memory, I have a clear recollection that not long after Ronald Reagan became our president, we started seeing a rapid increase in homelessness. I was not really savvy enough at the time (or maybe as a high school student, I just had other things on my mind) to really grasp the economics of it, but I remember the terms Reaganomics and The Trickle Down Theory, which I believe were more or less interchangeable terms to describe that economic system. It was very similar to what the George W. Bush administration has done to our domestic economy in the last seven years. Tax cuts for the rich are supposed to result in more investment in the economy, which will lead to more jobs and ultimately benefit everyone in society. Well, for those of you who haven’t noticed, it is not working any better this time around than it did in the 1980s.

The stock market may appear to be doing well, and unemployment may be steady or even declining, new jobs are being created, but a more in depth look at those numbers tells you that the types of jobs being created are paying less than the ones that disappear, and a lot of the folks falling off the unemployment lists are not falling off because they have found new careers, but because they have stopped looking, or they may be working two of the newer crappier jobs that are unlikely to become a career path just to pay their bills.

While during the Clinton years some of that may have been reversed, but with a Republican-controlled Congress for six of his eight years in office, certainly not enough. Now here we are under the Bush Administration that had six more years of Republican-controlled Congress to bring it all back, and now a Democratic-controlled Congress that doesn’t seem willing to fight hard enough against them. They may be holding out for a Democratic presidential administration to work with, but if we get one, we’ll see how much they are really willing to do for us.

Anyway, the point is that a big part of the answer to the first question is the old cliché: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Our economy has been on a downward trend for decades. Despite the supposed dot-com boom of the 1990s, our wages and standard of living have been falling since the Nixon administration. How many of you are old enough to remember when one member of a household could earn enough to buy a house, a car or two, and put food on the table and clothes on the backs of everybody in the household. Certainly, even then there were sectors of our society suffering in poverty, or struggling pretty hard to stay out of it, but my own experience tells me that the percentage of Americans dealing with that reality has gone up…way up.

So our economy is tanking, and has been gradually getting worse for a long time, and now it has reached a point where we are looking for someone to blame. Examining the slow trend of history is too much work for many of us, so we buy into the scapegoating of immigrants. It is not the first time immigrants have had to bear that burden, and it probably won’t be the last, but in reality, the problems in your life, in most of our lives, in our national economy, are not caused by immigrants, legal or illegal. Furthermore, controlling illegal immigration, even if we could do it with law enforcement and a border wall, will not solve those problems.

However, the truth is that we cannot solve the immigration problem with walls and law enforcement. Just as we were not able to control the flow of alcohol with law enforcement during Prohibition, and we have not been able to control the flow of other illegal drugs since Reagan declared his War on Drugs. Law enforcement is not the solution to any problem. Law enforcement is like trying to control acne by popping zits, when what you may need is a change in diet, hygiene, or some other variable, like soaps or laundry detergents. The only way to know which of these is really the solution is through a thorough analysis of your condition.

In the case of our current immigration issue, we already know that part of the problem is our own economy and the growing level of dissatisfaction of the American people. Another key part of the problem is in the answer to our second question:
Why has there been an increase in immigration, both legal and illegal, especially from our southern neighbors?

Again, I ask you to refer to your own memory of our recent history. When did immigration from Mexico and other nations to the south of us begin to increase? When did you notice it? Certainly, illegal immigration is not a new phenomenon. We have had slang terminology for illegal immigrants for a long time, indicating that it has gone on for a long time, but it was not always such a serious issue.

Once again, I am going to refrain from searching the web for statistics and instead will trust that if you want them, you can find them. From my own experience here in Texas, I noticed that the issue started to heat up in the late 90s. I do not really remember actually noticing an increase in immigrants, but I noticed an increase in people talking about it, and in the language becoming more and more hostile. At the time, I associated it with the right-wing in Texas reacting to the Clintons, which somehow got under their skin more than previous Democrats had, even though Clinton’s policies were much more centrist than Carter’s or LBJ’s. But the far right had been building their movement, and the Clintons were interrupting their transformation of America into a plutocracy, I guess, so they were demonized. Anyway, I didn’t separate the anti-immigrant buzz from the anti-Clinton, anti-Democrat, anti-“liberal” buzz until more recently. But when I look back, it was there. So where did it really come from?

Well, in fact, Clinton was to blame, at least in part, for this, although it wasn’t one of his more liberal policies. In fact, it was one of his more conservative, “pro-business” measures: can anyone say “NAFTA?”

Of course, Clinton didn’t create NAFTA, or at least, I don’t think he did. I believe it was in the works during the George H.W. Bush administration, but it was agreed upon and passed in 1994, I believe, and became effective in 1995. Well, how did NAFTA affect immigration, you ask? Wasn’t it supposed to help Mexico just as much as the U.S.?

What NAFTA did, among other things, is gave American companies, including some of our huge government-subsidized agri-business corporations the right to sell their produce in Mexico even cheaper than much smaller unsubsidized Mexican farms could. Many farms went under and sold their land, many other laid off farm workers. Lots of previous farm workers headed into the cities of Mexico looking for work, often in factories and other places not requiring any particular skills or education. This pushed down wages for Mexican factory workers, especially in the southern part of Mexico , which was much more agriculturally focused, and sent factory workers looking for better wages in the factories of northern Mexico, especially along the U.S. border, where the economy has been bolstered by American consumers for ages. Many also simply continue farther north into the U.S. The influx of southern laborers into the northern Mexican economy again brought wages down there, forcing many northern workers into the U.S. in search of higher wages. And so, of course, there actually has been a larger influx of immigrants from the south since NAFTA, and it is having an adverse effect on our already worsening economy…and yes, we do need to address the issue. Yet again, I must stress that law enforcement, while it must be part of the response, cannot and will not solve this, or any other problem. The solution to this problem is to reverse the causes, and the causes are economic. One of the most important pieces of the economic puzzle is NAFTA. We must revisit that decision, and try to develop a better trade policy with Mexico. The solution, I believe, is in “fair trade” rather than “free trade.” That is not the whole picture, but it is probably the most important element.

We should probably also ask ourselves a third question: why do so many of the immigrants coming here choose to immigrate illegally rather than seeking the proper documentation? There are at least two answers to that. First, we need to examine our immigration quotas. Obviously, there is work here, or they would not come, but we apparently max out our quota on Mexican immigrants for any given year before the end of January. Anyone else who wants to come in after that must either wait until the following year, or cross the border without proper documentation. We should do a better job of assessing our real economic need for immigrant labor, and set our quotas more in accord with those needs.

Think about this: if it was easier and very practical for an immigrant to obtain the legal documentation to enter if there was indeed ample work for him or her, and if when we hit our quota it really meant that there were no more jobs, then why would anyone enter illegally. Furthermore, if we adjusted our system so that we had just as many immigrants, but they were all legally documented, then they would be working “above board” for at least minimum wage, in facilities that were subject to inspections for safety standards, etc. Therefore, it would have less downward impact on American wages and the quality of American jobs.

Now, think about who benefits from keeping the system as it is rather than fixing it as I have proposed? The answer is, of course, the businesses who want to pay lower wages, have workers who won’t report safety violations or complain about safety hazards, and don’t want to provide health coverage or other benefits that many Americans might expect. So, who is really preventing us from solving this problem? Why is it that Republicans are more concerned about trying to fix it with walls and law enforcement? Because they know it won’t work, but it may appease enough people to say we tried, and we’re working on it, when in fact nothing is really being done to actually solve the problem.
So, for whatever part law enforcement has to play in this, wages and safety regulations are just as important as checking documentation. And something that would help businesses as well as workers, both citizens and immigrants, is a universal single-payer not-for-profit national health care plan.

So, to sum all this up, the problems are our own economy, NAFTA, and unrealistic immigration quotas; the solutions are reversing the tax-cut mentality and the Trickle Down Theory, rescinding NAFTA and replacing it (and other “free trade” agreements) with a Fair Trade agreement, reassessing our immigration quotas, and combining all this with reasonable law enforcement that includes not only checking documentation, but also safety regulations and minimum wage laws.


  1. tyler hartson said,

    May 17, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Its the magnet. You missed it completely

  2. transform25 said,

    May 23, 2008 at 12:24 am

    The magnet? huh?

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