Saturday, May 10, 2008

12,000,000 reasons to change the law

During the past year or so, a figure that has been repeatedly used is 12,000,000. That is supposed to be the number of people who have come to the United States seeking employment without going through the formal process for becoming immigrants or permanent residents as recognized by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services . Those who enter the country without the proper documentation are often referred to as undocumented workers or illegal immigrants. Their presence in the United States causes alarm to some.

If it is true that twelve million people have entered the United States for employment, then we have twelve million good reasons to change US immigration laws. There is clearly a demand for permanent residence in the United States in people now living outside the country. If there were not, these people would not be coming here. There is also obviously a demand within the United States for the labor that these people from outside the country provide. If there were not, these people would not be finding gainful employment. What makes the most sense, then, is to make it possible for workers from outside the United States to come to this country to work, and to bring their families if they so wish. Probably the best way to do this would be to form an American Union, along the lines of the European Union, such that every citizen or legal immigrant to any country in North, Central and South America could take up residence in any other country on these continents. In this age, such documentation as passports and visas make very little sense any more; they are instruments of an earlier world whose political and economic conditions bear little resemblance to the world as it it now.

The argument most commonly used against allowing more free access to residence in the United States is that doing so would amount to a kind of “amnesty”. It would, so the argument goes, send the wrong signal to people; it would send the message that those who break the law are not punished. That claim is plainly silly. The message that amnesties in general send is not that those who break the law can avoid punishment, but that some laws are so foolish that they cannot be enforced and that those who break them really ought not to be punished.

To punish people for seeking a livelihood is clearly unjust. To put obstacles in the way of those prepared to do honest work for honest wages is monstrous. America's immigration laws are unjust—monstrously so. It is time to repeal them and bring into effect policies that reflect a more generous spirit and that manifest the celebrated American admiration of industriousness, resourcefulness and ingenuity, not to mention the kind of courage it takes to move to another country in search of a better life.

What makes no sense at all is to set up the kinds of conditions that almost guarantee a black market. When people cannot work legally, they will work on the black market, and people will hire them, and those who hire black market labor will not infrequently exploit the laborers so employed. Black market labor will almost always be paid substandard wages, receive substandard benefits (or none at all) and be subjected to the cruelties of an essentially criminal economy. As the law stands now, those who cross the borders of the United States without proper documentation are by that action alone classed as criminals. The people who employ them are also criminals. Criminals working for criminals is not a promising formula for honest, integrity and humane treatment. But the criminality in this case is a completely artificial one. It is a criminality created by a law badly in need of reform, not a criminality consisting of dangerous or harmful behavior. It is a criminality that could be removed by reforming laws, making it possible for people to do what they do now, which is to earn money so that they can feed, house and perhaps even educate their families.

One hears opponents to immigration reform talking of the need of securing our borders. One look at a map or a globe shows what a foolish concern this is. The borders between the United States and its two continental neighbors, Canada and Mexico, are mostly the work of a draftsman using a straightedge. Except for the Rio Bravo (known in the US as the Rio Grande), there is not a single natural geographical feature defining the borders between the United States and Canada or Mexico. The border to the north cuts the great prairies in half, runs in the middle of Great Lakes and bisects mountain ranges and their valleys and basins. The border to the south runs in the middle of two great deserts. They make no geographical sense whatsoever. People live in geographical realities, not on maps. When cattle graze in a basin, or when coyotes run along the ridge of a mountain, they have no idea of going from one country to the next. There is no good reason it should be otherwise for human beings. If we had any desire at all to live in a way that made sense, we would abolish all these man-made lines on the earth and allow everyone to live wherever they can make a livelihood. That may not happen within the next couple of years, but at least we Americans, who pride ourselves on pragmatic values and on observing the moral imperative to help provide the conditions of freedom throughout the world, could begin by erasing our foolish and unnecessary borders.

There, another pseudo-problem has been solved with a single stroke of sensibility and clear thinking.