Broken Promises

To fix immigration, let’s start with how we talk about it.

Just about everything related to the immigration debate is broken in some way.

CNN’s resident demagogue Lou Dobbs is a broken record when he talks about broken borders and blurs the line between legal and illegal immigration. The fact that the President, and the Congress, can’t decide what to do with 12 million illegal immigrants shows that we have a broken government. The anti-Latino rhythm of the debate broke the heart of a community that has paid dues, contributed to society, and sent children to war for generations. And, many Latinos consider the assault on immigrants the equivalent of a broken promise. What happened, they ask, to this being a nation of immigrants? “Give me your tired, your poor…”

Americans might have a shot at fixing some of this if our dialogue wasn’t just as broken as anything else. How are we supposed to tackle the immigration problem when we can’t even figure out how to talk about it? There is no honesty on either end of the divide. Immigration restrictionists–i.e. those who want to limit both legal and illegal immigration–never acknowledge that what they glibly call “an invasion” is really a self-inflicted wound that a community brings upon itself.

Why do you think so many illegal immigrants come to the United States? People used to say it was for welfare, health care, or other giveaways. Then they said it was to take jobs. Nowadays, you’re likely to hear that immigrants are coming because they think that, once they arrive, they’ll be in line for an eventual amnesty or they want their children to get free schooling.

Rubbish. It’s all about jobs. It’s always been about jobs–jobs given to illegal immigrants by red-blooded, God-fearing, flag-waving U.S. employers. These employers come in all shapes and sizes and zip codes: from hotels in Baltimore, to factories in Minneapolis, to canneries in Baltimore, to households in Phoenix, to farm labor contractors in Fresno, and to restaurants in Honolulu.

So it’s awfully disingenuous for neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities and states to whine about the effects of illegal immigration and claim that they’re the victims of an “invasion” when they visited this upon themselves, either by encouraging the hiring of illegal immigrants or turning a blind eye to it. Americans also need to start being honest about why employers are head over heels in love with illegal immigrant labor and can’t get enough of it. And it’s not just because illegal immigrants will often work for lower wages than native-born workers. This isn’t just about economics. This part of the discussion doesn’t fit on a spreadsheet. It’s more complicated than that.

It has to do with the fact that immigrants, no matter where they came from, always work harder than natives. And it’s because there are a whole slew of hard and dirty jobs in America that Americans have moved beyond and won’t do at any wage. Perhaps it’s because the work ethic of Americans is on the wane as it is, and because young Americans in particular often approach the whole notion of work with a sense of entitlement as if they’re doing employers a favor instead of the other way around. It has to do with all that and much more.

Many Americans prefer to believe that this is all about wages and the desire of employers to keep them as low as possible. That way, they can tell themselves that, by shunning those jobs, they’re doing something that might even be considered noble: standing up for the principle that those who work deserve a livable wage.

That’s fair enough. But, again, how hard are Americans really willing to work? There is no denying that, in previous generations, most Americans would have taken just about any job to support their families. But is that still the case? Is the average 25-year-old in America still willing to work at the sorts of jobs that his grandfather might have had 60 years ago, or would he now consider these jobs beneath him? Talk to employers and they’ll tell you that for many of today’s workers the goal seems to be to start at the top, work as little as possible, and still earn the maximum benefit. Where does that leave employers?

The restrictionists don’t seem to care about that. All they care about is purging the country of the illegal immigrants that are here, and preventing future immigrants from coming, even if they come legally.The employers can’t stop thinking about it. Their livelihood and their families’ futures depend on getting this right and finding workers when they need them. Some would say that employers facing labor shortages should offer higher wages. That’s fine. But that alone won’t solve the problem.

Blowhards like Lou Dobbs want us to believe that anyone who owns a business is a greedy slob who spends all his time thinking about the most effective way to prey upon middle-class workers. They also want us to believe that there is some magical figure, some wage at which 20-somethings who work at the local Starbucks would run off to pick peaches in California, or clean stables in Kentucky, or pick the meat out of crab shells in Maryland, or do any number of other difficult, dirty and often disgusting jobs.

There isn’t. There are a slew of jobs that Americans just won’t do, no matter how much employers pay. Our grandparents may have done those jobs, but we won’t. We call it progress. Interestingly enough, immigrants have another name for it: opportunity.

Let’s at least be honest about this. We’ve left these jobs behind, and immigrants began to take them. Now, if we force out the immigrants, some argue that those Americans who have already shunned this type of work will go back and give it a second look. It’s more likely that we’ll have very significant labor shortages, especially in – but not limited to – particularly grueling industries such as agriculture and meatpacking.

Last year, in California, the Western Growers Association estimated that, as a result of workplace raids and border enforcement, farmers in the state could experience a shortfall of at least 50,000 farm workers, or 10 percent of the 500,000 illegal immigrants estimated to be working in the state. There is also competition from higher-paying industries, such as construction. But now there is talk that labor shortages could be coming to that field as well.

With a national unemployment rate of a mere 4 percent, there are many more jobs than there are workers to fill them. In real estate terms, you could call it an employee’s market. If the unemployment rate were 14 percent, workers would have plenty of competition. As it stands, they’re the ones in the driver’s seat.

Another problem with the current immigration debate is the level of denial. Many Americans like to think that they can turn back time and rid the country of 12 million illegal immigrants, through a combination of deportations and the creating of a climate that is so inhospitable that the undocumented “self-deport.” Those who believe that refuse to accept that there are millions of individuals here who are integrated into our society and most of them are not going anywhere–even when they would seem to have no other choice.

Consider what happened during the October 2007 wildfires in Southern California, an event that enveloped the incendiary issue of illegal immigration. That was especially true in San Diego, where journalists immediately received anonymous e-mail blaming the fires on “illegal campfires set in the forest routes that illegal aliens use to invade our country” and “the ‘soft on illegal aliens’ policies” of the U.S. government.

There was never any evidence that illegal immigrants started the wildfires. Illegal immigrants who live in the canyons around San Diego have been known to light controlled campfires to cook meals, but not in the area of the county where these fires started.

Still, with or without evidence, some people were all too eager to pin the blame on illegal immigrants. That’s not exactly original. The undocumented are blamed for rising crime, traffic congestion, falling wages, failing schools, overflowing hospitals, crowded jails and other societal ills. Why not natural disasters?

If anything, immigrants were among those victimized–not just by the fires but also by the response to them. Human rights activists tried to lure immigrant farm workers out of the fields for their own safety, but some employers threatened to fire anyone who left the worksite. And so, in many cases, laborers covered their faces with bandanas and kept right on working, as the flumes of smoke crept toward them.

Some of those who wound up at evacuation centers were later apprehended and deported, once authorities discovered that they were in the country illegally. That was a dumb move by the authorities, one that all but ensures that, the next time there’s an emergency or natural disaster, illegal immigrants won’t be so quick to file into a shelter. And that’s not good for anyone.

Many of those at home never even got the word to evacuate–at least not in a language they could understand. Some cities in San Diego County have an automated “reverse 911” system where, in an emergency, the police call you instead of the other way around. But the reverse 911 calls go out in English, and so many Hispanic residents who only speak Spanish never got the warning and never got out of harm’s way.

These sorts of things happen because Americans have come to treat the illegal immigrant population as invisible. And that’s ironic given that so much of the anxiety over illegal immigration is driven by just how visible the immigrants are. So we pretend not to see them, until it’s time to complain about how we see them everywhere. What sense does that make?

There is also a good amount of denial about how much illegal immigrants contribute to a city or town by paying taxes, facilitating growth, and helping businesses be productive. On a macro level, they increase the bottom line for companies, which increases the taxes paid by those companies into government coffers. On a micro level, they allow individual wage earners to work longer hours because they pick up some of the domestic chores, and they help countless women remain productive members of the workforce by lending a hand with childcare duties.

But try selling that line in an average upper middle class suburban neighborhood in the United States. Those who have been successful and live comfortable lives tend to credit themselves and their hard work for all that they enjoy. They might not give a thought to the person who baby-sits their kids, mows their lawn or cleans their house so that they can go out and make a nice living.

Which brings us to another flaw with the immigration debate–that so much of it is centered around the poor and the middle-class, when it is really those in the upper-class that are often the most to blame for the fact that the United States is home to so many illegal immigrants. We’ll hear how illegal immigration hurts the working class by lowering wages, or how illegal immigrants are supposedly pushing African Americans and U.S.-born Hispanics out of the workforce. What we don’t hear enough about is how the wealthy have become reliant on illegal immigrant labor, both on the job and in their personal lives. For every newspaper article that talks about how the owner of a construction firm is prospering because of illegal immigrant labor, you’ll find a dozen stories that talk about how illegal immigrants hurt low-skilled workers.

The media is missing the real story. It’s the wealthy that, in many cases, own the businesses that employ vast numbers of illegal immigrants. For instance, in recent years, Immigration Customs Enforcement has raided dozens of meat packing companies in Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota and other states. A few thousand illegal immigrants were deported. No employers were cited, let alone arrested. And yet, one imagines that the top executives at these companies–those who might do the hiring or at least sign off on such decisions–earn big salaries and enjoy comfortable lives. Yet, when there is a raid, they emerge untouched.

Once they arrive at home, these individuals might glance at their neatly manicured lawn or take their toddler out of the arms of a live-in nanny. It’s hard to escape their culpability. But you rarely hear about them in the media, perhaps because journalists earn higher salaries than they used to, enough to afford gardeners, housekeepers, and nannies of their own.

Why does this matter? Because by framing the illegal immigration problem as a tug-of-war between illegal immigrants and the poor, you make it easier for liberals to forsake the undocumented and side with the poor and working-class.

Besides, while much of the debate is framed in economic terms–lower wages, lost jobs, displaced workers–much of it is cultural. It’s a concern over the effect that illegal immigration has on the culture because of demographics. Part of it has to do with language, and the fear that Spanish is replacing English.

I get about 1,000 e-mails per week from all over the country in response to my syndicated column. Many of them start out talking about border security or the rule of law but, by the second or third paragraph, they’re unloading what really bothers them. It’s their perception that Hispanics aren’t interested in learning English–and not just immigrants either, but all Hispanics–and that our society is too accommodating to those who speak other languages (read: Spanish) when previous waves of immigrants learned the language and that Hispanics refuse to do the same.

More rubbish. Hispanics have mastered the art of assimilation. Numerous studies and surveys prove it. In one of the most recent studies, the Washington, DC.-based Pew Hispanic Center found that whereas half of the adult children of Hispanic immigrants speak some Spanish at home, the percentage falls to a quarter or less in the generations that follow. Spanish isn’t overwhelming English. It’s the other way around.

Most corporations and marketers haven’t figured that out, and so ironically they keep relying on Spanish-language media to sell products to people who, more and more, speak nothing but English. Hispanics are also intermarrying at a rate of about 50 percent and having smaller families.

The fact that culture is driving the immigration debate isn’t surprising. It’s been that way since the mid- 1700’s when Benjamin Franklin warned his fellow Englishmen that German immigrants would soon become so numerous in Pennsylvania that they would “Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them.” It was that way a century later when Congress, concerned that Chinese immigrants were “unassimilable,” approved the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Those who oppose immigrants not because of how they came or what status they hold but because of who they are and what they represent deserve to wear the mantle of nativist. There is no other name for it.

Perhaps the worst defect in the immigration debate is that much of it is driven by the extremes on the far right and the far left. On any given weekend, on street corners in Phoenix or Denver or San Diego, you’ll find them there – shouting at each other through bullhorns, determined to have their say but disinterested in what the other guy has to say.

On the right, you have the Minutemen, who started out as border vigilantes but now moonlight as culture cops. In one outrageous example, members of the San Diego chapter took it upon themselves to harass anyone who dared hang a Mexican flag outside their house to commemorate Mexican Independence Day.

On the left, you have open border advocates who want no restrictions at all on who can immigrate to the United States, who don’t believe that illegal immigrants should be deported, and who demand an unconditional amnesty. Many of them think that the entire debate is driven by racism and therefore illegitimate.

It isn’t. There are plenty of legitimate questions being raised: How do we control illegal immigration? How many legal immigrants should the country take in each year? What should be the criteria for admitting legal immigrants? What do we do with 12 million illegal immigrants? And what do we do with the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants?

And not everyone who believes in tighter borders – especially after the Sept.11, 2001 attacks – can be called a racist. Sometimes, that label fits like a glove, but not always. There are plenty of good people out there who have reasonable concerns, and they’re frustrated with government’s unwillingness or inability to address the problem. So they’re lashing out, not only at government but also at each other.

If the immigration debate is to be salvaged, there needs to be less extremism, and more nuance. We need less denial and more honesty. And there must be less of the “all-or-nothing” politics that now permeate Washington, and more searching for the middle ground. If there is a solution to our immigration woes, it won’t be found on the fringes but in the sensible center.

That’s the sweet spot where neither side gets everything it wants, but each side gets something they’re after. That’s where we devise an immigration policy that is fair and reasonable and tough and compassionate and where common sense and self-interest overcome emotion and vitriol and xenophobia.

Who knows? If we do all that, perhaps Americans will finally learn how to talk respectfully and honestly and productively about illegal immigration – which is, of course, the first step to doing something about it.

For now, the immigration dialogue is broken, but not irrevocably so. There is still hope. There is still time to craft a national discussion that is worthy of this magnificent country, a country of immigrants that has always handled migration better than any other nation on the planet and hopefully always will.