Saturday, January 20, 2018

Imagine There's No Countries

(click to enlarge)

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
Imagine - John Lennon

There has been a lot of heat, but not much light, in the immigration debate.   On the far-left, this is painted as a humanitarian issue, with camera-ready illegal immigrants trotted out before the press with their heart-rending life stories.  Less talked about are the folks who are not so squeaky clean, of course.

On the right, racism raises its ugly head - often obscuring whatever good points the right had to make.  And then specious arguments are made about "illegals stealing jobs" but at the same time, those Republican politicians making those arguments are using illegal labor to maintain the lawns and scrub the bathrooms of the mini-mansions in their manicured gated communities.   

Illegal aliens are called "undocumented persons" by the left, as if they forgot their wallet at home.  On the right they are "illegals" or "illegal aliens" which sounds more menacing, but of course, is legally the descriptive term.   Of course, some on the right use other terms, which are racist and derogatory.   When people try to control the language of the debate, they are trying to win the debate without debate.   It is no different that the Pro-Life/Anti-Abortion or Pro-Choice/Pro-Abortion labels.   Each side chooses the label that makes the argument in and of itself.

And yes, it is tragic that some young kid is dragged across the border and brought to America not by choice, and then decades later, deported to a country he has never known, where he might not even know the language.  But on the other hand, if you tell people their kids will be allowed to stay if they drag them across the border, does this not send the message that you should take young children on this arduous and often dangerous journey?

One unusual aspect of our Constitution is that if you are born in America, you automatically qualify as a citizen.  Seems like a normal thing, but other countries often don't have this provision - in order to be a citizen, your parents have to be citizens, sometimes even your grandparents.   Good luck sneaking across the border and establishing an "anchor baby" in Switzerland!

And it is not just impoverished folks from Latin America sneaking into Texas to have "anchor babies" - wealthy Chinese women are doing it as well.   Having a child with dual citizenship could come in very handy, if later on down the road, the Communist government of China decides that their new Billionaires have too many billions, and what's more decide a new "cultural revolution" is in order.  The Chinese clearly don't trust their own government, which is also why so many of them are establishing residency in Canada and running up the price of homes in Vancouver and Toronto.

Governments matter.  Borders matter.  How a country is run and its cultural values can determine whether it is successful and prosperous or not -  and China is a prime example of this.   Since opening itself to the outside world and implementing limited capitalist reforms, the country has rocketed from third-world status to world superpower - even surpassing Russia.   Folks from China, however, don't appear to be confident that this change is permanent - or at least they are wisely hedging their bets.

So what is the answer to this immigration thing?   Are we a big, bad country for trying to stop illegal immigration, and is this a Republican or Democratic issue?   Bear in mind that deportations under Obama reached record highs before he left office - as we shall see, in response to record illegal immigration.   There must be some concrete things we can all agree on, or at least most of us agree on, if we are to move forward with this issue.

For starters, a country is defined, among other things, by its borders.   Yes, our Constitution and our system of government, our history, our culture, and our values also define who we are, but our borders define where we are.   And nowhere else in the world is the idea that you can't control your borders even up for debate.   Countries may argue as to exactly where their borders are (and arguments like that can go on for generations - such as in the Kashmir region) but no one seriously suggests that borders don't exist.   I am not sure than even John Lennon was suggesting this - other than to "imagine" it.

So let's do just that.  Let's do what Einstein called a "thought experiment" and think about what would happen if tomorrow, Congress decided to abolish ICE and the Customs agencies and open the borders to all immigration.  What would happen?

Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that a lot of people from very poor countries, or countries that are in civil war, facing famine, strife, ethnic cleansing, and the like (safety issues) would flock across the border to America.  There would be a flood of people of biblical proportions.   We would be inundated with a new population and nowhere to house them and no way to feed them, and no jobs to provide for them.

The situation would get so bad, so quickly that many might decide to go back to their home countries.  Eventually, some sort of equilibrium would be reached, where the "shithole" country they came from (and no one, well very few at least, immigrates from anywhere else!) would become less of a shithole by nature of its rapid depopulation.

Suppose we limited our experiment to just Mexico?  Folks from Mexico might flock across the border for jobs, but since they could freely travel back and forth, many might just take seasonal jobs while continuing to live in Mexico, where the cost of living is far less.

But one thing is clear, by the very nature of the disparity in wealth, as well as the disparity in safety, people would flock from lower-income and lower-safety countries to higher-income and higher-safety countries.   The only way this could work is if all countries were equal in wealth and safety, in which case, few people would migrate, other than perhaps to work at a particular job specialty.

Since that perfect world doesn't exist, the result of free migration would be that the high-income, high-safety countries would reduce their level of income and safety, while bringing up the levels in the countries people departed from.   A form of equilibrium would be reached, but the folks living in the high-income country might not be happy about that - their standard of living is dropped accordingly.

And we have a real-world example of this "thought experiment" going on right now, with the EU and Brexit.  The EU was founded on the idea of free migration.   If you are a citizen of an EU country, you can settle and work in any EU country.   And many people have migrated from one part of the EU to others.   In the UK, they have seen an influx of Poles from Poland, which has angered many on the Right there.   For some reason, a country which has absorbed populations from all the countries of the Commonwealth is reluctant to accept one more.   And Poles, by all account, are hard-working and decent people.  Maybe it was just one immigrant group too many, and the Poles are on the unfortunate receiving end of the wrath of the nativists.

Whatever the cause, the end result was Brexit - aided and abetted by Russian troll farms, of course.  The problem for the EU is that it is a conglomeration of separate countries, not separate "States" as we have here in the US (although the term "State" as originally envisioned under the Articles of Confederation, which pre-dated our Constitution, were effectively countries.  That arrangement didn't pan out well, so we chucked it for our current Federal system).

From our thought experiment - and its real-world counterpart - I get the feeling that unlimited and unrestricted immigration across borders simply would not work.  Different countries have different types of government, different cultural values, and different ideas. Countries that have been successful with their ideas, culture, and government, would be overrun by folks from countries that are less well managed.   The country that could produce the largest population would end up winning, which is why ever major religion in the world exhorts its followers to have as many babies as possible.

Of course, the United States is a country largely founded on migration.   Most Americans can trace their ancestry to "elsewhere" and indeed even the Indians came across a land bridge at one point - themselves descendants of migrants. Immigration has worked in America as the migrants have adapted to our culture and our culture has adapted to migrants.  We have absorbed wave after wave of immigration from various countries around the world, and at each stage, the "native-born" Americans (often right off the boat themselves) protest the importation of the next wave of immigrants.  "Hey, we Irish are OK - but Italians?  You're just letting anybody in!"

Today's immigrant is tomorrow's nativist.   But we are talking legal migration at this point, and the ability of a country to assimilate immigrant populations.  In the US, this has largely worked, as each new group of migrants adapts their culture to the US, and the US absorbs a part of their culture, making it uniquely American. It also helped that we had a lot of space for populations to expand.  From some accounts, disease, relocation, war, and genocide reduced the Indian populations in America by 90% or more - leaving a lot of empty space for these new immigrants to fill.

But each successive wave of migrants has adapted to our culture and changed our culture as well. During the anti-Chinese immigration era in the late 1800's, for example, Chinese immigrants could only come to America if they had a business of their own (so as not to "take away our jobs" - sound familiar?).  As a result, many immigrants founded small businesses - Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants.  The number of such establishments blossomed across the United States and are now a part of the landscape.  And created in that process was "American" Chinese food which bears no resemblance to anything ever served in China.  (And perhaps the same could be said for Mexican restaurants, Tex-Mex, and so forth, which have provided employment opportunities for many migrants, both legal and illegal and created new forms of "Mexican" cuisine unrecognizable in Mexico).

In some countries, however, assimilation has been harder.  Paris, France, is ringed with suburbs of low-income high-rise apartments populated by underemployed Algerian immigrants. They have formed a permanent underclass in France, not really assimilating into French culture.  As a result, France has had to deal with rioting and crime in these impoverished areas, and they have turned into a hotbed for radical Islam and the resulting terrorist attacks.  Immigration and assimilation hasn't really worked out well, there.

Of course, for any immigrant group, the first, and maybe second, generation of immigrants may remain in a cultural ghetto, with only their children or children's children adapting to the decadent ways of their new home country.  I recounted before how an Indian associate of mine ran back to India with his family, when I intimated that his daughter would grow up to be an American, complete with valley-girl accent.  "No, no, no, No!" he said, wagging a long finger at me, "My daughter will be brought up as a proper Indian girl!  She will go to Indian boarding school and marry the man we have chosen for her!"   Assimilation to US cultural values wasn't in the cards.   And maybe it was a good thing they moved back to India.   If you don't like the cultural values of an adopted home country, why live there?   And no, the "natives" won't like it if you move there and announce that everyone has to change to suit your tastes.

Europe is facing a new migration problem today, as people flee African countries in droves, risking life and limb to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy, overloaded boats, for a "better life" in Europe.  Some go further, trying to sneak through the Channel Tunnel to get to the UK, where relatives await.  The Channel Tunnel was constructed with elaborate gates to keep foxes (and rabies) out of the UK, but apparently these same gates allow illegal migrants in.   And it has gotten ugly.   Migrants, many of them young men or even children, throw rocks at trucks (lorries) trying to cross via "Chunnel", hoping the truck will stop or slow long enough for one or two people to sneak aboard.   As you can imagine, people are getting fed up with this, along with migrant camps.  You want to be humanitarian, but then again, when people throw rocks at you....

And again, we have the "bug light" or "honeypot" problem.  If, in a humanitarian gesture, you set up camps or housing for migrants, give them food, clothing, a job, and so forth, they write home to the folks in Shitholestan and tell them what a great place Germania is, what with the not starving and all, and another wave of migrants sets off to join them.  It is a conundrum and I wish there were easy answers to these problems.  But there aren't, and slogans are not answers.

And one problem with migration is that in many of these countries in Africa undergoing civil war, the good people are fleeing to the North and Europe, leaving the bad people to take over and win.  Sad as it sounds, folks need to take a stand sometime and stand up for their country and values, rather than fleeing and letting religious extremists win.   But that is a lot easier to say than to do, of course.  Like I said, no easy answers. 

Regardless of whether you like immigration or migration or not, the fact is, it occurs, whether you make it illegal or not.  As we learned in economics class, outlawing a particular activity or product doesn't make that thing go away, but rather just drives it underground and raises the price.   Drugs are illegal in the United States, or at least here in Georgia.   But I could probably find several illegal drugs without having to leave the island.   I am sure I could find pot without too much trouble - just a few phone calls.   You want opiates?   All the old people have expired bottles of Oxycontin in their medicine cabinets.   I know this because they keep offering it to us.   "You hurting?  Try some of these pills, left over from my hip replacement!"   Worse yet are the offers for "the little blue pill".   "My husband passed away, and he left behind all these bottles of Viagra - you boys want some?"   Uh, no thanks.

But I digress.

Make something illegal, you just drive it underground.  And today we have illegal immigration.   And the debate is, how strict should we be about enforcing this?   The interesting thing to me, is, if I went to Europe and tried to get in illegally, I would likely be caught and sent back, if not jailed first.   Even if I overstayed my Visa, I likely would be nailed.   They don't play for fun over in Germany, France, or particularly Switzerland.   Back in the day, it used to be when you checked into a hotel, you had to surrender your passport, which they checked at the front desk, and if your Visa was invalid or expired, the Guarda or Gendarmerie or Polizia were called and you were hauled off to the pokey.

For some reason, when we do this in the United States, we are deemed heartless bastards.  And it is interesting, we have more illegal immigrants than most, if not all, Western countries - often three to 30 times as much, as a percentage of overall population - see the chart at the top of the page, click to enlarge or click on the previous link.  Greece is the only country on par with the US in terms of percentage of illegal migrants.  Russia, well, that doesn't count as a Western country.

Now the reasons for this disparity are many.   The US shares a huge border with Mexico which is hard to police, wall or no wall.  Our country is very prosperous, but borders a country far less so, which in turn is bordered by countries wracked by violence, poverty, and civil war.   It is a lot easier to hitchhike from El Salvador to Texas than it is to walk from Sudan and swim the Mediterranean. But I think also, as I noted above, European countries have far stricter immigration laws and enforcement.

Not only that, they have largely homogeneous cultures, so it is harder to "blend in" when you don't look like the native population.  When we were in Japan in the 1990's, there was an issue of "illegal immigration" from Peru, a country with strong Japanese ties.  But in Japan, it is very hard to not be noticed, if you are not Japanese.   Illegal Peruvian immigrants stood out like a sore thumb on the Japanese subway.  I hear today they are actually encouraging limited immigration or at least temporary workers, as the Japanese population ages and may in fact shrink.

But I think a large part of it is that we've always looked the other way with regard to migration and illegal immigration.   Huge sectors of our economy rely on migrant labor to get the job done at low cost.  Farmers need illegal workers who will work at low wages, to pick crops and do various other farm chores.  Yard maintenance crews and home cleaning services are affordable for middle-class Americans only because the workers are not demanding a "fair wage" of $15 with health insurance and benefits.   Restaurants only work as kitchens for Americans when the food is cheap and the labor is cheaper.   Take all of that away, and these enterprises may crumble, or at least become far more expensive to operate.

Ronald Reagan understood this.  Maybe coming from California where there is a large immigrant population (both legal and illegal), he realized that these were hard-working folks and not "rapists and murders" as our current President postulates (but hey, I'm sure a few of them are good people, too, right?).  And although the people in the alt-right (all three of them, meeting in Mom's basement) will deny that it ever, ever happened, in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed an "Amnesty" bill that allowed illegal immigrants a path to residency and even citizenship.

It was a humanitarian thing to do, it was a practical thing to do.  It was good for business.   But many argue that amnesty for illegal immigrants of that era (with an arbitrary cutoff date) only served to encourage more illegal immigration.   Hey, if tío Sam allows amnesty once, maybe he'll do it again, right?

And here we are today.   A new President has made it a priority to deport illegal aliens.   And ICE, emboldened by things the President has been saying, has been deporting people in record numbers.  In the past, the government looked the other way if you were here illegally, but committed no crimes.  Their priorities for deportation were people with criminal histories who had done or were doing bad things.  But illegal immigration itself is a crime, so they use that to bootstrap accelerated deportations.

There are heartbreaking stories, of course.  A young man adopted from Korea, is deported, as his adoptive parents never formalized his adoption papers and obtained his US citizenship.  He got involved in some criminal acts and, well, he's going back to a country where he doesn't even speak the language, or have a job or means of supporting himself.   Men and women who have made lives for themselves here for decades, are shown the door - sent back to countries where they know no one, have no money, job, or even place to stay.  And often these are countries wracked by violence or gang violence, where deportation is tantamount to a death sentence.

Of course, you can't manageably work a system where deportation is based on ambiguous circumstances.  You can't have a judge apply arbitrary criteria to each case.  "Well, this person is a really nice guy, and he's been here a long time and his son has a project due for Science fair next week, so we'll let him stay!  This other fellow, well, he has no family and has only been here five years, so he goes!"

It is possible to seek asylum status if you can show that you might be harmed if you returned to your home country, but it is very, very hard to do, for the simple reason that everyone would claim asylum if they could allege harm.   Hey, if you live in Chicago, that alone should qualify you for asylum in any other country, right?

Of course, the issue today is the "DACA" or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which was not a law, but a policy enacted under the Obama administration.   Once again, we have this language thing, with Democrats calling them, wistfully, "Dreamers" - as if to invoke The American Dream.  Again, it is a humanitarian gesture and a fine one - kids who were dragged here by parents shouldn't be sent back to a country that is alien to them, right?   On the other hand, it seems like an arbitrary form of immigration policy - one that would encourage people to drag children on an arduous trek across the Arizona desert.

The Democrats - or at least some of them - have made this a cornerstone issue.   Whether it resonates with voters remains to be seen.   Bear in mind that "Dreamers" don't vote in elections.   And even if DACA can be enshrined into law - which is doubtful - it really is a shitty way of "fixing" our immigration system, by providing this arbitrary age-cutoff for immigration.   Welcome to America!  Children only, please!

Of course, petty politics are getting in the way.  Trump supposedly was open to legislating DACA into law and even made noises to that extent.  But those talks were derailed with Senator Dick Durbin claimed that Trump called Haiti and African countries "shitholes."   I am not sure why Senator Durbin did this - one would think that private discussions regarding pending legislation should remain, well, private, and that people could say things without fear of repercussions or being "outed" in the press.   As idiotic a thing it was to say (for different reasons than the press seized upon), I am not sure leaking it to the press was a good idea, unless the point was to derail the negotiations so as to deprive Trump of a legislative "win".

Maybe a better approach is a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform.  If our nation's farmers really need migrant labor to pick crops, then let's find them migrant laborers, document them, and allow them to cross the border in safety during harvest season, for temporary labor jobs.   In an era of record low unemployment, this seems like a real no-brainer, and something that Republicans, being pro-business, would comprehend.  And it is something we've done in the past, when there were labor shortage, notably during World War II.

Oh, but that's applying common-sense to politics.  And politics is all about sloganeering and grandstanding.   Republicans have to be anti-immigrant, as this is the corner they painted themselves into.  And again, it was an issue they created from whole cloth well over a decade ago.  Illegal immigration wasn't on anyone's radar back in the 1990's.  But I recall an interview on the radio back then with a Republican operative, who when asked what the "big issues" for the next election would be, replied, without missing a beat, "immigration!"

The reporter was flummoxed.  "But immigration really isn't that big an issue right now!" he replied.

"Oh, we'll make it an issue," the GOP strategist said.   And he was right about that.   Since then, they have been beating the drum of illegal immigration, seizing up every and any incident where an "undocumented worker" (note the use of the term worker, comrade!) commits a crime, even though the native-born part of the population seems to create just as much, if not more, mayhem in our society.

So I guess that is the point, when we get right down to it.  You may feel you have a strong, original opinion, about immigration - an opinion you formed on your own, uninfluenced by the television or the powers-that-be.  You may think of yourself as "humanitarian" and wanting to "help those poor Mexicans" or you may be standing up for "Law and Order" and the Constitution as well as "Preserving our Jobs and Way of Life!" by supporting deportation.

You may very well think any of that.   But it is likely that no matter what you believe about this, they were not original thoughts of your own, but rather carefully crafted "talking points" which have been honed over the last two decades to create political divide.

And Left or Right, Democrat or Republican, we fall for this nonsense.   Every single damn time.