Immigration: It's not just about Mexicans

Saturday, 20 July 2013 19:04

People tend to be mostly concerned about their own problems. In the USA we see immigration through the prism of the Latin American, particularly Mexican, immigration of the last forty year. In Europe they tend to see the issue as mostly low skilled Muslims from Africa and the Middle East. Costa Rica wants to do something about Nicaraguan immigrants. Cuba has a problem with talented people leaving for more opportunity in the United States, Mexico or Canada.


And it isn't just happening today. The first anti-immigrant legislation passed by the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. In the 1700's in England a worker had to have permission from his Lord before he could move to a new place. In the 1960's East Germany built a wall around Berlin to keep people from leaving. In the 1970's the Soviet Union, until pressed, would not issue exit visas to Jews.

And it is not just between countries that migration is an issue. During the Depression of the 1930's California passed laws to exclude “Okies” it wasn't until 1941 that the Supreme Court ruled the laws were unconstitutional. In The Warmth of Other Suns Isabel Wilkerson documents how poor black tenant farmers had to get permission from the local sheriff to leave the county were they were born before they could move to northern cities with much greater opportunities. Most left without “permission” and became defacto “illegal emigrants”. In the last two decade the largest human migration in history has taken place in China. More than 200 million people have moved from the historically poor western and central regions of China to the rapidly industrializing east coast. For much of that time chinese internal migrants were required to have the equivalent of visas to move.

There are lots more examples of constraints being put on people's ability to move to where they choose. Lets just stipulate that it happens and address the global question of why. Why is it that throughout history and in every corner of the globe some groups don't want to allow others to move towards them or, in many cases, away from them?

The most common reasons given for not allowing people to move are economic and cultural. To put the economic arguments politely they are: “We can't afford to have a bunch of poor people move near us.” and “We can't afford to have our best and brightest leave after we have invested in their training and education.” It is harder to state the global cultural argument politely but it boils down to: “The are not like us and we don't like them.” These arguments are couched in talk about language, work ethic and costs of the safety net. They are mixed up with talk about gangs, drugs, driving habits and religion. But it boils down to a general feeling that people have that they don't like “others.” They are happy with what they have and they don't want change. There is a real fear of being overwhelmed.

So this is the general problem: Normal people who are established in an area resist allowing new people to move into their area because it makes them uncomfortable and it threatens them economically. On the other hand people want to move to better places and so they do. The local solution has been adhoc laws like immigration quotas and onerous visa requirements that placate, for a while, the currently established people. However migration pressure builds until the reality of undocumented migrants force an adjustment of the laws to reflect reality. Germany has had to change the status of a hundred thousand people from Turkey who came to Germany as guest workers three generations ago. Ronald Reagan championed IRCA in 1986 and gave an amnesty to four million undocumented workers. This year (2013) the US Congress is moving inexorably toward another amnesty to reflect the reality of another eleven million people who moved here without paperwork in the past twenty years. To avoid these pressures in the Middle East “guest workers” are not allowed to stay more than a few years.

How have these adhoc rules and laws worked? Migration continues to be a big issue in much of the world and various countries and regions are continuously trying to find a balance between migration pressure and the resistance of their established population. People are dying in deserts and at sea to move to places where they think they can find a better life. Birds migrate and legislation won't stop them. People migrate and it turns out legislation won't stop them either. Migrations happen.

So lets talk about a global solution to the condition of migration. Comprehensive Immigration Reform as it is being written by the US Congress in 2013 is not comprehensive and it is hardly reform. It starts with the untenable assumption that we can stop people from moving to where they want to live and then it goes on for twelve hundred pages micromanaging every aspect of the border and who can cross it. It even contains instructions on the spacing of the guard towers on the border with Mexico. A much easier and more global solution is to allow much more migration. “Much more” sounds dangerous and scary. Won't we be overwhelmed? No. Here are some real numbers. Right now in a world with more that six billion people there are about 200 million people living in countries where they weren't born. In other words about three percent of the worlds population are migrants. If this were allowed to double six percent most of the people who wanted to move could be accommodated and the money now spent keeping people in or out could be reallocated to education. Badly run countries would have the most to fear from this increase in migration. How many people would stay in Cuba or North Korea if they had somewhere to move.

In the United States right now we allow about one million people to move here legally each years and over the past twenty years about another half million each year have snuck in. So in our case if we started our comprehensive immigration reform with a number say, two million per year, and clear rules that required bons or sponsors so that the new immigrant did not over burden the tax payers. We can give potential immigrants a line to get into, we can stop militarizing the border and finally stop wasting money trying to keep a dishwasher from Sonora from moving to Los Angeles. In the words of the Libertarian writer Mark Hinkle "The proper way to end illegal immigration is to re-legalize immigration." Decriminalizing migration, demilitarizing the border and allowing two million new Americans per year would be a good start.