Open borders. I keep trying to figure out what the problem would be and failing. What horrible thing would happen if the U.S. set up a system where seasonal workers could move freely back and forth across the border and asylum seekers could get fast hearings and experience fewer hassles?
Every time the subject of the unwashed hordes massing at the border just waiting for an opportunity to destroy the American way of life comes up -- you know, the hordes intent on stealing jobs while at the same time living high on welfare benefits -- I once again think about how easy it would to fix the problem if sufficient political will existed. It's like a lot of other problems with easy answers if only people would take the time to think things through and then be willing to spend the money the solutions would take.
The kicker is, of course, "be willing to spend." Policy makers seem quite willing to spend mountains of money on "solutions" that are actually band-aids -- 30-foot high metal walls, increased numbers of Border Patrol agents -- or make for good sound bites while failing to address either root causes (decades of U.S. meddling in Central American politics, e.g., funding death squads in Honduras and El Salvador) or pursuing practices that might make problems a little less problematic.
They're also, of course, totally unwilling to admit that quite a few problems that people worry about now are the unintended (although remarkably predictable in hindsight) consequences of past policies. Two recent discussions on NPR reminded me (again) that, as usual, the people most responsible for immigration problems were policy-makers in Washington, D.C.
Although most people tend to assume most of the unwelcome horde of undocumented aliens are Mexicans -- I get the reasoning: brown people coming across the southern border must be from the closest country to that border -- large numbers are actually from the corrupt states the U.S. created farther south: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Guatemala is a corrupt mess and has been for decades because the U.S. meddled in Guatemalan politics in the 1950s. The Guatemalans had the nerve to elect a president who was progressive. He leaned just far enough to the left that the Eisenhower administration saw a Communist threat. The Central Intelligence Agency helped the military stage a coup, and Guatemala's been a mess ever since. It's not as bad now as it was a few years ago -- no massive murders of civilians by death squads since maybe the Reagan administration -- but definitely rife with corruption. Not surprisingly, the economy is a mess. Guatemalans became economic refugees (aka temporary workers) in the U.S. in large numbers. Young adults come to the U.S., find work with no intention of staying here permanently, send money home, and when they've built up some savings head back to Guatemala.
A similar pattern holds true for Honduras and El Salvador: the countries are economic basket cases, thanks in large part to decades of U.S. meddling and right-wing death squads backed by the C.I.A. Then when you toss in the War on Drugs (news flash: drugs won) that turned drug trafficking into a growth industry, things got even messier. Economy in the toilet, wide spread poverty, major problems with criminal gangs terrorizing poor families. End result? A strong desire to head north and find work, preferably temporary. No desire to live in cold, wretched places like Chicago indefinitely, but a few years doing construction or working in a meat packing plant to get the nest egg to build a nice house back in Juticalpa or Ahuachapan? No problem. Taking out a loan to pay the coyote seems like a good idea.
Which brings me to another administration and another major policy blunder: Bill Clinton and tightening control at the border. This seems a bit contradictory, but making it harder to cross the border actually made illegal immigration worse, not better. There used to be a lot of ebb and flow across the border. People would come to work seasonal or temporary jobs, save up some money, and then go home, back to the wife and kids or the aging parents down south. Once immigration tightened up, instead of being temporary residents, people became permanent. Instead of going home to visit the family, people began moving their families to the U.S. After all, if they left because strawberry season was done or construction had slowed for the winter, they might not be able to get back in to this country. Better to stay here and bring the dependents up. You know what they're calling those dependents now? Dreamers. The kids the parents had planned to raise in El Salvador wound up becoming U.S. residents 10 or 20 years ago, back when those kids were in diapers and had no say in the matter.
That policy has also had the tragic (and totally foreseeable) consequence of large numbers of people dying in the desert, an issue that really should make anyone who has a conscience wondering why the fuck we persist in pushing people into risking getting eaten by vultures just to prevent them from getting jobs picking strawberries, but I guess the right wing has done a good enough of demonizing undocumented aliens that most people don't care how many die from dehydration or exposure.
So what's the obvious solution for the job seekers, the migrants coming here hoping for a paycheck? Open the border. Change the personnel at Customs and Border Protection from being primarily law enforcement to more like an employment office so people coming in get screened when they arrive, are issued tax identification numbers and given temporary work visas. If everyone coming in could work legally, it would prevent unscrupulous employers from exploiting anyone -- it would be rather difficult to threaten someone with deportation if they won't accept lower than legal wages or unsafe working conditions if there's no such thing as an illegal worker. In economic terms, it would be a rising tide that lifted all boats.
It would, however, require a couple things stakeholders may be unwilling to do. A major paradigm shift is needed to change the definition of illegal aliens to desirable workforce. Until more people are capable of recognizing we have an aging population that needs more younger workers than current birth rates are capable of providing, we'll keep hearing politicians milk "they're stealing jobs."