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Believe it or not, my thoughts on immigration policy were formed even before I hit college; and they are still more or less unchanged. I always thought that our policies were at best irrational, and at worst plain old racist. At various times there were quotas for each country or ethnic group: English? Scandinavian? Come right in! Chinese? Sorry, no Yellow Peril allowed, and even if you get in you can’t become a citizen. Jews sometimes, but not during Nazi times when they needed it the most.

Those quotas always bothered me. I perceived them as a rear-guard action intended to keep the country as WASPish as possible, and there were powerful voices that admitted as much. It would have been hard to claim that a program called Operation Wetback didn’t have racial and religious overtones.

National quotas were done away with in 1965 — mostly. There are still some national caps. I suspect that the rules would have been tightened up by now, if illegal immigration hadn’t become a much larger issue (and therefore a distraction from run of the mill discrimination).

At the same time that I thought quotas and other discriminatory barriers were awful on moral and other grounds, I have always been appalled by illegal immigration. Partly this is because any rule-breaking upsets me to a neurotic degree; but I naively believed that removing quotas and allowing in all comers would eliminate illegal immigration.

It might have done so, but that’s not what we really did. There are two kinds of visas that let immigrants in: temporary visas, and permanent visas. A temporary visa, such as those available to students and vacationers, are easy to get. Permanent visas, on the other hand, are hard to get. Congress limits the number available in a given year; there are national caps in some cases; and priority is given to such things as family reunification. Things aren’t really wide open, as I thought they would be.

That brings me to our current dilemma. Repatriating or jailing all undocumented aliens is, on the face of it, ridiculously impractical. There aren’t enough buses or jail cells. I don’t think we could even keep up with the birth rate. Those folks are pretty much here to stay, whether we like it or not.

What can we do to stem the tide? There are people who want to build a wall a mile high and a ten feet thick around the entire country. They probably are thinking about the southern border with Mexico, but realistically it would have to include the entire coastline. (If drug cartels can use boats, so can the coyotes.) That would spoil your day at the beach, wouldn’t it?

So, we can’t get them out; and we can’t keep them out.

  • We could legalize the ones that are already here through some kind of amnesty. That would have some positive and some negative consequences:
    • Presumably they would be easier to tax if they weren’t forced into an underground economy.
    • They might consume more government services, but perhaps not. Rhetoric aside, I don’t think there are any trustworthy numbers to support either contention. If everything were above-board, we’d at least be able to figure that out; but by then it would be too late to change our minds.
    • Assuming that they, too, are Homo sapiens there should be about the same proportion of outstanding contributors to our society as there is in the general population. We can always use more outstanding contributors, no matter how they get here.
    • If we legalized them, they would of course no longer be illegal. That sounds like just a wisecrack, but words can affect attitudes.
  • We could make it less attractive for people to come into the country illegally. Assuming we don’t mine the borders, the best way to accomplish that is to make their countries of origin as attractive as the US. Based on recent numbers, it seems like the Great Recession has done some of that for us.
  • We could make it easier for people to come here legally. That’s what my original idea was, and I still think it would work. Show that you have, or are likely to have, a job and someplace to live and (perhaps, I’m not sure) a sponsor and here’s your green card.
  • We could split the difference and establish a guest worker program. If you think that foreign guest workers would take jobs away from real Americans, try picking lettuce in the Central Valley for a few days. Better yet, try getting your kids to do it.

True, making it easier for people to come here legally might encourage more people to make the trip; but at least we’d be able to keep track of them and integrate them into the workforce and the greater society. This doesn’t touch the argument about government services, but I’ve already said that I don’t think anyone knows the bottom line on that.

I wish I felt more confident about my reasoning. It doesn’t really matter: my idea doesn’t have any chance whatsoever of being put into practice. Anti-immigration sentiment in this country is pretty deeply ingrained. If we couldn’t tolerate white, Christian, English-speaking immigrants like the Irish, is it any wonder that we can’t tolerate dark-skinned Spanish-speaking ones?