Mexican Immigration: Reframing the Debate

Monday, February 20, 2006 — These are the stories that are making the headlines:

1) 65 Mexican Miners Trapped (Fr J: "Miners live dangerously everywhere.")

2) Sounds Heard Under Philippines Mudslide Rubble (Fr J: "Please, God.")

3) Muslims Attack U.S. Embassy in Indonesia (Fr J: "Over last year’s cartoons")

4) U.S. to Give Control of Domestic Ports to Muslim Nation (Fr J: "White House will do a Harriet Miers turnaround if we keep up the pressure.")

5) Bin Laden Vows Never to be Captured Alive (Fr J: "Nothing new")

6) Avian Flu Virus Continues to Spread Westward (Fr J: "I now hard-boil my eggs")

7) Israel Begins Sanctions on New Palestinian Government (Fr J: "God help us.")

They are all worth commentary, and I’ll be doing some of that on the air this week, but I’ve decided to take on another issue for this posting, convinced that if we only consider what “makes the news” today we limit our ability to understand deeply what will happen tomorrow.

Reframing the Debate: Mexican Immigration

Got high blood pressure? Father J’s home remedy: lower your salt intake, and don’t get into arguments about Mexican immigration. We don’t need a doctor’s prescription to know that it would do us well as a country to sit down and breathe deeply (good, now once more) about immigration.

The issue is hot, getting hotter, and many decision makers are falling prey to the perilous enticement of party-line politics — that blinding knee-jerk temptation to root for my team and my interests at the expense of serious reflection and the greater good.

Mexican immigration is as complex and multi-faceted as it is hot. Warning! My comments will be very simple and, if taken out of context, could seem simplistic. Here’s the context: I am not going to write policy. I am going to offer principles that, in my opinion, should be at the forefront of policy discussion.

What are we talking about?

Congress wants to build a 620 mile-long wall along part of the Mexican border. The legislation passed the House in December and enjoys the reluctant support of President Bush, who knows that the Senate is poised to discard the plan anyway. The proposal will likely fail this time, but the table is being set. If the U.S. and Mexican governments don’t come up with an alternative plan quickly, the political pressure to “get tough on security” will overcome the common sense conclusion that walls are not solutions.

Overarching Principle

All people, everywhere, have a right to emigrate out of their own country to seek a better life for themselves and their family. This right is not absolute, however, because it is limited by a host country’s right and obligation to limit immigration to sustainable levels and to secure itself from possible aggressors.

Sustainable Levels?

• Undocumented immigration from Mexico increased from an average of 260,000 per year in 1990–1994 to 485,000 per year in 2000-2004. The vast majority of these new immigrants continue to find at least part-time work.

• Despite these increases, unemployment among U.S. citizens has decreased from over 7% in 1990, to today’s very low 4.7%. With these numbers in play, it’s hard to surmise that Mexican immigrants are stealing American jobs.

• 70% of the new job openings predicted between now and 2010 will require only basic “on the job training.” As Americans continue to seek higher education and higher pay, we will need more immigrants to fill these jobs.

Security from Aggressors?

When we look at the numbers above, and many more like them, it is impossible to say that our economy can’t sustain Mexican immigration. Quite honestly, it’s amazing that the economy is as strong as it is when millions of undocumented workers are taking money out of the country without paying taxes. Economists know that signing them up for temporary or permanent legal status would bolster, and not hinder our economy. For this reason, the argument for the wall or similar hardliner proposals, has moved away from dollars and cents to questions of security.

Having examined the different proposals and listened to congressional debate, I’m convinced that the “security concerns” are more about looking tough than getting it done. Why? Because none of the present proposals give any assurance that the borders will be truly secure. Have any of the proponents of this legislation ever met a Mexican? I have. I live with them and speak to them in their own language. A 620 mile wall over a 2,000 mile border will not stop them. And it won’t stop Muslim terrorists either. At the heart of the more radical proposals is a desire to look tough on terrorism. I think you’d agree that we don’t need to look tough we need to be tough — on terrorists.

More Principles

• The Mexican-American border is increasingly dangerous for border patrol officers, local residents, and immigrants themselves. The status quo of unenforceable laws is bad for everyone.

• Millions of peaceful and hardworking illegal immigrants live in misery and fear. We know this, and despite the illegality of their status, have a responsibility to rectify a pharisaical policy of use (their contribution to the U.S.) and abuse (our neglect of their humanity).

Let’s Not Forget Who We Are

We sometimes forget what it must be like to live in a dirt-poor nation a river’s-breadth away from the dazzling economic opportunities of the richest nation in the world. We assume that the accident of birth is enough justification to keep Mexicans on their side of the border and us on ours — for life.

If that were true, our ancestors would be buried in Europe and Asia. But they’re buried here. When they crowded the decks of their ships with the sea wind ruffling their hair, straining to glimpse Plymouth Rock or Ellis Island, little could they imagine that their descendants would be one day sniffing primly about “Latinos.”

The Land of Opportunity has always had its dark side: nativism, the idea that this land was made for me and me. That economic opportunity is worth having, but only for us. It’s the most un-American attitude imaginable. The violence of the Know-Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan tormented immigrants for decades, but it couldn’t drive them away. Almost everything that’s now said against Hispanic immigration was once said about Irish immigrants. And they didn’t turn out to be so bad for America, did they?

More on “The Wall”

A wall is always a last resort, a measure of desperation in a conflict deemed irresolvable. Walls surround prisons to protect us from the dangerous elements in our midst. Even in Berlin, the wall was built only after years of coexistence between East and West proved that Communism was fighting a losing battle. Israel’s wall is no solution to the Palestinian problem, it is an admission of failure.

A wall on our southern border is no less an admission of failure and fear. We’re not facing a crisis of immigration policy or border security. This is a crisis of dialogue, of talking past each other.

Am I being unrealistic to think that, 50 years down the road, we will be in very serious difficulties when, from east to west, our nation is filled with Hispanics who don’t consider themselves Americans, because their nation has never accepted them? That kind of social situation has led to brutal conflict and even war.

We don’t need a wall, we need more bridges. We need long-term efforts to adjust economic inequalities between the United States and Mexico. We need more cooperation between our governments to address real difficulties like border smuggling and drug running. Both governments are treating migration issues irresponsibly. But above all, we have to keep talking. Every selfish move in this game, all in all, is just another brick in the wall.

President Bush knows this, and I think he believes in the principles that I propose.

Mr. President, with all due and sincere respect, now’s the time to lead the charge.

God bless, Fr. Jonathan

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