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Colin Powell spoke out on immigration reform recently ( He said what every reasonable person knows: That we have to provide a road to legal status for the roughly 12 million who are here illegally, and that we have to recognize that fairly massive immigration is still part of the life-blood of this country.

As Powell recognizes, leaving intact an underground undocumented population that constitutes over three percent of the entire population is simply untenable. Identifying, detaining, and removing a significant portion of that population is prohibitively costly, inhumane, and destructive to our own economy. The only reasonable course of action, by any measure, is to provide a path to some kind of legal status, and to make it more attractive than remaining undocumented.

Also, as Powell realizes, those millions of undocumented immigrants are fully integrated into our economy,  into our culture, and into our society. Simply removing them, even aside from the incredible inhumanity involved, would send shock waves through all three. It would undermine our economic vitality, disrupt our social systems and networks, and impoverish our culture.

Virtually everyone agrees that some kind of immigration reform is necessary. The argument is over what form it should take.

A few quick facts to keep in mind:

1) The United States has historically exploited the permeability of our southern border, and the relative poverty south of it, to create a membrane through which cheap disposable labor can pass (sometimes assertively imported) when it is convenient for us, and can be blocked and removed when it is inconvenient for us.

2) The true economic impact of illegal immigration is far more complex, and far less large, than the xenophobes contend. Most analyses conclude that there is either pretty much a net nation-wide economic wash, or a small net nation-wide economic gain due to illegal immigration, though the distribution of costs and benefits does lead to real strains on local social services. Illegal immigrants pay far more taxes, and are far more obstructed from collecting the benefits funded for by those taxes, than some people realize. Most importantly, they are paying into social security to support current retirees, but are not accruing social security benefits upon which they can draw. 

3) Human beings have always migrated away from poverty and toward opportunity, and always will. Any responsible parent would place greater weight on their children’s future than on the prohibition to cross a line drawn in the sand by historical (and opportunistic) military conflicts. To villify people for doing so is simply reprehensible.

4) The more factors of production can flow freely, which includes how open borders are, the more global wealth is produced, and, in this case, the less inequitably it is distributed.

5) We rely on massive immigration demographically, with a burgeoning retired population and a shrinking working-age population supporting them. Immigrants come to work, redressing that imbalance.

Here’s my analysis:

From a global economic efficiency and distributional justice point-of-view, the ideal is the free flow of people and goods across borders. From a global leadership and fairness in distributing the burden point-of-view, the US should be in the lead on moving the world in the direction of that ideal.

I’m both a global humanist and a realist: I recognize the ideals we should be striving for, and the current realities that force us to compromise our efforts. One of the realities of the world is that people are locally and immediately biased: costs and benefits closer to home and closer to the present are weighted much more heavily than costs and benefits farther from home and farther in the future.

I’m less sympathetic to the reactions of people who resent (though are only marginally burdened by) the unstoppable flow of people from poverty and destitution toward opportunity than I am cognizant of its inevitability. For that reason, more than any other, we need federal laws that are enforceable, and that are a reasonable compromise between who and what we should be, and who and what we are.

The history of immigration law in America is a lot uglier than a lot of people realize, more often racist than not, and still somewhat brutal in the fierce protection of what’s ours, even against the most innocent and vulnerable victims of a cruel world. It’s hard to admire that, when the vast majority in America are walking around with i-phones, and pay cable subscriptions, and live comfortably and eat well. And here’s one of my objections to some in my own party: the branch of American labor that does not recognize any international responsibility beyond protecting our own wealth against foreign intrusion is as odious to me as any aspect of right-wing ideology.

Furthermore, we are capable of restructuring our priorities, and investing in our future, in ways which will provide native-born Americans with better opportunities to fill higher-paying, more information-intensive positions in our national (and the global) economy, leaving those eager souls from beyond our borders with the opportunity to fill the lower-paying, unskilled positions that Americans no longer want. This is, to a limited extent, the nature of illegal immigration today; in reality, the demand for low-paid foreign labor exists because Americans want, and can usually find, better opportunities (and the demand for highly paid, highly skilled foreign labor exists because we are failing to educate our own children to be able to satisfy it). But to the extent that there still is some competition for jobs between those born here or here legally, at the bottom of our economic ladder, and those who are newly arriving illegally, a greater commitment on our part to robust and effective public education, and provision of affordable, varied higher educational opportunities, will mitigate this problem, by moving those already here up the economic ladder, and leaving the rungs at the bottom to those newly arriving. 

Even so, the use of immigrant labor to depress wages and to displace higher paid American labor still exists. Despite our relative wealth and comfort, the pressures and anxieties of an uncertain economy, of an uncertain future, of family responsibilities and assumptions about what we will be able to give to our children, all make our protectionist reflexes understandable, if neither ideal nor admirable. I’m not unsympathetic to the worker whose livelihood is made less secure by the competition of desparately poor people elsewhere, nor to the folks in border states and communities whose local resources are strained by undocumented waves of humanity pouring in.

But I’m a human being first, and an American second. The problems and stresses of Americans are nothing compared to the problems and stresses of those against whom we are protecting ourselves. And our mythologies and rationalizations with which we reassure ourselves that that is just and right do not in any way actually make it just and right. Furthermore, our own long-term interests are best served by including massive immigration in the equation, and creating a context in which those who enter fill positions that those who are here no longer need to settle for.

So that’s the nature of the challenge, as I see it. How do we negotiate all of those imperatives, all of those needs, all of those legitimate concerns? I don’t know. But the first step is to achieve a higher degree of honesty about the nature of the world in which we live, and the nature of the role we play, and could play, in it.

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