Open-and-Shut Society

Last week, in the middle of the day, traffic ground to a halt on Interstate 10, the highway that runs south from Phoenix. Rival gangs of “coyotes,” the criminals who smuggle illegal immigrants over the Mexican border, had started shooting at one another through the open windows of their trucks. The trucks were packed with people. Five died, three were wounded and 27 others were detained.

On that same day — a few miles up that same interstate — the Mexican president, Vicente Fox, was visiting businessmen and politicians in Phoenix, talking a little trade and a lot of immigration reform. When asked, he insisted that the United States and Mexico “are talking about migration,” which is no doubt true. Ideas are “developing,” he explained, which is no doubt true as well. Secretary of State Colin Powell himself recently told a Spanish-language television program that immigration reform remained high on President Bush’s agenda — adding, “I don’t want to over-promise.” Indeed. It is always a good idea to lower expectations when immigration reform is being discussed.

Of course, this non-conversation about immigration reform has a lot in common with other non-conversations — about Social Security reform, say, or health care reform — that happen in Washington all the time. What makes it different is the deeper level of absurdity into which immigration policy has lately sunk. Consider this: Violent gangs of smugglers regularly cross the Mexican border into this country, where they conduct shootouts in broad daylight. At the same time, a whole new, post-Sept. 11 visa bureaucracy now regularly prevents distinguished scientists and pianists from visiting this country at all. In other words, you can get in if you’re a gun-toting thug, but not if you’re a visiting professor of neurology.

And consider this, too: American agriculture is now utterly dependent on the labor of millions of illegal immigrants. As a result, business lobbies have recently persuaded both right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats to back bills that would make it easier for companies to get temporary visas for their migrant workers, without whom they could not function. Yet this logical method of legalizing a huge swath of the underground economy — which would be extremely useful from a “homeland security” point of view too — is considered so politically explosive that few in Congress believe it can even be discussed so close to an election. Millions of illegal immigrants are here, in other words — and 11/2 million more enter every year — helping to keep food prices, restaurant bills and leaf-raking costs low, yet it’s considered “controversial” even to admit that they exist.

But immigration is also different from the myriad other national dilemmas because it hits dangerously close to some of our most cherished myths. As a nation, we continue to celebrate our immigrant origins. Children learn to recite “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” in school. Advertisers sell products using photographs of happy, multicolored customers. Presidents appoint Cabinets that “look like America,” meaning, in part, that they contain people from recent immigrant backgrounds.

At the same time — contrary to popular belief — we have extremely stringent immigration laws. Not only are our borders theoretically closed, we set up other barriers of bureaucracy and inconvenience for many foreigners who want to enter legally, even for short visits. Soon we will require many visitors — including many coming from countries where we are supposed to be promoting democracy — to be fingerprinted and photographed before entering the United States, procedures that will no doubt keep many of those proto-democrats away.

Finally, having passed these strict laws that offend so many people, we then fail to supply our immigration services with the resources necessary to enforce them. Illegal immigrants operate with almost complete freedom, and no one arrests them or deports them. The immigration bureaucracy is notoriously inefficient and capricious. The border remains porous, although it is more dangerous than it used to be. Knowing that it is possible, in theory, to get across — and knowing there will be jobs once they arrive — large numbers of people venture into the Arizona desert every year, often with the help of smugglers. Many die trying.

Or maybe it all makes sense: Perhaps in the end we really do have the immigration policy we deserve. We don’t want the disruption and dislocation that an uncontrolled influx of foreign citizens would bring, not to mention the terrorist threats, so we create strict laws. We do want the benefits of cheap immigrant labor, as well as the satisfaction of thinking ourselves an open society, so we don’t enforce those laws. All of our contradictory desires are simultaneously satisfied and everyone is happy. Meanwhile, a shadow, illegal America, a world of fake documents, cash payments and smuggler gangs, grows larger every year — even showing itself occasionally on the interstate at midday.

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