Friday, May 18, 2007

On The Immigration Bill

Ezra has a post up on TAPPED about the politics and policy details of the bill. I don't feel adequately geeky to contribute to that discussion. But I have some general ideas about the immigration debate in the United States.

First, because the immigration is almost totally from the south of the border the debate often becomes mixed with racism and a certain kind of classism, given that it is mostly the poor who immigrate. Second, the debate about illegal immigrants tends to be about immigration and racism and similar issues, as much as it is about the illegal status of certain immigrants. Third, the whole question of immigration looks very different for people who live in the American south than it does for the rest of us, simply because the largest concentration of recent immigrants will be there and the largest societal changes will take place there, too.

Fourth, because illegal immigrants are also extremely cheap labor, the Republicans have a divided base problem in addressing this issue. The employers need cheap labor, but some in the base see the cheap labor as taking their livelihood away from them. Fifth, the Democrats also have a divided base problem, as some Democrats believe in the free movement of all individuals across the borders and others believe that some people shouldn't skip the line and get into the country that way.

I have some sympathies for both the pro-immigration and the anti-immigration camps. You might be surprised to hear about the latter. But it is very difficult for people to experience rapid societal change in a very short period of time, and that is what happens when immigration continues rapidly and when the immigrants gather in one area. The society changes equally rapidly, and those who live in the area find their neighborhood quite different. The effect is very much like an externality in economic jargon: an effect (either positive or negative) caused by something other people do for which you are not compensated or required to pay. Such effects are small when immigration is but a trickle. They only start to matter when immigration is strong and affects certain areas disproportionately. Illegal immigration by its very nature is controlled and therefore more likely to cause such effects.

But my sympathies for the poor who migrate in search of a better economic future are even stronger. Sadly, I can't see a real solution to the immigration problem as long as the United States sits side by side with countries which are much poorer and offer few opportunities for the bulk of their people.