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Tuesday, May 10, 2005
By Dr. Steven Taylor

John Hay at Pros and Cons (click and scroll) has tagged me as “going wobbly” because I agree with the classification of the Minutemen as “vigilantes” (although, to take minor issue with John, I never referred to them as “horrible”).

This comment (brought to my attention yesterday via Pros and Cons Editor-in-Chief, Scott Gosnell) and various comments and e-mails regarding the immigration issue (although, really the beef seems to be that I don’t like the Minutemen very much) has inspired the following long post.

First off: the Minutemen. I still think that in the general sense the term “vigilante” well applies. Are they, or are they not, engaging in activity that is normally the purview of a law enforcement entity? No, they are not directly dispensing justice, which seems to be the lynchpin of the “they aren’t vigilantes” argument, but they have inserted themselves, uninvited, into the law enforcement process. A such, I find that the term is applicable. I am not a big fan of amateurs getting involved in law enforcement. And no, I really don’t find the “neighborhood watch” analogy to work. If these were local land owners watching their property and their neighbors and reporting suspicious activity, then the analogy would hold. This is not what is going on, but rather the organization of amateurs who have flown in of their own accord to show how they can do a better job than the Border Patrol, and/or shame the border batrol into action (so yes, Doc Rampage, I think that sanctimonious (or, perhaps “self-righteous�?) does apply).

However, the Minutemen issue is a distraction, a sideshow, and ultimately irrelevant. The real question is about the border itself and what can, and cannot be, done about it. And here we get into not my views of amateur observations of wrong-doing, but the heart of the issue.

My main objection is that the premise that underlies the Minutemen project itself, i.e., that the problem with border is lax enforcement and if the Border Patrol would just “kick it up a notch�? that the problem would be solved. Indeed: most rhetoric on this topic is radically simplistic (e.g., “just round ‘em all up�? or “let the homeless do those jobs�?, etc.—it simply doesn’t work that way).

There is an abiding myth amongst many (mainly on the right-side of the political spectrum) that if we just did a little bit more, we could stem the tide of illegals flowing across the Mexican border, and that we can actually control that border. I reject this claim as one that flies in the face of reality, and therefore I take a different view of the situation. As such, I prefer something along the lines of the Bush proposal for a guest worker program. Surely, if they are coming anyway (and they are) then a system that encourages safe passage and registration is to be preferred to the current circumstances.

Let me note that I am not trying to say that illegal immigration isn’t a problem, but I am of the opinion that it is a more complex situation than most critics of the situation seem to think (far, far more complex).

In a perfect world, we would have total control of our borders. However, as that great philosopher of the 1980s, Huey Lewis, once noted: “Ain’t no livin’ in a perfect world. There ain’t no perfect world anyway�?. Indeed, much of my view of the political world derives from this succinct description of reality.

As such, the question becomes: what is the reality concerning the border? Further, and this is key, what is the best way to spend precious taxpayers dollars in this endeavor?

1. The Size Problem

Here’re some stats to describe what we are dealing with here:

  • The border with Mexico is roughly 2,000 miles in length.
  • The border with Canada is roughly 4,000 miles in length.
  • We have approximately 100,000 miles of coast.

And consider these numbers:

In 2000 alone, 489 million people, 127 million passenger vehicles, 11.6 million maritime containers, 11.5 million trucks, 2.2 million railroad cars, 829,000 planes, and 211,000 vessels passed through U.S. border inspection systems (Flynn 2002).

That’s over 1.3 million people per day—and that’s just the legal flow. If one considers the vastness of the borders, the number of vehicles, containers and people coming in legally it is not surprising to note that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to “control�? the borders. Nothing short of a massive militarization of the borders could achieve that feat—and even then, some people would get in illegally.

Further, it is in this context that the idea of a bunch of volunteers on ATVs making a real difference is ludicrous.

2. The Power of Markets

I am a big believer in the power of markets—i.e., the power of supply and demand as an aggregation of human behavior. There is a demand for jobs that drive Mexicans, and others, across the southern border; that demand is so great that those individuals are willing to pay large sums (to them, anyway) to Coyotes (guides) to get them across the border. Further, they are willing to risk death by exposure in the desert to have the possibility of picking fruit or cleaning a fast food restaurant. That is some pretty strong demand.

Further, there is a supply of such jobs with a commensurate demand for labor in the US and the economic advantage of having large number of immigrants (legal and illegal) in the US is such that the political will needed to radically clamp down on the problem isn’t going to be generated.

3. The Complex Economics of Globalization

The bottom line is that the amount of goods and vehicles that are crossing our borders on a daily basis are staggering, and an integral part of the economy.

For example, increasingly manufacturer has eschewed holding large inventories (its expensive) and rely on “just-in-time�? delivery. For example, many of the parts used by the “Big Three�? automakers in Detroit buy their parts from Canada. Hence, “If trucks carrying the parts for a Ford Explorer are stuck in an inspection queue, assembly plants can quickly fall idle, with costs running as high as $1 million per hour�? (Flynn 2000: 59).

As a result of this flow of economic materials:

“US Customs officials must clear one container every 20 seconds in southern California, and one truck every 12 seconds in Detroit�? ( Flynn 2000:59).

4. Integration

There is a clear element to this debate that is linked to the question of integration: i.e., the fear that a wave of immigrants will overtake US culture. I would note that such fears aren’t new: in the early 20th Century there was great concern about the influx of Irish and Italian immigrants—and such fears proved to be unfounded.

There is no reason that those from Latin American cannot integrate into the US as well as those from Europe have done. For one thing, they already have—there are millions of American whose families came from south of the US Mexican border who are, well, Americans in the fullest sense. Their very existence should put to rest the idea that newly arrived immigrants won’t also be able to integrate. Yes, newly arrived immigrants (legal and illegal) tend to cluster with others from their home country, and they tend to speak their native language (if you have ever lived abroad, you will understand this behavior). But over time, this changes. Their children speak fluent English and before you know it, they are as American as the citizen whose ancestors came across on the Mayflower.

5. Security

I know that much of this debate has become more significant of late because of fears of terrorists penetrating the United States via our long, porous borders. I share this concern, but also am a realist: there is no way that can stop a determined terrorist from crossing the border. Further, I think that the issue of the Mexican border in specific vis-à-vis this question is something of a red herring. Given that the Canadian border is longer and less secure, that is the smarter route for a terrorist to utilize—not to mention that the 911 terrorists simply flew in legally.

I honestly think that some play the security card vis-à-vis the US-Mexican border to draw attention to the immigration problem, not because of the security issue itself (although I grant that many simply are concerned about the terror question).

Since my position is that it is impossible to protect our borders from penetration by terrorists (see the numbers above), it is part of the reason that I support the various ongoing military actions abroad aimed at terrorists—I think that a combination of intelligence activity and military actions abroad are out best bet.

To truly secure the borders would cost more money than we have and, even if we could do it, would paralyze our economy.

Basic Conclusion

My objection to the Minutemen (and a lot of the rhetoric that flies around about the border) is vested, primarily, in the idea that they represent a significant simplification of the situation.

Unless we wish to redeploy the military to the border, and then treat it like a war zone, then we aren’t going to stop illegal immigration. First, I find such a prospect highly distasteful: regardless of the problems caused by illegal immigrants, they aren’t the enemy—they are human beings seeking to better themselves in the Land of Opportunity. Second, as a country that is supposed to be a beacon of democracy, the idea of constructing a 2,000-mile Berlin Wall on our border (where an actual wall, or just a militarized zone) is radically problematic. Third, I think that there are better ways to spend our limited resources and utilize our military.

In short: since I don’t think, short of radical militarization, any way to stop the flow of persons across out southern border, then the answer is some sort of managed system. It is both more humane, but more secure for us and feeds existing economic realities.

Works Cited
Flynn, Stephen E. (2002) “America the Vulnerable” Foreign Affairs. Jan/Feb.

Flynn, Stephen E. (2000) “Beyond Border Control” Foreign Affairs. NovDec.

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  1. Nice analysis, Steven. On your point 5 (Globalization): One often under-discussed element of NAFTA has been the displacement of rural Mexicans and the inability of emerging industrial sectors to accomodate these surplus laborers. The result of this has been migration to Mexico’s cities and, with increasing frequency, migration to the US.

    The fact that the US provides high subsidies to its agribusinesses to produce Mexican dietary staples and that the illegitimate Salinas regime cut all subsidies for Mexican famers to appease the US, has made subsistence agriculture pretty much impossible in Mexico. In its stead, Mexico has moved toward more consolidation of farms and production toward the export market using capital-intensive methods.

    So, under trade liberalization, we are getting cheaper products, but also creating conditions of landlessness in Mexico which results in people trying to make a living in the US.

    It will be interesting to see if Lopez Obrador challenges some of the policies of his predecessors if he gets elected.

    Just curious, what would be the effects if NAFTA were restructured along the lines of the EU-i.e. making a common market for both labor and capital? This obviously isn’t realistic, from a political standpoint, but the EU seems to be dealing with the issue as well as could be expected.

    Comment by kappiy — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 10:46 am

  2. Note to Self
    Never, ever, ever refer to Steven Taylor as “wobbly”. His 1,700 words of vengeance will reduce you to ash. However,…

    Trackback by Overtaken by Events — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 10:49 am

  3. Been Meaning to Post About Immigration…
    But since I haven't yet, Steven Taylor is a good alternative.  It's not exactly what I was going to say, but it overlaps, is more detailed and scholarly, and is worth reading.

    Trackback by Accidental Verbosity — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 10:50 am

  4. Kappiy-you raise some legit issues.

    One of the ways to stop illegal immigration is to make it more attractive for folks to stay in Mexico. This is just another reason to phase out farm subsidies.

    The EU labor market solution wouldn’t work here beause of the substantial difference in the economies of the US and Mexico.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 11:02 am

  5. Stopping the Flow of Illegal Immigrants
    Steven Taylor has a long post on the futility of our current supply-side approach to illegal immigration. Among the problems he details are the sheer size of the border with Mexico, the incredible demand that drives people to risk everything to take m…

    Trackback by Outside The Beltway — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 11:05 am


    Trackback by THE TOMO REPORT — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 11:30 am

  7. Steven,

    Regarding the difference between US and Mexican economies and the EU situation-I think that the EU is actually in a similar cirumstance with its current plans for expansion.

    Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Turkey are all at different stages of ascention talks, but if you look at the Human Development index, Mexico ranks above all of those countries.

    Turkey is probably the best parallel due to its size-it is also the most politically sensitive. Mexico outperforms Turkey significantly in a number of key indicators of economic health (literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy, etc…).

    I think that the difference boils down to politics. The richer countries of the EU have given significant amounts of aid to poorer countries on the condition that they develop market-based economies, democratic reforms, strong social programs, and a respect for civil liberties.

    It has not necessarily been pretty, but I think an argument can be made that labor mobility has been a significant factor in the EU’s prosperity.

    Comment by kappiy — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 12:38 pm

  8. Point taken

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 1:18 pm

  9. Is there any reason why we shouldn’t use cheap immigrant labor to help enforce immigration laws and our border?

    A big problem is that keeping all illegals in the same status, whether it’s amnesty, limbo, or deportation, removes incentives for them to obey our laws and assimilate. We need some incentive system for illegals so that desirable behavior will earn immigration status and criminal behavior will lead to enforced deportation. Better enforcement is needed for incentives to be meaningful.

    Comment by TDM — Tuesday, May 10, 2005 @ 3:21 pm

  10. borders and democracy
    our elected officials are subverting democracy by failing to uphold the laws that they are sworn to uphold. It isn’t just that it can’t be done, Michelle Malkin and others have documented many, many instances of governments simply refusing to enforce…

    Trackback by Doc Rampage — Thursday, May 12, 2005 @ 3:11 am

    For my thoughts on emigration, immigration, and the Land of Opportunity - America, read my post, AMERICANS ARE LEAVING “BUSH COUNTRY”.

    Trackback by EGO — Saturday, May 14, 2005 @ 5:24 pm

  12. […] tter) would consider to be a “secure” border. Some numbers to consider from a previous post (citations for quotes at end of this post): In 2000 alone, 489 million people, 127 million pass […]

    Pingback by PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Reacting to the Speech — Tuesday, May 16, 2006 @ 8:16 am

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