Monday, June 05, 2006


The Proposed Border Wall: A Monument to Our Hypocrisy

(Published by the Salt Lake Tribune, June 4, 2006)

Illegal immigration, like so many things in American life, is governed by the calculus of supply and demand. It’s not a perfect correlation, but it is true that the number of illegal immigrants entering the United States is largely determined by the number of jobs available for immigrants to fill. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that there are two ways to limit the flow of illegal immigration. We can build a wall to keep the illegal workers from the available jobs or we can stop giving jobs to illegal workers.

Imagine that. Illegal immigration could be substantially reduced by simply requiring that employers not hire illegal workers. In fact, if you look at it from the demand perspective, we don’t have an illegal immigration problem, we have an illegal employer problem.

Who are the law-breaking employers who have created this immigration mess? Well, it’s not the usual band of suspects and that’s what makes this such an intractable problem. It would be so much easier if we could blame the usual handful of large corporations, punish them for the crimes committed and then monitor their hiring practices to prevent them from hiring illegal workers.

It is true that some large corporations participate in hiring illegal workers, but the vast majority of illegal workers are not finding jobs in the corporate world. It doesn’t take more than a little bit of common sense to track down the law-breaking employers. In fact we all know where illegal workers are finding illegally offered jobs. We just don’t want to face up to it. The answer hits a little too close to home.

The crime in most cases is being committed by a small business owner who lives in our neighborhood and is an otherwise law-abiding citizen. He or she is a farmer hiring illegal workers to harvest crops, a construction foreman hiring illegal workers to build houses, the manager of a local motel hiring illegal workers to clean rooms, or our neighbor hiring illegal workers to take care of the lawn.

Most law-breaking employers are nice people, working hard to maintain a middle class life style. And the illegal behavior is easy to rationalize away. The employers can rightly say that it’s difficult to find legal workers to do this kind of work. They can also say that with 11 million illegal workers in the country, no harm is done by hiring two or three of them. It’s only a drop in the bucket.

Such rationalization might sound convincing but it shouldn’t be confused with justification. It is difficult to find legal workers to do these jobs because the pay and benefits are inadequate to attract legal workers. It’s easier and cheaper to hire illegal workers instead of facing up to the fact that wages need to be increased and benefits improved. And hiring two or three illegal workers might be just a drop in the bucket, but this is a bucket that has reached enormous proportions in precisely that manner: one drop at a time.

So, should we build the wall, punish the illegal employers, or some combination that manages both supply and demand? I have concluded that we should get busy building the wall. I’m a reluctant convert, but a convert nonetheless. It should be abundantly clear to everyone that we don’t have the national self-control to stop offering jobs to illegal workers. Therefore, attacking the demand side of this equation is sure to fail.

It’s too bad that we have to do it this way. Building the wall and patrolling it properly will cost a bundle and perpetuate the misconception that this is a problem only of illegal immigration. The truth is that the wall will not only serve as a barrier to illegal immigration but as a monument to our hypocrisy.

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