On Fighting the Problem

Paul Greenberg

2/27/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

There's something familiar about this endless national debate and general tantrum over illegal immigration. Or maybe the fuss is over immigration itself, the size and effect of it. Whatever the cause, the result is clear enough: a lot of anger and resentment. The political atmosphere in which it's being conducted is enough to bring back the bad old days when the issue was civil rights.

Back then, anybody who urged a little perspective, certainly in these latitudes, could expect to be denounced in no uncertain terms. Public discourse was conducted almost exclusively in slogans rather than thoughts. The favored slogan was STATES' RIGHTS! One Southern politician after another, from Orval Faubus to George Wallace, rode it to wild acclaim.

The catch phrase may be different in this new era of bad feelings - ILLEGAL ALIENS! - but the invitation to demagoguery is proving just as irresistible to politicians on the make. (Colorado's Tom Tancredo comes naturally to mind.) Ambitious pols may not be able to do much to solve the problems associated with massive immigration, but they recognize it as an issue they can take for a wild ride.

It's possible to build a career the same way outside politics, too. An ambitious anchorman, for example, could use this issue to acquire a nationwide following on television. All he has to do is appeal to our deepest fears in the most authoritative, even objective, Walter Cronkite tones. It helps to wave around the dreaded A-word: AMNESTY! See CNN's Lou Dobbs and his single-issue approach to the news.

Eventually the obdurate reality will dawn on the voters: Immigration legal and illegal will continue to grow as long as an advanced, continent-sized country, a land of opportunity hungry for labor-shares a long, porous border with a Third World nation full of desperate people eager to supply it, and prepared to do almost anything to get here. Wouldn't you be in their ragged shoes?

Combine human beings' capacity for hope with the natural operation of the market, and, one way or another, labor is going to flow where it can be employed. We may be able to slow the flow but not stop it. Like a flood, it can be dammed here and there, but eventually, as every hydrologist knows, all that water is going to go where it wants to go.

No one seriously expects that some 11 million illegals, maybe 12 million by now, maybe a lot more, are going to be rounded up and thrown out of the country, considering the disastrous consequences to the various sectors of the American economy that have come to depend on their labor: agriculture, construction, food processing, restaurants and hotels, furniture manufacturing Š you name it. Not to mention the additional stress such a roundup would place on already strained law enforcement.

The practical question is: What are we going to do about a growing political, economic and moral question that has been studiously neglected year after year? Are we going to deal with it, or just keep ignoring it? And for how long?

An Army story: Going through artillery school at Fort Sill, we brand-new second lieutenants would get our field assignments from a soft-spoken captain of gunnery, who would carefully explain the mission we were expected to carry out over the three-day exercise. Our immediate reaction, at least early in the course, was general consternation: "We can't do all that in three days! It's impossible, it's unfair, it'sŠ."

Captain Quinnett was the gentlest and calmest and probably the most effective of our instructors. (We called him Mother Quinnett behind his back.) He would let us gripe for a while, get it out of our system, and then remind us in the softest, most dulcet tones: "Gentlemen, the time you're wasting is your own. You have a choice. You can get busy solving this field problem or you can go on fighting it. Which is it to be?"

These days we can all stay hot and bothered about illegal immigration, and have a wonderful time throwing around red-flag words like ILLEGAL ALIENS! to no great avail. And keep wasting a lot of valuable time.

Instead, let's face some realities: The first is that this issue isn't about to go away any time soon. History doesn't lend itself to neat, permanent solutions. The best we're going to be able to do for now is ameliorate the problem and, lest we forget, recognize that this is an opportunity, too. There's a good reason why the American economy is growing at a pace seldom seen since the last great periods of mass immigration, as in the 1900s and early 1920s: a great influx of cheap labor and invaluable human capital.

We can both seize the opportunity and address the problem by combining the most sensible approaches to this volatile issue: Strengthen our southern border and at the same time find a way to put the millions of illegal immigrants who have established themselves here - those who have clean records, who are gainfully employed and making lives for themselves and their families - on the road to solid citizenship. It can be done. The problem can be solved. Or we can just go on fighting it.