Off the Cuff: May 2006

My favorite solution to the immigration mess in this country is to build a fence along the Mexican border, as a House of Representatives bill proposed. What I really like about that idea is that we’d first have a long debate over how high the fence should be, and how thick, and what it would be made of, and what color. I also like the fact that constructing it would be blocked by lawsuits that would cost tens of millions of dollars to resolve. Then it would take a decade to construct, at a cost of, oh, a few billion dollars, with huge cost overruns — that pleases me, too. Finally, once it’s complete, Mexicans and anybody else with a burning desire to get into the United States would go over, under, through and around the fence. They would, in other words, continue pouring into the country at about the same rate they have for the past few decades.

That’s why building a fence is my favorite solution. Because it makes as much sense as everything we’ve done up until now about illegal immigration, which is nothing. (One thing I forgot: The fence would be built by … illegal immigrants! A job boom!)

In fact, I am not opposed to Mexicans, and others, coming to America and becoming citizens. In fact — to focus on Mexicans for a moment — I admire their desire to make better lives for themselves, their family values, and their entrepreneurial drive. That sweeping generalization makes them sound very much like all of our forebears, who came to this country seeking the same things.

What I am opposed to — or, more accurately, enraged by — is our inability to discuss the issues and problems of immigration in any sort of intelligent way that will lead to far-reaching solutions. Instead, we’ve ignored the problem — and it is a problem to have 12 million people illegally encamped in our country — until it is untenable. The vast majority of illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes; they’re a drain on services; they tend to send wages home instead of spending them here. Furthermore, given that we allow just about anybody to come into the country and then stamp them ILLEGAL, immigrants exist in a state of limbo, sometimes stretching for decades, that balkanizes them into their own communities, with no desire to assimilate even to the point of learning English. Common language is the backbone of common culture. But the failure to learn English isn’t entirely the fault of immigrants. It’s partly the fallout of the lack of a coherent, effective and enforced policy to deal with their ever-increasing presence.

So what do you do with 12 million illegal residents? On the heels of the marches a few weeks ago, even conservative voices in Washington see the writing on the wall: At some point, we will allow illegal immigrants to become citizens, meaning they could have a significant political influence. Scratch that — they already have a significant political influence.

What it means to be a citizen of this country is always changing, of course. But what distinguished the waves of immigration coming to America over the past two centuries was the desire to meld into the predominant society, speaking its language, adopting its way of life. I have no problem with America becoming largely Hispanic over the next half-century or so. But the growing population of immigrants with no stake in becoming Americans is a problem.