I HAVE LOTS OF THOUGHTS on illegal immigration.
First, I am sympathetic with people who, out of necessity, immigrate illegally. In their shoes, I would have walked up here from Chiapas myself. I would figure out some way to feed my wife and kids. And, sorry, but meeting the rules and regulations of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service would not have been my first priority either. (If you think yours would, you may wish to check with your cardiologist, as your heart may be missing.)
Second, illegal immigration is a big problem -- and not just for the United States. Unchecked illegal immigration is a problem the world around. We here in the U.S. have a problem with people coming in illegally from about 150 countries but especially our southern neighbor of Mexico. Well, guess what, Mexico has a problem with people coming in illegally from their southern neighbor of Guatemala.
In fact, about every relatively prosperous country with porous borders has a problem with immigration from its relatively less prosperous neighbors.
My wife and I recently spent a couple of weeks visiting Costa Rica. Costa Rica means the "rich coast" in Spanish. To us NorteAmericanos, Costa Rica's Ticas and Ticos don't seem that rich but to the Nicas and Nicos of Nicaragua they sure do. So, guess what, they head across the border to Costa Rica to find work -- which they usually do.
Read this quote from Costa Rican Alberto Cortés Ramos, while substituting American for Costa Rican and Mexican for Nicaraguan, to see how parallel our circumstances are. "Most Nicaraguan migrants don’t compete with Costa Ricans for jobs, since the labor markets are clearly segmented. Nicaraguans fill niches in the economy that Costa Ricans don’t want: largely seasonal agricultural activities, construction, domestic service, private security and, to a lesser extent, commerce."
But this pattern of immigration in both in Costa Rica and the U.S. is not without costs.
As those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, the poor Nicaraguans bring the problems of poverty with them. Not long ago Costa Rica was touted as having a higher literacy rate than the United States, but that may not be so any more. The Nicaraguan adults who come are not well educated and in addition their children, even with a common language, are more difficult to educate. And crime, especially theft, rises in the places where these poor Nicaraguans come. What follows is anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia.
Now look at the plight of the Zimbabweans in South Africa. The rolling disaster led by socialist dictator Robert Mugabe has sent many fleeing for their lives as Zimbabwe's once prosperous, food-producing economy crumbles so badly that starvation is rampant.
Granting that this refugee crisis is not the same as ordinary illegal immigration, with an estimated three million Zimbabweans in South Africa, still this year’s murderous mob attacks there on foreigners, where as many as 20,000 Zimbabwean women and children were forced to flee their homes, show how when sentiment goes bad, it can go really bad.
And regarding attitudes toward illegal immigration closer to our homes, many of the well to do, whether realizing it or not, benefit from illegal immigration. We like having our clothes washed, food prepared, floors swept and yards landscaped at affordable prices. And we don't often consider the circumstance of the legal residents whose jobs have been taken, or whose pay rate has been implicitly cut, by the large supply of workers who are not here legally.
Perhaps in contrast to Chapel Hill and Carrboro, most of North Carolina does not think that illegal immigration is a net benefit to our state. According to the Civitas poll released this May, registered voters in our state think that illegal immigration is a burden rather than a benefit by a 7-to-1 margin (79% to 11%).
While right now the average person in Chapel Hill does not feel as strongly, but trust me on this, if the University of North Carolina was hiring "undocumented" professors and researchers in numbers as large as the chicken processing plants have been hiring wing cutters and cartilage removers, the rhetoric on the Hill on illegal immigration wouldn't be nearly so sweet.
The United States cannot solve the whole world's problems by letting the whole world come to us. (Google "youtube immigration gumballs" for a clear explanation of why not.) Given a chance, legal or illegal, much of the world would come to us -- and if we didn’t assimilate them quickly enough, this immigration would change our country into something that few of us, even the ones immigrating here, would want.
If we don’t come up with a sane and humane policy for controlling our borders and managing immigration, the day may come when you and I are huddling on the border – trying to figure out how to get into Canada, assuming, of course, they don't make the same mistakes we are making now.
Gary D. Gaddy knows lots of legal and illegal immigrants -- but in most cases he doesn’t know which are which.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald Thursday July 17, 2008.
Coyright 2008 Gary D. Gaddy