THE PRIMARY PROBLEM with our illegal immigration "problem" is that our problem is also a solution. While you and I, sitting comfortably in our Chapel Hill estates, may perceive that the influx of illegal immigrants into the United States generates social problems and creates economic burdens, these same "undocumented aliens" also solve social problems and alleviate economic burdens -- just not ours, but theirs. Perhaps the following little test will help us see how these problems and solutions interact.
This quiz includes jokes -- but take this problem seriously, because, as a society, we cannot continue to ignore it without major negative consequences.
Q.1. How do illegal immigrants get to the U.S.? If you answered "illegally," you get only half a point. The fact is almost as many illegal immigrants come to the U.S. legally as illegally. Like my cousin from Alabama, they "come up to visit for a week," then decide to "look for job" and end up staying for quite a while. (The difference being that most illegal immigrants do actually look for a job, get one shortly, and don't sleep on my couch for months -- they buy their own.)
Seriously, according to a study by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center, 45 percent of the undocumented migrants in the United States overstayed legal visas.
The Atlanta Olympics were an illegal immigration bonanza. Some international Olympic spectators are, apparently, still waiting for the team handball finals.
Q.2. If your country's southern border is with a poorer country with higher unemployment and many potential workers who are willing to take jobs your citizens seem uninterested in, even if it means they have to cross your border illegally, what should your country do?
(a) Deploy soldiers to the southern border
(b) Send illegal immigrants who are caught to jail
(c) Refuse legal status for most illegal immigrants even after they have been in your country for years
(d) All of the above
Correct answer: (d) All of the above. At least that's what Mexico does with its "problem" neighbors from Guatemala.
Q.2a. Bonus question: How do you spell "hypocrisy" in Spanish?
Q. 3. Why did the Mexican cross the Rio? If you answered, "To get to the other side," please consider yourself admonished. I would not possibly make such a cheap joke. The actual answer is to take back Texas (or should I say, Tejas) from the gringos who stole it.
Q. 4. True or false, illegal immigrants are criminals. (a) True (b) False. Answer: (a) True, see the Funk and Wagnalls definition of the word "illegal".
Q.4a. Follow-up question: How many of you are criminals? Please raise your hand. If you didn't raise your hand, you are a liar as well as criminal. You have never sped while driving? Never jaywalked across a street? Reported every penny of income you have ever received?
OK, there is one major difference here: illegal immigration violations tend to be ongoing. It's not like trespassing briefly by cutting through someone's yard on a short cut to the College Soda Shoppe; it is more akin to squatting on someone else's property indefinitely without their permission.
Q.5. Final question: What should the United States do about its illegal immigration problem?
(a) Nothing. It's worked great so far (just ask the Mexicans who are here or the businesses that use their cheap labor).
(b) Act like it's not a problem. It's worked great so far for the Democrats.
(c) Spout off like it is a problem, then do nothing. It's worked great so far for the Republicans.
(d) Make the Rio grander.
(d) Only because it's better than the first three, our primary current policies. We do have to make our border more secure, much more secure.
Personally, I have a warm spot in my heart for anyone who is willing to work, to work hard, work long and do as well as they can at the job given to them -- especially when they use their hard-earned money to feed, clothe and house their families -- which is what most illegal immigrants do.
I don't have any warm spots for politicians (north or south of the border) doing little or nothing of substance to control their own country's borders or manage immigration properly, or (in the case of the Mexican government) won't provide a free economic and political environment that allows its people to prosper in their own homeland.
Final final question: What would you do if you were living in Mexico, could barely keep your family fed and there were unfilled jobs in the U.S., but you couldn’t get there legally? Thought so. Me too.
Coming soon: The Costs and Benefits of Illegal Immigration
Gary D. Gaddy emigrated from Virginia to North Carolina for the same reason most of the immigrants, legal and otherwise, do -- because it's a great place to live.
A version of this article was published in the Chapel Hill Herald, Thursday May 17, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy