In reading the news on America’s immigration problems, as well as Brainstorm posts on the topic, I can’t help but notice that people who are most vexed about illegal immigration like to say things like, “they’re not playing by the rules,” or “they’re criminals,” or “they should be rounded up and deported” (these quotations are lifted from comments made on Brainstorm posts). Although I’ll get to why this is ridiculous in a moment, I first want to say that like many liberals, I would like to see secured borders as much as any citizen in Arizona. Even so, I am aghast at Arizona’s new immigration law. I’ve spent a lot of time in France (a place the kind of conservatives who came up with this law like to mock). There, the police regularly stop people and demand to see their papers. I used to proudly tell my French acquaintances that over in America we didn’t do that sort of thing.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are about 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Whether the number is right, let’s work with it for a moment. Say we were to enact legislation designed to truly lower these figures—legislation that would round up and deport all 12 million. What would that entail, in terms of time and logistics?
We’ll have to begin by expending a lot of manpower locating the illegal aliens, both in their homes and workplaces. Then we’ll have to gather them in a large holding place. A football arena might work. Let’s assume we put them on buses (planes would be too expensive), and that each bus holds 50 people. That would mean 240,000 buses.
Let’s say those 240,000 buses then drive to the Mexican border. There, the people on them would need to be processed once again. Assuming it takes one hour to process each bus, we’ll need 240,000 man-hours. To make the arithmetic easy, assume a 20-hour workday. This means 12,000 days to process everyone, which is 30 years of work.
The great messy fact of American life is that illegals are here and discussions of right and wrong and the law have become moot. We’ve behaved exactly like the Romans during the Empire. They, too, awoke one day to discover that there were a whole bunch of non-Romans living within their borders. The Danube had been breached not by battle so much as willing collusion. In their case, they’d willingly invited barbarians inside their borders to help them fight off newer waves of hordes. What happened, of course, was that those barbarians with whom they’d made a peaceful truce went on to mix and mingle with, and in some cases marry, the “true” Romans.
In our case, we too have invited “others” to come across our borders. Not directly, of course (that would have been in violation of the law), but indirectly. And not for soldiering, but for doing work we didn’t want to do ourselves. Illegal Mexican immigrants worked extremely hard, and for long hours, and for wages far lower than American workers. They are the ones who have been stooping over to pick our vegetables, slaughtering and pulling out the guts of what is transformed into cheap supermarket chickens. They are the ones who have been tending our lawns and cleaning our homes and babysitting our children. Never forget that for every illegal worker, there’s been a Roman citizen—oops, I mean American citizen—who has been willing to look the other way. These Americans include everyone from individual wealthy suburban moms, with pretty swimming pools, gardens, and children, who never once asked Juan and Juanita if they were legal residents, to large meat-processing and garment industry companies who quietly went about the business of hiring on the cheap.
Following a hallowed American tradition of turning the other way when things might have mattered, we missed our chance to control the influx of illegal immigrants. Now that illegal immigrants are here, and it’s ridiculous to try to have them all “go home,” we howl with indignation at the injustice of it all. Howling when it’s too late, by the way, is also an American tradition.