Immigration: The Wall No One is Talking About

The author giving a recent lecture to international business and Chinese culture students at North Central College.

If the insightful Chinese have taught me anything it is that nothing exists in isolation. For every yin there is a yang, and vice versa. Yin and yang are not opposing forces. They are complementary. One cannot exist without the other.

And so it is with immigration. With legal immigration, there is illegal immigration. Without illegal immigration, all immigration is legal. It’s pretty simple, really.

Viewing the world through our deductive lens, as we do, Americans like simple solutions. Too much illegal immigration? Build a wall. Too much violence? Promote law and order. Too many guns in the streets? Arm everyone.

It’s the kind of solution that would have warmed the hearts of the Christian Temperance Union, which gave us Prohibition. Or the parents of many a teenager growing up in the 1960’s, when marijuana first started crossing the southern border in bales.

Prohibition, of course, gave us bootleggers and speakeasies. More to the point, it gave us violence and tax evasion. The War on Drugs, while costing the US taxpayer millions, if not billions, gave us cartels, drug lords, and an obscene plethora of shallow graves.

I have no quarrel with the desire to manage immigration. The right to live within US borders is not an inalienable right of humanity. Yes, that is unfair. I was lucky enough to be born here. But I’ve come to accept that life isn’t always fair. As the Taoists might say, that’s just the way it is. Don’t waste your time trying to explain it.

No one can say with certainty what impact a wall along our Mexican border might have on illegal immigration. Walls can be scaled. You can tunnel under them. Or you can just go around them. Boats aren’t all that hard to come by. Besides, walls already exist in the most densely populated urban border areas. (The picture above is an actual wall on the Mexican border erected by the Department of Homeland Security in 2008.) Erecting a wall in the middle of the desert is a bit like building a moat around your house. A bit of overkill, if you ask me.

The Berlin Wall is a false analogy. The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, not out. And what made it effective was not the wall itself, but the soldiers with guns that were stationed all along it.

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A wall along our Mexican border certainly won’t build goodwill with our neighbors. And it will further isolate us in the court of world opinion. We may not care. As a businessman myself, however, I’m not sure President Trump has thought this through from a return on investment perspective.

It is undoubtedly true that some immigrants take advantage of government benefits funded with taxpayer money. It’s also true, however, that many undocumented immigrants actually pay taxes. And many immigrants, most likely documented, contribute vital knowledge and expertise to the companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere that fuel the world’s largest modern economy.

Many an American university, moreover, would undoubtedly face financial hardship if the foreign students all stayed home. University pricing, as you may know, is highly variable, and the foreign students typically pay top dollar. Those dollars, in the end, help to fund university programs that benefit all students, including those on scholarship or those enjoying the material discounts of instate residence.

What I find most perplexing about this whole discussion on immigration, however, is that no one is talking about just how difficult it is to obtain legal immigration status. It is, to put it simply, infinitely more difficult than trying to decipher the US tax code.

I lived in China for nine years as an American ex-patriate working for a US multi-national. Our Chinese plant existed to serve the Asian market and exported almost nothing to the US. And my company and I paid a whole lot in federal and state taxes, even though I didn’t reside here, I didn’t have kids in the US school system, and I didn’t own any property here. And that was okay with me.

During my time abroad, however, I married a Chinese woman. She is my wife. So when I returned to the US I wanted her to accompany me. I, of course, as a US citizen, was clearly entitled to that. (If you think that shouldn’t be the case; well, I have nothing to say.) But for that she needed a green card. Fair enough. As I said in the beginning, I’m all for managing immigration.

What never gets discussed, however, is just how difficult and expensive it is to get a green card, even when you are lawfully entitled to one. There are forms, forms, and more forms. Most of them are unintelligible. Redundancy is rampant. The supporting documentation required is not lying around your house. And the process takes months, if not years.

I consider myself a fairly bright fellow. I have a college education. I actually graduated cum laude, with honors. But I finally hired an immigration attorney to help. Not because we were attempting to do something outside the law; not because we had any intent to rob or rape anyone; but because it was all so damn confusing and burdensome.

There are multiple government agencies involved. There is the Department of Immigration and Naturalization, of course. And the Department of Homeland Security. There was the US Embassy in Beijing. And the US Consulate in Guangzhou. And to a person the individuals handling our case were professional and polite. I can’t imagine a more thankless job, but they were all efficient and courteous. I dip my hat to them all.

But they have to work within the same processes and regulations the applicant does. They don’t have the autonomy you might expect and that would make a whole lot of sense. Their hands are as tied by the bureaucracy as are those simply trying to find their way, for whatever reason, to our shores.

I have to admit that there were many times in the process when I thought to myself that if I were a poor Latino with relatively little education, and I had the choice of navigating the bureaucratic no man’s land of legal immigration and hiking across a swath of desert, I might lace up my boots. (Before you go reporting me to Immigration, I am speaking figuratively. I am just making a point.)

Which, in the inductive fashion of the circular Chinese worldview, brings me back to where I began. It may be that Americans collectively decide that we want to make immigration as difficult as possible. I think that’s a bad bet financially. And I think it betrays who we are as a nation. And, of course, it’s a barbaric way to treat our fellow humans. But it is nonetheless our prerogative.

Should we choose that route, however, we will have illegal immigrants. In fact, as long as there is hunger in the world, and it’s a fair bet it will be with us for the foreseeable future, we will have a lot of illegal immigrants. As Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), the American psychologist who gave us the Human Hierarchy of Needs would surely remind us, as long as people fear for their safety and yearn to fill their stomachs, they will find a way. A wall will not stop them.

On the other hand, should we open our borders to any and all that wish to come, even if it is to hurt us, as some seem to advocate, we will eliminate illegal immigration, but we will pay a steep price as a society.

Like everything in life, I believe, the optimal solution will be a balanced solution. That, however, will be a holistic solution that doesn’t isolate the components of the issue into individual components – like walls and law and order – that appear to offer simple solutions.

Yin and yang. Nothing exists in isolation.

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