Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mexican Immigrants: the New Irish?

I’ve always had an interest in learning about my family lineage and ancestry, but have never taken much time to dig in and investigate. I know that most of my roots go back to Great Britain – most likely, Ireland – and that there is Native American blood in my paternal grandmother’s side of the family.

We’ve all heard the statement: “Unless you are a Native American, you are an immigrant!” No one would dispute the fact that America is a nation of immigrants. However, we often fail to comprehend what the experience of making the transition from immigrant to citizen – assimilation – encompasses. For the purpose of this discussion I will not make a distinction regarding the legal status of the immigrant. (I fully recognize the laws as they exist today and that new laws must be created to address illegal immigration; please read the previous posts in this blog.)

I was surprised to find so many parallels between the Irish immigrant of the 1850’s and the Mexican immigrant of today. Here are just a few examples:

- The most common motivation for both groups was the desperation to escape economic hardship and provide for their families.

- Both endured dangerous and unhealthy conditions in order to make the trip to America. Many perished along the way.

- They were immediately relegated to the most menial of tasks, but gained the reputation of being the best fit for the heavy, hard, and most dangerous jobs.

- They both were largely unwanted by other Americans, and were considered an inferior underclass.

- They were believed to represent a disproportionate percentage of prison inmates; the public sentiment was that crime would diminish greatly if they were sent back to their home country.

- Many lived in the poorest of homes not solely because of poverty, but also because they were considered undesirable in most neighborhoods.

The Irish ultimately adapted and embraced the American way of life, but it took many years. Some claim – rightly so, in my opinion – that Mexican immigrants are not dissolving quickly enough into the Great Melting Pot. Let’s take a look at why this is the case.

The Irish had the benefit of already speaking English, unlike most Mexicans, avoiding an additional barrier to assimilation. A multitude of Spanish-language newspapers and television and radio stations contribute tremendously to keeping Mexican immigrants from learning English. But there is a more compelling reason.

Mexicans have a greater sense of patriotism and national pride than do Americans today. Their cultural identity is instilled at an early age – in the public schools. Family is extremely important, and the obligation they assume to financially provide for their parents and older is the common reason they cross the northern border and seek employment in the first place. They would prefer to stay in Mexico and would if they had decent paying jobs. But here they are, thanks to the huge “Help Wanted” sign hanging over the border – a sign that in the mid-19th century read, “No Irish Need Apply.”

So, how have other immigrant groups adjusted to life in these United States today? Indians and Canadians have low civic assimilation, as few of them seek citizenship. The Chinese immigrants resist assimilating culturally. Will the Mexicans eventually assimilate? Yes, it is inevitable that they – and other immigrant groups – will become part of the American experience. It has always been so throughout our country’s history, and according to a report from the Manhattan Institute, immigrants are assimilating today more rapidly than those of a century ago.

And who knows; the words spoken by Orestes Brownson of the Irish might also hold true for the Mexican immigrant: "Out of these narrow lanes, dirty streets, damp cellars, and suffocating garrets, will come forth some of the noblest sons of our country, whom she will delight to own and honor."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Walls Won't Work

Part Four of a Series on Immigration Reform

When walls are built without immigration reform and without meaningful border security, the illegal traffickers – of both humans and of drugs – will always find a way around them. This fact is outlined in one of the plots in my novel, Under the Fifth Sun, as traffickers resort to some very clever tactics to keep the supply for their illegal trade very much alive in spite of major advances in border security.

The price of smuggling – and therefore the profitability of smuggling – will increase as physical barriers are erected, with the extra money coming from the undocumented immigrant and the American drug user. Corruption of security personnel on both sides of the border will continue to facilitate the illegal activities, without which, the effectiveness of the anti-smuggling effort is severely hampered.

The laws of the land must be strictly upheld and rigorously enforced; it’s plain, but not always simple. New laws, however, must be created to serve the public interests affected by the forces of supply and demand for affordable labor and the scarcity of workers to fill positions in certain industries. As an exercise for stimulating creative discussion, I’ve outlined what I believe to be the essential elements of immigration reform:

1. Walls won’t work – save your money.
· Invest in detection technologies that best benefit law enforcement agencies.
· End the catch and release program, with cooperation from home country.

2. U.S. industries need immigrant labor – acknowledge that these workers fill an important role in our economy.
· Create a “bill of rights” for immigrants that protects basic human rights and discourages discriminatory attitudes and practices.
· Facilitate the supply of immigrant workers and create safe conditions at the border.

3. A structured, legal method for filling jobs must be created. Make the approval process simple so as not to discourage employers and prospective workers.

4. A structured, legal process for screening and approving immigrant workers must be created and enforced, with significant assistance from the country of origin.

5. The home country sets up pre-screening center to match the volume of potential candidates to geographic region in U.S.

6. Allow private employment agencies apply for permission to participate in the immigrant worker program and fill businesses’ needs for immigrant positions.
· Employment agencies are responsible for verifying approved status of applicant and withholding appropriate taxes.
· Businesses file required paperwork for filling open jobs.
· Employers pay minimum wage plus fixed markup of X% to cover the employment agencies’ costs and profit.
· Wages may be increased by the CPI (Consumer Price Index) + X% for the two-year maximum employment period.
· Immigrant may reapply for work by returning to home country and filing appropriate paperwork.

7. A database is established to screen immigrant applicants for employment.
· Cooperation from home country is required for criminal history/background information.
· Fingerprinting/DNA/biometric sample collection is performed at processing centers set up at border locations.
· A “smart card” is created for each approved immigrant worker for identification, documentation, payroll and tax purposes.

8. Limits are agreed to and set – temporary, long term, seasonal. Social security retirement benefits are accrued over a period of X years or hours worked.

9. Successful consecutive terms of employment without criminal record may lead to permanent resident status.

10. Criminal conviction will lead to immediate expulsion from program and loss of retirement benefits.

11. Stiff penalties sufficient to discourage illegal hires will be levied against employers and the directors or officers of corporations, with jail terms for repeat offenses.
· Social Security numbers and other identification will be shared between the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
· All law enforcement agencies will be required to take appropriate action when an undocumented immigrant’s status is discovered.

12. Dependents of approved immigrant workers shall have the same rights as the worker. Children born in the United States will not be eligible to apply for naturalization of parents until they reach the age of majority.

I know there are many objections to the points I listed, and many more may have been left out entirely. Surely the people much smarter than I can figure out a workable plan, but the bottom line is that we must have a comprehensive plan that keeps our businesses and employees in compliance with the law.

Here's a question: when the "illegals" gain legal status, what will the objections now become? Am I wrong about this, or do we have a double standard in play? Many Americans complain about the immigration problem while the lawn is being mowed by the undocumented alien he hires and pays in cash. Just how much racism lies beneath the surface of the immigration debate?

Next: Two Sides of One Sign - Keep Out, Help Wanted

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Partners in Crime

Part Three of a Series on Immigration Reform

It is a common understanding that the relationship of supply and demand governs most elements of our economy. The same is true for illegal activities such as drug trafficking, for example. Some would argue that legalization is the best approach to minimize the negative impact illicit drugs has on our society, but I am convinced that the key driver fueling the illegal drug trade lies in the demand Americans have for them. No users, no business.

In my upcoming novel, Under the Fifth Sun, I flesh out some interesting details of both the illegal drug trade and illegal immigration and their impact on Mexico and the United States. And like the illegal drug traffic, if there is no demand for the service and skills (and cheap wages) of the undocumented immigrant the activity will cease to exist. That’s right: if employers did not have the need for cheap, reliable labor then illegal immigration would disappear. Our business owners have become de facto partners in crime with the illegal immigrant.

Why hasn’t Congress put some teeth in enforcing the laws against illegal hires? In part, because going after the business sector is not politically wise. But there is another, more pragmatic reason: the Social Security Administration is the beneficiary of more than $7 billion in tax revenue paid in by illegal workers and their employers. These are funds that are kept in a type of escrow status since the number or name is bogus and there is little chance of it being claimed. As a mentor in business once asked me when I discovered an unknown source of profitability in a product formula, “What do you do when you find a gold mine?” Simple answer: exploit the opportunity and keep it to yourself.

So, our government and our businesses are complicit in reaping the benefits associated with filling low-paying, low-skill jobs using illegal workers. Wait a minute, did I say benefits? How about the American consumer who benefits from the inexpensive agricultural products, the low-cost construction for homebuilding, the affordable price for a multitude of services? And certainly, the immigrant benefits as does his home country – the recipient of tons of hard currency sent to families back home.

This is where the complicit-crime analogy breaks down. You see, in contrast to the illegal drug trade that has beneficiaries (the dealer, the trafficker, the cartel) and victims (the user, the family and friends, the healthcare sector) the business that relies on immigrant labor has an overall positive impact on the United States and many others. It is not so much that we have a runaway community of renegade business owners determined to flaunt the rules but that our Congress has failed to pass legislation that puts them on the right side of the law. And it is the hypocrisy of lawmakers who prefer to enjoy the financial windfall rather than pass intelligent immigration reform that continues to keep our business owners afoul of the law.

Next: Immigration Reform that Works

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Wide Open Spaces

Part Two of a Series on Immigration Reform

Securing our borders is a tall order. In my novel, Under the Fifth Sun, the U.S. government passes legislation requiring the Department of Homeland Security to achieve operational control of the border. Easier said than done, to be sure.

While the border with Mexico gets most of the attention when discussing illegal immigration, there are many other opportunities by which an illegal immigrant may gain entry into the United States. Here are some interesting facts.

- As stated in the previous post the U.S.-Mexico border is just under 2,000 miles long and spans four states.

- The U.S.-Canada border is over 5,500 miles long - the longest undefended border in the world.

- According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s website, international flights to and from the US carried more than 147 million passengers in 2007.

- The United States has over 12,000 miles of coastline with many isolated areas that allow entry without effective detection. (Our coasts, of course, are the primary theaters of operation for the U.S. Coast Guard. Let's hope their motto holds true: Semper Paratus, meaning "Always Ready".)

That's a lot of wide open space. It should be obvious to everyone that if someone wanted badly enough to enter this country illegally, there would be plenty of options to choose from. A wall along the border would be a physical deterrent, much as a lock on a door will keep most people out. Honest people see the lock and respect the symbolic message: "stay out". Those with other motivations will find a way through the door no matter what.

So why all the fuss over securing the southern land border and not the others? First, the United States and Mexico have not established a practical, meaningful relationship between law enforcement agencies. Yes, there are many bi-lateral agreements and treaties, even a Joint Defense Commission created by Executive Order in 1941. But nothing of significance is taking place where it matters most: against organized crime and drug trafficking, corruption within local law enforcement, and those individuals engaged in human smuggling. In contrast, there is a high degree of cooperation between the U.S. and Canada including the joint Integrated Border Enforcement Teams.

Second, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security has led to significantly improved security and counter-terrorism methodology, while enhancing airport security through exchanging information about terror suspects with other countries. The enactment of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative also makes illegal entry more difficult. The use of forged documents for travel purposes is not as simple as before.

Finally, there is a law at work in full force in Mexico. It is a universal law but one less known to Americans than to Mexicans: the Law of Survival. It encumbers the vast majority of immigrants that move across our southern border and is as powerful and absolute as the law of gravity.

It is not to be confused with the Law of Want or the Law of Greed - two forces in full play in our society of consumerism. The law of survival is what impels the vast majority of the one-million impoverished souls to brave the elements, risk their lives and their well-being, and make the days-long trek across the border. Lack of jobs - even those paying the minimum wage, equivalent to less than five U.S. dollars per day - combined with poor sanitation, sub-par public health care, and growth of gang/drug violence make the lure of finding work in the United States difficult to resist. For many, it represents the only hope left in their world. For many others, their survival is linked to a family member already working in the United States.

So, do I sympathize with the plight of these people? Yes, I do. Do I believe we should open up our borders and grant them amnesty? Absolutely not.

Our country is based on the rule of law, starting with the Constitution and continuing to the parking meter police and everything in between. Our laws against illegal entry into our country must remain strong and in force in order to maintain our sovereignty. The fictitious U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Rick Santillan in Under the Fifth Sun makes a strong statement to the Mexican Foreign Secretary, Alejandro Villarreal:

“I’m here today to advise you that the United States will utilize all legal means available to secure its borders,” replied the diplomat.
“So you are going to put Mexican citizens in the same category as terrorists?”
“Illegal means illegal, Alex, and the law does not differentiate between the motives of those who try to enter unlawfully.”

If there were no jobs available in the United States would the one-million illegal immigrants still come? No way. The solution? Stay tuned for Part Three.

A parting thought from the Torah:

When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you. So you shall love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19.33-34).

Oh, yeah. One more thing...the "Wide Open Spaces" title of this post is from a book by Christian author Jim Palmer, not from the girls who make some Texans embarrassed that they are from the same state.

Next: Partners in Crime

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Great Wall of America

Part One of a Series on Immigration Reform

If we build it, will they still come? Is the Border Wall the answer to curbing illegal immigration into the United States?

In my upcoming novel, Under the Fifth Sun, I develop several subplots that deal with border security, narco-terrorism, and immigration reform. Though set in the form of a novel, this book takes a realistic look into the future as I see it happening. Included is a treatment of the notion of building a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, employing a unique combination of technologies designed to usher in a new era of "operational control" of our border.

So, just what is the motivation for building the wall? Is it primarily to stem the tide of illegal immigrants competing for American jobs? To rid the U.S. of drug trafficking? To prohibit passage of terrorists into our country? All of the above, depending on who you ask. But is building the wall a realistic tactic to winning these battles?

The first experiment with building a new border wall began in San Diego and was proudly christened Operation Gatekeeper by Janet Reno in 1994 during the Clinton administration (no, it is not a new idea formulated by Bush Republicans). It was originally estimated to cost $14 million for the proposed 14 miles of fencing. The latest estimates have the cost coming in around $74 million and counting. If you extend this cost history to the remainder of the border - let's see, just 1,938 miles left to go, and - yep, it's a really big number.

Cost-prohibitive aspect aside, there are myriad other complications and implications to face. Here are just a few:

- Terrain such as mountains, rivers and canyons will exacerbate the cost and feasibility over a large portion of the border.

- The traffic flow of illegal immigrants and drugs has merely shifted to different areas as a result of the fence construction between San Diego and Tijuana. Traffic has actually increased in many areas that previously saw little or no activity.

- Smugglers - both human and narcotics - are increasingly using tunnels to cross the border. Contemporary border wall designs do not address underground tunnels or facilities.

- Major railroads cross the border in over 20 locations; you can't build a wall where a train must pass, not to mention a train carrying illegal immigrants.

- Many local economies in border towns rely upon trade between the nations that would be interrupted by building a wall. Practically every mayor along the Rio Grande is opposed to it, according to the director of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation.

- Native American tribes with lands along the Arizona border would have a physical barrier that would limit the movement of migratory wildlife they are accustomed to.

Is the erection of a border wall the end-all solution to the immigration/smuggling/terrorism woes that face us? No, but it could be part of a comprehensive solution that makes sense, if executed in a practical and fiscally responsible way. The travesty lies in using a half-hearted half-measure as a politically expedient method of doing something - anything - about the border security dilemma.

Another better-known international wall - the Great Wall of China - is often thought of as an impenetrable, monolithic barrier built to repel the invading forces of the past. The small amount of research I have conducted would indicate that the Great Wall had many breaches, and, in fact, that the guards could be bribed for passage through it.

Yet others would contend that the intent of the Great Wall was not to keep strangers from entering, but to keep its citizens from leaving the country. Sound like a country with a bent toward isolationism? A nation obsessed with xenophobia? Or was the Ming Dynasty justifiably fearful of a foreign invasion?

And just how successful was the Great Wall in keeping out the unwanteds? A disgruntled border General of the Ming dynasty willingly opened the gates of the fortressed wall to the Manchu army, who quickly seized the city known today as Beijing and founded the Qing Dynasty. The failure was the proper enforcement and execution of the security system - not the system itself.

Next: What Will Make Immigration Reform Work?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Cramps, not Cash

This feels a bit strange. I've never so much as sent a single post to a blog before, and now I'm starting one of my own. So what's the big occasion that gives rise to this new endeavor?

I have come one step closer to realizing a dream of mine - to write a book and have it published. No small order, this writing gig. I've recently signed a publishing agreement with a small publisher on the west coast. This follows 18 months of writing, six months of editing, polishing, and re-writing, and four months of submitting query letters to agents and publishers.

Writing is one of the real joys of my life, surpassed only by the satisfaction of being a daddy, the privilege of being a husband, and the honor of serving God. It is hard to believe there are people who are able to make a living by writing alone. I have a degree in Business, so I'm supposed to be really good with numbers. But I don't need a calculator to tell me this writing gig is good for making cramps, not cash.

I write a few hours a day, usually starting at 8:00 p.m. or so, after the kids have finished their evening routines and are winding down for the night. This has been my routine for the past two years. It will be another year before my first novel is published. By that time I will have invested one-thousand hours working with my editor and publisher, reviewing galleys, figuring out a marketing and promotion strategy for the book rollout, and finishing the manuscript for my second novel. Three years without one penny to show for it. No cash, just cramps.

So why do it? Why pour yourself into a mission, a goal that has a lower probability for success than winning the lottery? Or getting struck by lightning?

For those of you that write, you already know the answer. You write because you must. You write because you have something to say. It is not an option for you. You will find rest only when you have accepted the task and seen the work through to it's completion. It's about the cramps, the journey.

For those of you who don't, no worries! I also have a great passion for music (playing, not just listening), small business (my wife and I own a small publishing business), cooking (finally, a practical avocation!), and have a career in business I thoroughly enjoy (cash, a few cramps). There are plenty of other topics for us to explore besides writing.

Welcome to my blog, dedicated to those who "get" Writer's Cramp.