NEW YORK--The Cold War you never thought about, the one between China and the Soviet Union, had been dead for a decade when I made the trip from what is now called the Kyrgyz Republic to western China in 1999. Although troops no longer massed for possible war at this border, crossing the high-altitude Torugart Pass remained an arduous bureaucratic odyssey. Getting out of Kyrgyzstan required presenting a special exit visa at a dozen checkpoints on the way up to the border outpost. A dirt track took me through 20 kilometers of no-man's land to the political border, which was only open on Fridays between 9 a.m. and noon. When my Chinese driver arrived on the other side of a bullet-pocked faux triumphal arch marking the border, two Chinese soldiers accompanied him to sign for me, Checkpoint Charlie style. On the Chinese side came another 20 kilometers of DMZ: minefields, row after row of razorwire, watchtowers, the dirt raked regularly in order to reveal the footsteps of would-be illegal immigrants. The Soviets had maintained similar fortifications along thousands of miles of their southern borders with nations like Iran, Afghanistan and China. As you'd guess, Soviet border controls were highly effective. They kept out unwanted intruders and imprisoned millions of would-be émigrés.
Why is it, then, that the wealthier and technologically sophisticated United States can't seal its much shorter border with Mexico--the source of 70 percent of its illegal immigrants? Because it doesn't want to.
The INS estimates that there are about nine million illegal immigrants, mostly Mexican, living and working in the United States. With about 300,000 more entering the country annually (not including migrant laborers who travel back and forth), a staggering ten percent of the U.S. workforce is currently undocumented.
George W. Bush, master plagiarist of liberal catchphrases, says illegal immigrants "take the jobs that Americans won't take." A more accurate reading of the situation is that because these workers' illegal status makes them vulnerable to exploitation, employers create jobs for them to take--while eliminating better jobs for Americans. Rapacious employers use illegals to fill two types of jobs: those that would otherwise go to Americans and those that exist only because it's possible to pay slave wages. What would happen to the agricultural and garment sectors, which employ hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in both categories, without illegal labor? Both industries would survive, though their bosses might have to make do without a Paris pied-à-terre. "The only reason any job remains unfilled is because the wage is too low," says Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "Require it to be filled with an American and employers have to raise the wage."
Most employers don't hire illegal workers. But they all benefit from the downward pressure illegal immigration puts on wages. It's simple supply and demand: if we deported every undocumented worker, companies would be forced to increase pay at the bottom from sub-minimum to minimum wage levels. This would force employers to entice those currently working for the legal minimum wage with raises, and so on up the scale. Labor costs account for about two-thirds of the expenses of an average business. The last "reform" corporate America wants is a genuine crackdown on illegal immigration. And Congress, reliant on business for campaign contributions, isn't about to start one.
Our borders are open on purpose. While 150,000 U.S. soldiers fight a useless war in Iraq, fewer than 2,000 INS agents patrol the Mexican and Canadian borders--5,300 miles combined. Hundreds of miles of border are unmarked by anything as formidable as a chain-link fence, much less the kind of we-mean-business fortifications built by the old USSR. Signs posted north of the San Diego-Tijuana crossing warn motorists to look out for Mexican families running across Interstate 5. Eleven states, recognizing the reality of the illegals in their midst, issue them driver's licenses. Now the Bush Administration, backed by big business, wants to tacitly endorse illegal immigration by granting existing undocumented workers "guest worker" status.
While we encourage illegal immigration, we've made it virtually impossible for a foreigner who dreams of becoming an American to do so legally. Legal immigration is limited to people who already have relatives here, are sponsored by an employer or are seeking political asylum from a tiny list of approved countries. Had these rules been enforced since 1776, there would be more Native Americans than immigrants.
A sane immigration policy would reverse these attitudes. We should welcome legal immigrants in much larger numbers. After all, America has always become culturally richer and economically more prosperous as a result of its hard working newcomers. Legal immigration should become safe, legal and commonplace. At the same time, no nation worthy of the name can tolerate porous borders. We can and must seal our borders to prevent economic migrants, terrorists and others with unknown motives from entering the United States. It's time to stop sucking up to big business.