Being Reasonable About Immigration in 2015

Immigration is a sticky topic which will deservedly garner much feverish debate heading into the 2016 United States Presidential election. We have allowed ourselves to get into such a bad place with immigration that there’s wide agreement that something’s gotta give. What that something is, though, is hotly contested. Let’s try to look at a couple of the ideas about this something that are floating around out there through a lens of pragmatism.

Idea 1. Deport Everyone Who’s Here Illegally

Okay, so let’s set aside the behavioral aspects of immigrating to the United States for a moment and simply imagine that the country is a bucket and people are drops of water.

Let’s say that the legal process for getting water into the bucket is a garden hose draped over the top. The faucet is on full blast, but there are a bunch of kinks in the hose, so water can only trickle softly into the bucket.

Now, imagine that wherever this bucket is, it’s raining — hard. Lots of water is getting into the bucket now, but only a small fraction is coming from the hose. What a mess! What do we do with all of the water that came from the sky and not the hose?

Do we try to identify every molecule of water in the bucket and classify its atoms as having come from either hose drops or rain drops? What about the rain drops that have already linked their atoms with all of the other molecules of water in the bucket? Do we enlist an endless team of scientists to evaluate every molecule in the bucket and remove every atom that originated from a rain drop?

Of course not.

We don’t care where the water came from. We’re happy that we collected the water. We can put it to good use. But we missed a lot of it. Some splashed out because of the heavy rain, and more still never made it at all because it dried up before it ever had the chance to be in the bucket.

Identifying and deporting every person illegally in this country is no more pragmatic than separating the atoms of the water in our bucket. If it’s even possible, it’s going to be unfathomably expensive and a terribly painful process.

Maybe we ought to move the bucket inside the shed, take the kinks out of the hose, and build a funnel that will capture the rain next time and funnel it neatly into the bucket.

Idea 2. Build a Wall! That’ll Keep ‘Em Out

First of all, it won’t. No really, it won’t.

But let’s not even close our case there. “If not, build a fence, and keep people out forcibly,” you might say, “what the heck did you mean by:”

Maybe we ought to move the bucket inside the shed, take the kinks out of the hose, and build a funnel that will capture the rain next time and funnel it neatly into the bucket.

I mean, maybe we need to look at this issue behaviorally and not physically.

An Argument for a Behavioral Approach

I know it breaks the bucket metaphor, but come on, the whole purpose of this diatribe was being pragmatic. Trying to keep people, often desperate people, out of the United States by force and physical means is a far cry from pragmatism.

Perhaps building a shed means simply removing incentives that lead to an increase in the undesirable behavior — coming into and staying in the country illegally.

And perhaps taking the kinks out of the hose means providing fair and predictable mechanisms for people who want to come into the country legally on either a temporary, non-citizen basis or to become a citizen and further benefit from whatever legal citizenship has to offer.

The point is, when we “pull the bucket under the shed,” we ought not try to disturb the water that’s already in the bucket. We f*cked up, and that water is there now. Lesson learned. Let it do what it’s going to do, and provide a reasonable means for it to make its own decision based on the new criteria that will apply to everyone.

However, and this can’t be understated, those new criteria have got to get at the behavioral incentives that keep the rain coming into the bucket. Any perceived or real benefits to illegal residency have to go away, and the process and benefits to being in the bucket legally, whether as a citizen or not, need to be clear, reasonable, and attainable for everyone who is physically here or not.

That’s the part that’s going to hurt, but it has to. I’m sorry, it’s just reality. We can’t provide benefits to you if you’re not “on the books.”

We can’t give your kids the benefits of citizenship just for being born on this side of the border. We can’t give you health care at no cost to you. We can’t give you unemployment benefits at no cost to you. We can’t give you the benefit of low or subsidized tuition rates. We just can’t.

The fact of the matter is, all of those benefit systems are just as broken as our immigration system, and we aren’t even able to fulfill those promises to legal citizens either. We think we are, but we are not. But that’s a topic for a later discussion.