Won’t work. Just last month a couple of guys escaped from a maximum-security prison up the road.

Impractical. The cost of building it would be far greater than the gain derived.

If the Mexicans did pay for it, as Trump says they will, it would likely mess up their economy; that’s a long border. A faltering Mexican economy would increase the flow of undocumented people.

At best only partly effective in staunching the flow of illegal aliens  since a substantial number of them fly in on tourist visas and don’t leave.

Not necessary. If the goal is to control the flow of illegals, there are cheaper, more effective ways to do it.

Illustration. A few years back, Ann and I lived in Switzerland. In the beginning, we enjoyed a temporary flat while we searched for a long-term let. We were warned not to put our name on the mail box or receive mail there. To do so, would call attention to our presence, and then we would have to make clear to Swiss officials that we were in the country legally. We could do that, but it would be inconvenient and time-consuming. So we did as advised.

When we moved to a long-term lease accommodation, we did put our name on the mail box. After a week or two, the postman ratted us out, and we were called to the Kreisbüro to show our papers. The clerk had a copy of our lease in hand when we arrived. Our visas were in order, so we were allowed to remain in Switzerland for a stated period. My point is, the United States could make a good start on controlling the flow of foreign-born by enlisting the aid of the Postal Service.

An even more effective control would be to require employers to verify–without exception–the immigration or citizenship status of all employees. A substantial portion of undocumented workers are primarily seeking economic opportunity. No job possible here, no reason to come in without proper papers. Like Ross Perot was fond of saying. “It’s simple.”

A big “however.” Should we get serious about stopping the flow of undocumented people, we must in the name of decency do far more to make their countries of origin less poor, more democratic, safer, generally better places to live. And all efforts along this line should include a requirement of effective family planning programs. The poorest countries are also the ones with the highest birth rates; these forces feed on each other.

A BELIEF: AMERICANS WON’T DO THE JOBS THAT ILLEGAL ALIENS DO. That’s a belief, not a fact. To establish that it is a fact we’d have to try having no illegal labor for a while. My own belief is that it’s not the jobs, it’s the low pay, lack of benefits, and lousy working conditions. Ann and I employ an American painter from time to time. We pay him $40 an hour. He scrapes and preps and paints from daylight to dark. When it rains, he rigs a canvas cover and keeps on going. I’m pretty sure he would not do it for $20 an hour. At $50 or $60 an hour, Saranac Lake would be covered up with hard-working painters. I know a New York City real estate broker who says what she would really like to do for a living is clean houses and bring order to living spaces. I have no reason not to believe her, but we’ll never know; she can’t afford to be a maid.

A BELIEF: OUR ECONOMY WOULD COME APART IF LOW-SKILLED JOBS PAID LIVING WAGES WITH BENEFITS. Like having no illegal workers, we’ve never tried that, so we can’t know. My belief is that it’s a self-serving argument put forth by people who benefit directly from exploiting low-wage undocumented workers who continually look over their shoulders to see if ICE is coming after them. Of course we could have a thriving economy if no one was paid less than is required to live on. Yeah but, I am told, then it would cost about $20 for a ham sandwich. Probably would. Actually, the last time I was in Switzerland, a country with effective immigration control, high wages, and progressive social policies, a Burger King Whopper ran about $15. It’s probably more than that now. It didn’t seem to mess up Swiss life in the least.

If exploitation of illegals was not common and tacitly approved, American life would indeed change a lot, but the changes would be for the better. We’d have to do our own lawn care (and reduce the incidence of obesity and associated diseases in the process) or replace green lawns with xeriscaping or rock gardens (benefiting the environment in many ways), clean our own houses (and face up to being not superior), get used to supermarket fruits and vegetables and all sorts of prepared foods not being peculiarly cheap (and eat less and waste less, both improvements in the way we live).


A BELIEF: SINCE AMERICANS ARE NOT REPRODUCING IN SUFFFICIENT NUMBERS TO HAVE ENOUGH WORKING-AGE PEOPLE TO FUND SOCIAL SECURITY AND OTHER PROGRAMS FOR THE RETIRED, WE MUST HAVE A STEADY FLOW OF FOREIGN-BORN WORKERS. Not being burdened with knowledge of economics, statistics, or actuarial science, I feel free to say that’s baloney. I sure hope I’m right. I’d better be right. At some point, population increase becomes destructive.

One alternative would be to discourage the view that work is only work if it’s something you don’t want to do, and encourage people to seek vocations, not jobs. (That can’t be done by passing a law, of course; it would have to be a gradual evolution caused by necessity.) In any case, retirement is not a desirable state of being to people who love what they are doing. Among pubic figures, think Jimmy Carter and Oliver Sacks. I suppose most everyone has a friend or family member who is like that. If not, I’ll introduce you to my friend Tanner. He’s approaching 80 and intends to continue practicing law until he is prohibitively infirm or dead.

Raise the age for Social Security qualification. Providing thirty or more years of retirement income to people who are healthy enough to work is surely a questionable use of public funds.

Increase FICA contributions and personal savings rates. The former would be politically unpopular, and the latter would be a tough sell to the me generation and other young people. So what? The income tax, Medicare, anti-trust regulation and all sorts of changes we now see as indispensable faced similar resistance when they were introduced.

Establish means testing as part of Social Security; if you don’t need it, you don’t get it. (Current payouts are funded in part by the people working and paying FICA today, partly by what retired people put in while working. Social security payments are not a return on investment like a 401K is.) Providing hedge fund managers and neurosurgeons a government check every month for decades is absurd.

A BELIEF: THERE ARE MORAL AND PRACTICAL REASONS THAT THE ELEVEN MILLION OR SO ILLEGAL ALIENS LIVING HERE NOW CANNOT BE DEPORTED. It’s unthinkable, to be sure. But some of them just got here yesterday or last week and have no family ties in the United States. In the interest of orderly immigration, these new arrivals should be deported (an expensive, ineffective, and unnecessary process, if getting a job in the United States required proper documentation).

A TERM: ANCHOR BABY. A derogatory term for a problem that is reportedly very small. A few thousand babies are born to relatively wealthy Asians who come to the U.S. for the express purpose of giving birth to a U.S. citizen. But Donald Trump seems to believe that hordes of pregnant women are lined up in large numbers on the Mexican side of the border waiting for their water to break then walking over the bridge using a Border Crossing Card as if to do a little shopping in Brownsville. When the small number of Mexican and other Hispanics do come into the United States for the purpose of having their babies here, it is thought to be—plausibly in my view–for the purpose of obtaining better medical care. Having a baby that is by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment a U.S. citizen doesn’t help Mama and Papa become legal residents of the United States until the baby is twenty-one years old. Maybe some poor immigrants calculate that far ahead, but it seems unlikely.

A TERM: ILLEGAL ALIEN. It’s thought to be pejorative by some people–mostly it seems, those who want few restrictions on the flow of Hispanics into the United States. Their preferred term is “undocumented worker.” Put me down as one who finds “illegal alien” descriptive and acceptable. By the way, I’m a Democrat.

A BELIEF: WE HAVE TO DECIDE HOW MANY U.S. CITIZENS IS TOO MANY AND STOP SHORT OF IT. We must. Unlimited growth, whether legal or illegal, means that at some point we become too crowded for life to be worth a damn. We can differ on what that point is, but endless growth will destroy us. By the way, I’m a Democrat.

LAST WORD: THE PRESIDENT’S OFFER TO ACCEPT 10,000 REFUGEES FROM THE MIDDLE EAST IS SHAMEFULLY INADEQUATE. To take in many times more than that is a moral imperative, especially since we bear a great deal of responsibility for destabilizing the Middle East. Besides that, it’s in our self-interest to increase greatly the number of U.S. residents who are native speakers of Arabic and Kurdish.




  1. Jack Ratliff

    Very thoughtful and incisive. Mostly, I agree. Except I’m not sure that the economy could take it quite as easily as you propose if we paid whatever it takes to get Americans to do the sorry-ass jobs that nobody wants to take. Tar mopping roofers, caregivers for incontinent old men, chicken dicers for Bo Pligrim, dishwashers. And it’s not just ham sandwiches that would get pricey. Everything except Chinese manufactured products would. Nevertheless, that’s no excuse for exploitation.

    The one thing I agree with 100% and have been saying for a long time. Social Security should be means tested. I’m not quite sure why the Democrats (I am one) have such a frothing at the mouth knee jerk reaction to that proposal. The camel’s nose under the tent, they think. I can assure you that I can create an embarrassed and deadly silence at any dinner table conversation in Santa Fe by making that proposal. The silence followed often by voluble outrage and resentment of my perfidy. What are we thinking?

  2. Mary Jane Wilkie

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece about thorny issues. Ultimately, we need to help third-world countries be healthy (itself the subject of a complex treatment). Immigrants don’t come to the US because they love us, but because they’re starving in their own countries. Many of the workmen in my apartment complex are from Albania. I asked one of them what kind of work he did back home, and he said, “There is NO work in Albania.”

    The situation is similar to the Old Testament story, when Joseph’s brothers trekked down to Egypt because they needed food. How we receive these immigrants is what matters.


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