CAMPBELL: The absurdity of our immigration politics

March 12, 2011

Steve CampbellAnyone who knows me knows I tend to steer away from controversy of any kind. Part of it is personality, and part of it is my years spent as a communications operative in politics, where there are three main rules: Never lie, don’t embarrass the boss, and don’t say anything too controversial.

Logic is going to override my natural aversion to controversy and drive me to say something bold and controversial: The immigration bills being debated in Indiana and other states across the country are a farce. They fail to address the root of the issue and seem to be driven only by good, old-fashioned politics.

I was horrible in economics in high school and college. I wish I had more tolerance for the nuances of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, but my devastatingly short attention span allowed me to absorb only the most basic of concepts, namely that 90 percent of economic theory comes down to the most simple of ideas—supply and demand.

Here’s the bottom line: There is a supply of workers from other countries who will work for a lower wage than the average American, and there is a demand from American employers for cheap labor. Any law that fails to address this basic economic truth is window dressing. If you have ever spent time in an impoverished country, I believe you would concur.

Over the past five years, I have spent a great deal of time in Honduras—the second-poorest nation in the West behind Haiti—as a part of “teacher missions” spearheaded by Indianapolis teachers who bring supplies and resources to needy Honduran schools.

You could fill a library with stories about how sad the living conditions are in many parts of Honduras. For brevity’s sake, just imagine how hopeless an environment can be, and know it is probably worse.

What’s more, these conditions don’t exist just in far-flung mythical places we see in late-night TV solicitations. They are a short drive or walk from our borders.

So how can it be a surprise that people living in such conditions would risk everything—jail, leaving their families or deportation—to come to America to make a better life?

On top of that, there are employers here who will continue to hire illegal immigrants. So who’s the bad guy here?

I’ve never quite bought the argument that illegal immigration—which has been going on in America since the day we declared independence—has suddenly become this great threat to our way of life. But if I were to concede that argument for one second, why aren’t our lawmakers addressing the real causes?

Does anyone truly believe that requiring police officers to question suspicious characters is going to end illegal immigration? Does anyone honestly believe that printing all government publications only in English is going to be some deterrent?

If proponents were serious about the issue, they would make it a crime to hire an illegal immigrant. Not a slap on the wrist, not a fine, not an audit, but a felony. They would send officials to every office park, construction company, restaurant and factory to tell the owner: “If you hire just one illegal immigrant, you’re going to jail.”

This will never happen, of course, because most places in America would shut down, and our jails would burst at the seams.

It’s easier to propose a law that sniffs around the edges of a challenge than it is to honestly address its roots. The causes are complex, expensive and they can’t be summarized in a sound bite.

But as a state and country, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t position ourselves as the great purveyor of democracy around the world, then act shocked when someone actually takes us up on the offer.

As long as America remains the land of opportunity, people will want to come here. As long as there are American employers who will hire an illegal immigrant, people will continue to cross the border—the right way or the wrong way.•


Campbell was a deputy mayor under former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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