Thursday, June 14, 2007

Immigration, then and now

For an example of why immigration is a thorny problem, consider the town of Lindsay, Calif.

The packing houses here in the heart of California’s citrus belt are generally hopping the first week of February. In a normal year, the two LoBue Bros. plants would be open 50 to 60 hours a week, employing 230 workers and processing up to 7,000 bins of oranges. But after last month’s freeze, the third since 1990, LoBue is operating at quarter speed. One plant is shut down, and the other is running just 20 hours a week. About 60% of the employees are off work.

After the first of March, there will be a brief spurt of activity, when agricultural officials determine which remaining oranges are frost-free and good enough to go to market. But by mid-April, when the good fruit runs out, all activity, from picking to trucking, will stop, and there will be no more work until late October. If workers leave town -- and if those who stay are jobless -- the city’s economy will collapse.

Seeking to avert an economic meltdown, officials have come up with an innovative plan to not only address joblessness but to keep the workforce from abandoning the town. Invoking the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Projects Administration, the city’s elected officials -- all of whom are Republicans -- are seeking federal aid to put the idle labor force to work on local improvement efforts.

The fact that a large-yet-undetermined percentage of farm laborers -- particularly pickers -- are illegal immigrants does not deter local officials from seeking aid for them. Unlike other parts of the U.S. where undocumented immigration is a divisive issue, in Lindsay it is a matter of economic survival.

One question that remains to be answered in the debate is whether we're willing to see towns like Lindsay get hammered economically -- some to the point of extinction. If not, it drastically constricts our options for addressing the problem.

Meanwhile, I stumbled across this Christian Science Monitor story from a year ago -- a historic example of an immigration crackdown that worked under Eisenhower.

Fifty-three years ago, when newly elected Dwight Eisenhower moved into the White House, America's southern frontier was as porous as a spaghetti sieve. As many as 3 million illegal migrants had walked and waded northward over a period of several years for jobs in California, Arizona, Texas, and points beyond.

President Eisenhower cut off this illegal traffic. He did it quickly and decisively with only 1,075 United States Border Patrol agents - less than one-tenth of today's force. The operation is still highly praised among veterans of the Border Patrol.

How did he do it? First, put someone energetic and competent in charge and insulate them from political pressure:

In 1954, Ike appointed retired Gen. Joseph "Jumpin' Joe" Swing, a former West Point classmate and veteran of the 101st Airborne, as the new INS commissioner.

Influential politicians, including Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D) of Texas and Sen. Pat McCarran (D) of Nevada, favored open borders, and were dead set against strong border enforcement, Brownell said. But General Swing's close connections to the president shielded him - and the Border Patrol - from meddling by powerful political and corporate interests.

Next, root out the entrenched interests:

One of Swing's first decisive acts was to transfer certain entrenched immigration officials out of the border area to other regions of the country where their political connections with people such as Senator Johnson would have no effect.

Next, make mass arrests:

Then on June 17, 1954, what was called "Operation Wetback" began. Because political resistance was lower in California and Arizona, the roundup of aliens began there. Some 750 agents swept northward through agricultural areas with a goal of 1,000 apprehensions a day. By the end of July, over 50,000 aliens were caught in the two states. Another 488,000, fearing arrest, had fled the country.

By mid-July, the crackdown extended northward into Utah, Nevada, and Idaho, and eastward to Texas.

By September, 80,000 had been taken into custody in Texas, and an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 illegals had left the Lone Star State voluntarily.

And send those arrested far, far away:
Unlike today, Mexicans caught in the roundup were not simply released at the border, where they could easily reenter the US. To discourage their return, Swing arranged for buses and trains to take many aliens deep within Mexico before being set free.

Tens of thousands more were put aboard two hired ships, the Emancipation and the Mercurio. The ships ferried the aliens from Port Isabel, Texas, to Vera Cruz, Mexico, more than 500 miles south.

Eisenhower's tactics could work today -- if we were willing to accept the resulting economic dislocation; if we were willing to accept the spectacle of mass arrests, detentions and deportations; if we were able to find a modern Gen. Swing and give him the authority, resources and protection he needed; if we were willing to ignore the protests of employers, landlords, shopkeepers and all the others who benefit from illegal aliens; and if we were willing to pay higher prices at the supermarket and elsewhere so that the illegals could be replaced with higher-paid American workers.

Those are the ifs that we need to build a consensus around before any serious action can be taken -- or else we need a president who is willing to take a lot of heat for taking such action before a consensus is reached.

Which may help explain why big issues like this are dealt with infrequently, and rarely decisively.

While you have to admire the results, I don't particularly advocate repeating Eisenhower's approach. The cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face aspect of it is much larger today than it was in the 1950s, when it was still possible to think of illegal aliens as a separate "them" instead of a much more entangled "we". Not to mention the difficulty we may have getting Mexico to cooperate in repatriation efforts.

While I have no problem with mass raids and deportations, they should be tailored to minimize human suffering (families torn apart, for instance) and damage to our own economic interests. And they should be only as large and numerous as our deportation processes can efficiently handle. If we can process 10,000 deportees a month, then that's how many we should arrest. Otherwise we'll end up with huge detention camps, which are neither just nor good PR. A few innocents will inevitably be caught up in the dragnet, and beyond the moral concerns we don't want another "innocent person languishes in jail because of bureaucratic snafus" black eye.

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