Do you suppose, now that a Republican has been burned by our absurdly
restrictive immigration laws (and labor laws) that anybody in a position
of political authority will even entertain the idea of taking a fresh look
at immigration issues? Probably not, except possibly by making them even
more paternalistic. The Democrats got burned with Zoe Baird, and any
number of people, including New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, have been
embarrassed momentarily by nannygate problems and skated right over them.
During eight Clinton years nothing was done to bring immigration
regulations a bit more closely into line with reality. The present system
serves too many special interests too well, even if it serves the country
and its legacy of freedom poorly.
Before I publicly disqualify myself from any future appointive political
post, it’s worth acknowledging that in Linda Chavez’s case it doesn’t seem
to have been a nanny situation or even an employment situation. Ms. Chavez
may be guilty of not being completely frank with the Bush people who were
vetting her (my guess is that if she had been she would never have been
nominated, but others disagree), but in the main she is being punished for
being the kind of decent person most Americans hope they would be in
More might yet come out, but at present it seems that Marta Mercado
escaped both Guatemala in the throes of a civil war and an abusive husband
and knew somebody who asked Linda Chavez if she could help. Linda Chavez
took her into her home and gave her money as she had with other people,
mostly recent immigrants who were down on their luck. She didn’t ask to
see a green card first. Marta did some housework from time to time.
Ah, but that’s “harboring” an illegal alien, say some, and, given Ms.
Chavez’s somewhat plausible explanation of the legal definition of
“harboring,” it might have been. Furthermore, numerous legal eagles and
phony humanitarians have tried to make it either an employment situation
subject to detailed state, local and federal regulation, or a
sweatshop-style exploitation of a poor immigrant. A person charged with
enforcing these draconian federal labor regulations couldn’t possibly be
trusted if she had skirted them.
Whether or not she really did skirt them, the imbroglio reflects the lust
to regulate every possible human interaction down to the most minute
detail. If somebody wants to take some other person into their home and
give that person spending money, and the person taken in expresses
appreciation by doing a few chores, what possible concern could that be of
Ah, but if it can be defined as an “employment” situation, then the
government in its present bloated manifestation will claim the authority
(whether it’s anything resembling a right is another question) to dictate
the terms of the relationship down to the most minute detail. And the
government that loves to boss us around is and has been at pains to define
as many relationships as possible as falling into the category of
employment or something else over which it has asserted its authority.
Remember the flap, in the middle 1980s, over a few women in New England
who were doing garment assembly work in their homes on a piecework basis?
The arrangement gave them a measure of independence and the opportunity to
earn some money while being home with their children. None of them
complained about it. But the government (prodded by labor unions) wanted
to define it as an employment situation and regulate every aspect of the
process, down to requiring handicapped-accessible restrooms and gummint
inspectors in peoples’ homes.
All for their own good, of course. Thus does the government become the
sworn enemy of flexibility and experimentation in human relationships.
Like any authoritarian institution, it prefers a few simple categories and
the right to regulate and control those to the almost infinite
complexities that characterize relationships among actual human beings.
Now to my own confession. Like almost every middle-class homeowner in
Southern California I have “employed” illegal aliens from time to time. In
almost every town, large and small, in this area there is a place where
people recently arrived from Mexico hang out early in the morning, looking
for work. If you have let your yardwork languish for a while, or need to
get a handle on the weeds (as many will again this Spring after the rains)
or want to get the house painted, it’s usually pretty easy to drive up,
find a few people who understand the concept of “$7 an hour” and get the
help you need.
I have done it a few times, and the experience has been mutually
beneficial (as far as I could see) every time. These people work hard and
are eager to learn. I have always paid more than the government’s
statutory minimum wage (though as little more as I could get away with
after brief negotiation) and given the workers a decent lunch. I have
never reported a scintilla of this activity to any government agency.
I have no sense — zip, zero, nada — that in doing this I have done
anything ethically or morally wrong. It’s probably illegal, but the cops
in almost every jurisdiction are sensible enough to wink at it and stay
away unless there’s a report of a fight or some other kind of real trouble.
I do have to acknowledge, however, that like many homeowners in Southern
California I turn out to have been the unintended beneficiary (I think
it’s unintended although it might not be entirely) of this country’s
overly restrictive immigration laws. If the laws did not have such
absurdly low quotas for immigration from Mexico, most of the people
hanging around on street corners looking for menial work would probably be
in some more systematic form of employment.
The laws that make employers fill out virtually infinite numbers of forms
and answer to the government for every penny spent and every belch
expelled make it difficult (though not impossible) for many of these
people to procure what is sometimes referred to as “legitimate”
employment. So they hang out on street corners as day laborers until they
figure out the system a little better, creating a convenient source of
low-wage labor for homeowners and contractors, and occasionally creating a
disturbance or nuisance. And for most of them it’s better than what is
available in Mexico (I hope Vicente Fox changes that though I’m skeptical)
or at least viewed as the necessary first step on the road to building a
Now why should that be illegal — to want a better life, to travel to a
different country to try to get it, to endure hardship, disappointment and
occasional cruel exploitation and work your tail off in search of
opportunity? That’s exactly what most of our ancestors did, but most of
them weren’t burdened by absurdly restrictive immigration laws. And
there’s no reason those who want to come now should be so burdened.
Believe, me, the communication/intelligence system is efficient. If the
economy in the United States ever gets so lousy that there’s no work for
immigrants they will stop coming. There was no immigration “problem”
during the Great Depression — except for some boatloads of Jews trying to
escape Nazi Germany and cruelly turned back because restrictive and fairly
comprehensive immigration laws had been enacted for the first time in this
country’s history in the 1920s.
There’s a grand bargain that would solve most of the real and perceived
problems with immigration, and it’s not the new improved version of the
old bracero program some people in the Senate are pushing. Here it is:
Eliminate all quotas — how does Congress know how many immigrants Southern
California or any other part of the country “needs” or can absorb? Instead
of a band of thugs, make the Immigration and Naturalization Service a
welcome wagon that checks for infectious diseases and active membership in
terrorist groups (real ones, not opposition parties in dictatorships) and
does one other thing. It would exact a signed promise from every new
immigrant not to apply for any kind of government benefit — welfare,
unemployment, rent subsidies, low-interest loans, anything with the
possible exception of bona fide disability benefits — for a given period
of time, whether five years, 10, 15 or 20, on pain of instant deportation.
That would screen out those who don’t want to work or earn their own way,
eliminating the one legitimate resentment many native-born Americans have
about immigrants now. And while a Texas school case in the 1980s suggested
that courts might frown on denying government benefits (as if government
schooling were much of a benefit) to those recently arrived, more recent
Supreme Court decisions have approved of residency time requirements for
certain kinds of government programs. So some system could be worked out
that would pass legal muster.
But that simple solution is politically unlikely. Far too many unthinking
conservatives (some bigots, some not), who don’t understand that the real
problem is the welfare state, not immigrants, would oppose it. And most
liberal and ethnic political organizations wouldn’t endorse it either.
Where would LULAC and other groups be if they didn’t have a steady supply
of “victims” who require “advocacy” to make it?
Can we hope for some fresh and compassionate thinking on immigration from
an administration that has been burned by the moral inversion of Linda
Chavez being punished for acting like a decent human being? I wish I could
hope so, but I really don’t.
All that said, one aspect of the affair is worthy of celebration rather
than the kneejerk expressions of regret it usually elicits. Ms. Chavez
herself said, “So long as the game in Washington is a game of search and
destroy, I think we will have very few people who are willing to do what I
did, which was to put myself through this in order to serve.” The comment
was at least mildly self-serving, but it is echoed almost everywhere when
such incidents occur. Gracious, isn’t it awful? Where will the government
find good, talented people to do its work if it treats them so shabbily?
In fact, that’s hardly a problem; plenty of people have already jumped
forward to tell Dubya they wouldn’t mind being labor secretary and a few
might even be qualified. But the notion that it’s a terrible shame if
people don’t want to be government hacks is morally and politically
inverted. In a free society few of the best and brightest would have any
interest at all in government. And there’s some evidence that when it
comes to the less prestigious, well below cabinet-rank jobs, many of the
best and the brightest are avoiding government jobs. Government is having
a hard time finding people with real computer expertise and recruiting
people to be social workers overseas in what the Clinton administration
has laughingly called the military.
Insofar as that’s true, it’s cause for celebration rather than
lamentation. One might even hope that it is a manifestation of the growing
irrelevance of national politics in our daily lives. It would be great for
the country and great for freedom if Washington is no longer where the
action is, and it no longer attracts as many top-drawer people with
ambitious, idealistic agendas as once it did. And at least some evidence
supports the idea.
Communism dominated much of the century now past, but it has died and with
it much of the reason for Americans to be intimately concerned with what
happens in the national capital. Add the growth of technology that has led
to a restructured and more vibrant private sector, and national government
seems almost pathetic in its marginality, a source of entertainment and
one-liners for late-night comedians rather than a source of either
inspiration or active trepidation.
This is hardly a disaster, but more like a fulfillment of the promise of
American life. In 1780 John Adams wrote a famous letter to his wife
Abigail: “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty
to study mathematics and philosophy … in order to give their children a
right to study painting, poetry, music.”
War, violence, aggression and the urge to push people around are not
likely to disappear in the next millennium. It will probably be necessary
for some time to come for at least some of us to pay attention to war and
politics. But if we’re really moving in a direction in which it is
possible to contemplate more people being able to build satisfying lives
while ignoring politics, we shouldn’t waste a moment deploring the trend.
It’s good news.