At the turn of the last millennium, King Canute of England got his feet wet when the tide insisted on coming in even after he had commanded the sea to stop. Although many people believe that this story proves the extent of the man’s vanity, he was actually trying to prove a point to his courtiers: He could affect the laws of man set by kings but not the laws of nature set by God.
As waves of people cross the southern U.S. border, the recent debate on our “broken immigration system" reminds us that a mere thousand years has apparently not been long enough to learn the lesson King Canute was trying to impart. Congressmen insist that enforcement is the key, even after a decade of ever-increasing border guards and an even more rapidly increasing budget has failed to make a dent in unauthorized entries. Television pundits complain that the law is not being followed and demand a crackdown on immigrants. Citizens complain that the government is not doing anything and that the immigrants are not waiting their turn. At all levels, people are trying to command the metaphorical tide of immigrants to stop and are simply getting their feet wet for their trouble.
In 2006, President Bush signaled that immigration was his most important domestic agenda item for the year. Congress tried to engage the topic but split between those who would have “enforcement only" (such as sealing the border with Mexico) and those who wanted “comprehensive reform" (for instance, sealing the border but also giving the undocumented a path to citizenship). In the meantime, states and municipalities tried to grapple with the issue, some attempting to clamp down on “illegals" and some declaring themselves to be “sanctuaries.” Immigrants themselves spoke up, when millions of people marched in cities across the country demanding a system of earned legalization. In the end, the best Congress could come up with was a symbolic vote for an as-yet unfunded 700-mile border fence, while local officials were tangled up in courts where the constitutionality of their efforts is being questioned.
Why the stalemate on immigration? Many experts agree that because this issue makes for good political theater—one where a politician can look tough by cracking down on the border without affecting who businesses hire—it becomes particularly difficult to solve rationally. Also, the benefits of immigration tend to be diffused while the costs are generally localized. This makes it difficult for citizens to understand the real cost-benefit ratio. In any case, serious researchers have discovered that scant evidence exists for the oft-heard assertions that the current wave of immigrants is refusing to acculturate, is taking jobs from or significantly depressing wages for the vast majority of Americans, or is not paying taxes and is causing a drain on the government’s fiscal resources.
One reason we have been unable to discuss immigration issues in a rational way has been our use of an unbalanced narrative. While we recognize the economic underpinnings of the causes of immigration, we only talk about the factors that affect supply. In doing so we forget the first law of economics: Supply and demand must be in balance. Therefore, issues of demand should be at least as important in the discussion.
Ask most Americans why they think immigration exists. The answers are structured in the same way: Immigrants come because they have no jobs; they come because they want to eat; they come because they want a better future for their children; they come, simply, to find the “American Dream.” This gives rise to a dominant narrative where the immigration phenomenon is all about the needs and actions of the immigrants. In this scenario, the immigrant is the active party, the protagonist.
The reliance on the supply side explains how the person who in this equation has by far the least economic, social or educational capital ends up with the lion’s share of the responsibility for the immigration crisis. They are responsible because they came here simply because they wanted to. If they came of their own volition, they can either take whatever situation they find, or, if they do not like it, they should leave. As long as we did not invite them, then we have no responsibility in the matter.
In this framework, it is difficult to see how immigrants can ever move from being uninvited guests to being partners. If people are “illegal,” it means they broke the law; and if they broke it, they are probably criminals; and if they are criminals, they are not people we want as neighbors. People who are not invited do not belong: They are aliens, a term otherwise reserved almost exclusively for Martians.
Giving equal emphasis to demand, however, means we would hear people say “we are bringing immigrants because we need someone to look after our children" or even “they are coming because we are giving them jobs.” What really matters then is the supply of labor.
If not enough visas are issued and if people are willing to risk entering the country and working without the necessary documents, why is the fault with the immigrants and not with the federal legislators who refuse to change an immigration law that has clearly been overtaken by the reality of economic demand for a certain type of worker?
A balanced narrative also would talk about illegality, but one not limited to the immigrant. Why do we never hear about illegal corporations or businesses that profit from the work of immigrants? Why does the media never refer to all those millions of illegal consumers who benefit from the immigrant? The narrative that derives its logic from supply and only secondarily looks at demand is also one of the reasons the majority of Americans have disassociated their vision of these immigrants from the heroic vision of immigration of their ancestors. In the social narrative of that phenomenon, the forebears were immigrants who came not to take but to build.
The current way in which we discuss immigration gives total responsibility to the immigrant as it totally absolves Americans. Therefore, we hear that if Mexico could only create more jobs, if Mexico could only develop itself, if Mexico could only . . . The reality is that if the economic fairy godmother changed Mexico into a first-world economy overnight, the United States would still have an immigration problem, albeit with different players.
We need to begin to talk about immigration from the stance of demand for labor, not of supply, if we are to take responsibility for our own economic system and if we want to create a workable law—one that conforms to the natural laws of economics.
Allert Brown-Gort is the associate director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies.