Getting Past the Anger

The emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote 2000 years ago, "How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it." It could well be said of today’s anger about illegal immigration, felt by people on both sides of our borders.

Americans are angry about changes in our culture, the use of tax dollars to subsidize illegal activity, and a general breakdown in the rule of law. Many people in Latin America are irate about what they see as the hypocrisy of Americans who criticize foreign workers while continuing to hire them.

They see the "demonization" of a class of people who provide badly needed services Americans are clearly willing to pay for. And they are losing their most risk-taking entrepreneurial people who might otherwise form the middle-class small business society needed to transform their own economy. Clearly they have a problem, too. 
It seems ironic that people on two sides of an international border can be so angry about a situation that to most seems fairly uncomplicated. Yet the emotion continues to build, bringing historic allies and trading partners ever closer to separation by a modern-day Berlin Wall. Most Americans understand the futility of such a dramatic rise in tensions, having watched the same issue divide our own people so thoroughly.
Our leaders are bitterly divided by factions: law and order advocates who want the border sealed; unions worried about illegals depressing wages; and a small business economy largely dependent on the workforce. Objective observers know all sides have to be satisfied for any solution to work because to some extent all of them are right.

The border must be controlled; needed workers must be provided by a legal and safe system; and the program must be administered in a way that protects local workers. Unfortunately, the anger has grown to the point where objective observers are scarce.
The same is unfortunately true of our deteriorating relationships with our friends in Latin America. Of course, these are disagreements than can be worked out, because there are readily apparent solutions that would solve both sides’ problems.
But any such solution has to begin with a conversation, not a colossal hemisphere-wide shouting match. Just as politicians in the U.S. must stop the partisan political rhetoric before any solution can pass, so Mexican and American business and government leaders must begin a serious dialogue on the issue.

We are working to build this dialogue, and it represents an important part of solving the problem for people on both sides of the border. Mexican officials tell us they badly want to work with U.S. officials on border control and law enforcement, while also providing a legal means for legitimate workers to be matched with jobs. 

Yet the conventional wisdom in the U.S. is that Mexico is part of the problem, that it actually wants its people to break down the border and come in mass to the U.S. That’s because others have defined the issue while Mexican government and business leaders have not been adequately involved in the debate. That must change.
Our proposal is fairly simple. Separate immigrants from temporary guest workers - they are not the same and should not be. Non-immigrants who want work in U.S. should undergo background checks and be issued smart cards that make tracking easy for both employers and law enforcement. Amnesty cannot be part of the deal. Illegals already in the U.S. should leave and obtain legal status outside the U.S.
The program can be practical and reverse the current incentives only if it works quickly and efficiently, so implementation should be contracted to companies that know how to link specific workers to specific jobs (employment agencies) and how to make smart cards with embedded tracking information that can’t be copied (credit card companies).

No government bureaucracy can handle millions of cases in a reasonable time - most illegals know the system doesn’t work, because it didn’t work for them. But if they knew they could get legal quickly and efficiently, employers and employees alike would not only jump at the chance, they would gladly pay for it, too. Taxpayers wouldn’t have to.

Controlling the border would be easier and cheaper because 90 percent of the problem would be gone. The economy could get the workers it needs without subjecting our country to the threats posed by a porous border. Workers could come out of the shadows, pay taxes and be treated like all other workers. We could have both border control and a strong economy.

The devil, as always, is in the details. Like any other good idea, though, people can only figure it out through a calm and rational discussion. That requires both sides to talk to each other, and keep talking. Otherwise, the consequences of our anger and bitterness may be even worse than the cause.

Helen Krieble is president of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation. Gil Cisneros is president of the Chamber of the Americas.

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