Tom Matlack thinks there is a simple solution to the problem of immigrants who work here illegally: charge them money to become citizens.
There are 11.2 million illegal aliens in the United States. We are broke. How about we offer each of those 11 million people a one-time shot at becoming tax-paying American citizens by reporting themselves to authorities and agreeing to pay $10,000 a head over the course of 24 months? The resulting $112 billion will hardly cover the budget deficit—or the ongoing cost of our adventure in the Middle East—but it will solve a vexing social problem.
Then, we can actually enforce the immigration laws on the books with rigor rather than looking the other way or, worse, instituting unfair Arizona-style statutes. Going forward, we can continue to tighten our borders. With the backlog now dealt with, we can also create a workable process by which those who want to come to our country can seek citizenship in an organized way—for a price—that will continue our tradition of being a nation of immigrants.
There is this idea that illegal immigrants are the problem with our economy because they are poor and lazy. This was contradicted for me when I met a retired investment banker, Bob Hildreth. Bob has made it his cause in life to develop saving circles for poor, often illegal, immigrant parents to save for their children’s college education.
A couple of years ago, the Department of Homeland Security raided the Bianca factory mill in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and imprisoned 400 illegal workers. Half, all Mayan-speaking Guatemalans, were taken to a Texas prison. When Hildreth heard what was going on, he got in touch with the pro bono attorneys representing the arrested immigrants and went to a community meeting with the families. In the back of the room, he muttered to one of the attorneys that if one of the immigrants needed bond but didn’t quite have it, he might be willing to pay half. “I thought maybe one, two, three people would take it, because bonds were $5,000 each,” Hildreth recalls. “Forty families took me up on it. And all of a sudden I had to fork over $120,000.
Hildreth got a lot of attention as a result, including a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal, in which Hildreth was quoted as saying, “The raid … was extremely un-American.” Glenn Beck, the national radio and television host, devoted an entire program to Hildreth. “I can think of plenty of crazy ways to waste a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Beck opined. “But if busting illegals and their employers is un-American, I would hate to see what this guy thinks is American.”
Hildreth stood by his belief that defending the rights of the Guatemalan immigrants was no different from defending those of his own Irish ancestors. Hildreth’s mother was a history teacher, so the importance of immigrants to America was taught to him early. “Pick up any American history book, and you would think that American immigrants were angels coming in,” he says. “All the inventors who were from Germany, Austria, and Russia.”
But, he points out, among the very first laws passed by the first U.S. Congress were the Alien and Sedition Acts, intended to keep out the French. “At that time, we thought they were dangerous, just like people who think immigrants now might be terrorists,” Hildreth says. “Nativism has been consistently dark in our history.”
Hildreth’s finance initiative worked. He got the illegals out of jail. What’s more, the families all paid him back. Hildreth gave the money to Legal Aid, but the experience gave him the idea for saving circles.
Immigrants earn more money than most people think; they have less to spend because they send a lot of it home to support their families. The Guatemalans in New Bedford didn’t even speak Spanish; they were Mayans, the poorest of the poor. But even they paid Hildreth back $5,000 each to get out of jail. What if, as U.S. citizens, they could stay out of jail for good for twice that amount?
I’ll say it another way: When immigrants come to this county, they are highly motivated to do anything they possibly can to succeed—no matter what. Whether Hispanic or Asian or Caribbean, their work ethic is not in question. As Bob Hildreth has found out, that means they do have more money than most people think. They just have no legal status in our country.
The argument that the 11.2 million illegals take jobs away from 13.9 million U.S. citizens who are currently unemployed is built on fear and an inaccurate assessment of real jobs, skills, and demographics. Paying an illegal under the table might be cheaper for an employer because of the lack of payroll tax and benefits, but selling citizenships can solve that. But the reality is, the vast majority of America’s unemployed are seeking jobs—in manufacturing, construction, and skilled positions—that few illegals would attempt to fill. The illegals I know are busting their asses as nannies or janitors or manual laborers.
The well-publicized skills gap in our country has absolutely nothing to do with immigration policy. Americans want good-paying jobs. Those jobs are readily available, but in the new economy they require moving fields—to health care and education services, for instance—and getting further education. You may not be able to work in a factory anymore, but you can get a job as a lab technician making about the same amount of money at pretty much any hospital in the country because there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates. But you have to get trained to do it. There is no illegal standing in the way of that shift. It’s us. The illegals are just a convenient scapegoat.
None of this is meant to minimize the depth of our recession or the grave inequity of wealth in our country (see “I Hate Rich People”). But there is a gender issue here. All this End of Men nonsense is based on the data that shows that men are not getting educated, are unwilling to move into female-dominated fields, and are the ones hardest hit by unemployment. One response to all that, by men who are justifiably pissed off, is to want to kick out the illegals.
I just think that is missing the point. Let’s let them in. Make them pay. Collect taxes going forward. And get down to rebuilding our workforce and our economy.
photo by spaceshoe / flickr