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Borders & Bureaucrats: The Unseen Roots of the Immigration Problem

Saturday, July 5, 2014

On July 4th of this year I had the opportunity to reprise part of something which happened back in 1995.

In May of that year I struck out on a four hour round trip of joy and relief.  My then-fiancée had finally gotten through all of the wickets of the U.S. immigration system to get her fiancée visa.  She arrived at LAX, so I drove up from my home in San Diego to pick her up.  It was only two weeks before our wedding date - an event which I ended up having to plan largely without her as the visa application process dragged on.

On our wedding day, some friends commented that we did not look nervous.  "Nervous?" I replied.  "No, 'nervous' was Pauline going to the embassy for her final visa interview.  She's here now.  We're getting married today.  It'll be great if everything goes perfectly, but if it doesn't...  well, we're still getting married today."

I said it with a relieved smile.

She is now a U.S. citizen, and recently went home to Malaysia to visit family.  The drive up to LAX this July 4th to pick her up was cause for reminiscing.  And in light of some of the ugliness we have seen in the immigration debate with the recent flood of children crossing the border, it is important we dig a little deeper to discover where the real problem lies.

And it is not at the border and has nothing to do with border security.

When I first applied for my then-fiancée to get her visa I discovered the truth about immigration in America: The requirements are whatever the bureaucrat you happen to have in front of you says they are.  If you ask a question of the immigration bureaucracy, for as many different people you ask, that is the number of different answers you will get - to the same question.  And if you do get the same answer from two people, you will discover the first person didn't tell you all of the requirements; something new will be tacked on by the second person.

And so applications like mine get slow-rolled.  In my case, I reached out to the office of my Congressman to ask for help.  It wasn't until his office inquired about the status of the application that we started getting consistent answers and started making progress.

These are the unseen roots of this problem.  There is an unseemly ugliness right now to the debate, with protesters blocking roads and adults screaming at children.  But there is an even uglier reality we do not see.  It is the reality of human smuggling, of what we call 'coyotes' here in Southern California (the smugglers who prey on the impoverished in Mexico and Central America).  We have seen instances where people have been loaded into rail cars for the trip north - and then left there to die in stifling desert heat.  The question we are not asking is why a market exists for this kind of thing to begin with.

Pointing to the violence and crushing poverty in Central America - which is caused by systemic corruption - is very convenient.  It certainly tells part of the story.  But there is another part of this story which plays an even greater role in creating this ugly, dangerous and inhumane market for human smuggling.

Imagine you are in the supermarket.  You have a list and check each item off as you work your way through the aisles.  You then head to the front to check out.  The first thing you look for is the shortest line.  But you know everyone else is doing the same thing, so you do not really expect one line to be shorter than the rest.  So the next thing you look at are the carts of the last person in each line.  You are looking for the cart with the least amount of items; that will be the check stand you choose.  You are fifth in line; the guy in front of you only has two things in his cart.  You watch, though as the clerk hand-types the UPC code from each product.

"That's strange," you think.  "Why isn't she just scanning the label?"

If you were to ask, she would say that her procedures require she "enters the UPC code for each product."  She takes that to mean manually, so checking out that customer takes forever.

But she finally finishes with that customer.  As the guy next in line comes up, it is time for her to take a break.  But that's OK, someone comes to relieve her.  And he believes the procedures require him to call that customer's bank to verify that his check will clear.  He's on hold with the bank, so...

You look up at the ceiling and sigh...  The lines are all now twice as long as when you queued up.

The guy's check is accepted and he is on his way.  The next guy steps up, and before you know it there is a heated argument over what he can and cannot buy with his food stamps.

"For Pete's sake, can we just get to this guy in front of me who only has two things?"

If you do not think immigration in America is like this check stand, I've got really bad, first hand news for you.  But I've also got some really good, first hand news for you as well.  I grew up here in the San Diego area.  We lived in a city named Chula Vista ('beautiful view' in Spanish).  We called it 'Chula Juana' because we could see the hills of Tijuana from our front yard.  I was the neighborhood paperboy as a teenager - you know - 'that kid' with the canvas bag over his shoulder pedaling along, throwing papers over white picket fences and waving back at 'Ozzie' with a pipe in his mouth and a cup coffee in one hand.  (If you don't get the reference, you might be a jock.  But it's more likely you're just too young.  Call your mom, or maybe even your grandma, and ask her to explain - either way, she'll appreciate the call.)

Right after Daylight Savings Time started, it would be dark when I struck out to deliver the San Diego Union.   And I would occasionally turn a corner on my bike and come across them... a line of immigrants being smuggled through our neighborhood.  It was a little scary at first, but before too long I would just say "buenas dias" as I pedaled along and would get a smile and a 'good morning' in return.

The good news is this:  These folks are not criminals.  Here illegally? Yes.  Criminals?  No.  They are just people who are struggling to feed their families and found themselves at that check stand - in a line that was not moving.  And there is more good news: These folks are no different than you and I.  They are more than happy to 'follow the law' and 'wait in line' - assuming, just like you and I would - that the line is actually moving.

But it's not.

And that is why there is a market for the 'coyotes'.  That is why there is an even uglier reality than adults blocking roads, screaming at a bus full of children.  That is why human beings are stacked like animals in rail cars and left to die in the desert heat.

This problem is really no different than the problem at the Veteran's Administration.  The bureaucracy slow-rolls applications because their first priority is not facilitating immigration.  They are concerned first and foremost with making sure their budget is protected.  The backlog - the line that isn't moving - exists by bureaucratic design.

'Immigration reform' needs to start with a much clearer idea of exactly what the government should be doing here.  Any time we ask a bureaucracy to design, publish, accept and process applications (for anything) we are guaranteeing the least amount of efficiency as possible will be brought to the task.  Success at middle management in government service is very simple: if your budget is maintained or increased, you are a success.  If it is cut, you are a failure.  And in the world of government bureaucracies, you are either predator or prey.  If you don't have a backlog, you have a bulls-eye - on your budget.

Immigration reform also needs to take account of the people who have done things right.  We will not solve the problem of illegal immigration by making a sham of legal immigration and a fool of people like my wife and me who followed the law.

We will solve the problem when we get the line moving.  When we take the application processing portfolio out of the hands of government bureaucracies and contract it out to the private sector, we will see today's technology and streamlined processes demanded by investors start to whittle away at the backlog.  And then our neighbors in Mexico and Central America will see that the line is actually moving.  There will no longer be a market for the 'coyotes' and the ugliness of their inhuman trade.

And then there will be no more of the ugliness of adults blocking roads and screaming at a busload of children.

[UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, The Times of San Diego carried it as an Op-Ed.  The following day I was invited to join LaDona Harvey for the 2pm segment of her 12-3pm radio show on KOGO AM 600 here in San Diego.  Click here to listen to the audio from the segment.]




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