Andrew Samwick had an extremely thoughtful post this weekend.
Samwick’s comments (which I’ll get to shortly) called to mind an incident that occurred to me a quarter century ago. I was on a vacation trip from Denver to Hawaii, which required me to change planes in Los Angeles. While walking through the terminal at LAX, I passed a group of twenty people who were trying to help a very frightened woman. The woman was tearful and quite distressed, but spoke no English. The group was trying to find out what had happened to her. A man from the group called out urgently to those in the terminal, “does anyone here speak Spanish?” I went over and offered to help.
The woman told me she was from Guatemala, and had been with a group on a plane that wasn’t even supposed to disembark in L.A. She had decided to make a run for it to seek a life in the U.S. She’d only been able to escape from her group by abandoning literally everything– she had no coat, no handbag, not even shoes. What did she want, I asked? “To work,” she answered. She could clean, anything for anyone who would help her live here.
The group of people all looked at me, waiting for the translation. “What did she say,” they asked. “What happened to her?”
I honestly did not know what to do. The woman was in fact trying to enter the country illegally, and was seeking my help to break the law. On the other hand, she was taking tremendous risks to try to find a better life– who could fault her for that? On top of all that, I myself had a plane to catch in half an hour, so it’s not clear how much I could do, even if I knew what I should do.
I’m curious whether any of my readers have a clearer notion than I did of what is the moral thing to do in a situation like this. Do you turn her in? Do you help her find somebody’s house to clean? Or do you do what I in fact did, shrug to the group, tell them she wants a job, and walk on to my own plane?
I bring this up now because, even without a plane to catch, I’m still not sure what is the right thing to do. Although I understand the controversies about the economic costs and benefits about immigration, I am personally persuaded that the recent magnitude of the immigration into the U.S. has had some undesirable consequences, such as depressing the wages of lower-skilled native-born Americans and raising the costs of social services. But even if you are convinced of that, it’s not clear where you tackle the problem. Like Andrew Samwick, I have no desire at all to punish the baby in this picture.
So where do you begin? Here are Samwick’s suggestions:
I would start with extreme fines for employers caught violating the law–fines that are several orders of magnitude greater than any economic benefit that could be gained by hiring illegals at a lower wage than citizens. This applies to large employers and household employment of domestic workers alike. My next targets would be the smugglers who bring illegals to this country and anyone found forging documents that establish citizenship. Jail time, severe and mandatory. I think that laws to deny illegal immigrants access to driver’s licenses and other non-essential benefits of citizenship are generally a good idea….
There are two more steps we can take. The first is to work on the border. I have no problem with fences. I am willing to pay taxes to support the increases in border security required to keep as many illegals out as possible. Let the problem get no worse than it currently is. The second is to increase the limits on legal immigration.
Some thoughtful proposals from Professor Samwick. Maybe he also knows what I should have done with that poor woman from Guatemala.
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