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Illegal Immigration: Checkpoint Charlie Will Not Solve the Problem

May 7, 2010

The recent action by the state of Arizona has returned the issue of people coming to America illegally to the international spotlight.  President Calderón of Mexico is critical of the law in a very public way, even calling it a “violation of human rights[i].”  Without delving in to the particular motivation of Arizona, it is clear that inaction by the federal government is leading us to a patchwork of laws regarding a subject that needs a national consensus.  For purely political motives, the federal government refuses to effectively deal with the issue resulting in harm to the citizens of the United States as well as people here illegally.

The problem for both the congress and the administration is perception.  On the one hand, too tough a law is seen as racist; on the other, too little intervention is seen as not protecting the national border.  In reality, it seems the public is truly concerned about one border, the one between the U.S. and  Mexico.  The northern border with Canada hardly receives national media attention, though it is almost three times as long.  The U.S. – Canada border is 5,526 miles in length while the U.S. Mexico border measures 1,952 miles.[ii] That illustrates it is not the border itself that creates a problem but its being crossed illegally.

There are two basic approaches to ending people coming to the United States illegally,

  1. Protect the boarders to prevent illegal entry.
  2. Remove the reason people enter illegally.

Returning to the political reality politicians face, to address the first approach requires building a national barricade and patrolling the border, much like the East Germans attempted with the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.  The image of our borders dominated by Cold War style “Checkpoint Charlies[iii]” is not the image most politicians wish to give the world, though that is quickly becoming the norm. What is next, will Arizona have neighborhood checkpoints and ask everyone for their documents?  In other words, welcome to the Police States of America.

Figure 1 Checkpoint Charlie[iv]

Addressing the second approach requires understanding why people enter the United States illegally.  While there are many reasons, one dominates all others – work.  Slanted media coverage focuses on issues that inflames fear and promotes stereotypical prejudiced beliefs while minimizing employment as the prime motive.  In doing so, the politician has no political upside in addressing work as the true motive and faces many downsides.  One of the biggest downsides being people working in the United States illegally provides a cheap labor force for employers.  Taking that labor force away will drive wage costs up in employment areas like farming and food processing plants, which employ people here illegally on an industrial scale.  Still, that is exactly what needs to be addressed and does not require the extreme measures of making “Fort America” out of our home.

Regardless of the defensive systems we install, people will get past them.  People enter the United States illegally from all parts of the planet and in all sorts of ways.  Looking at the border with Mexico only addresses the means of egress and not the motives behind the entry.  Rather than pass a law that requires the police to engage in practices that are bound to create civil rights issues, a sensible course of action is to require all employers to verify employment status and penalize them when they do not in a way that removes the incentive for hiring people not here legally.

We face many problems that are not easily solved.  This is not one of them.  The solution is simple and cost-effective.  All it requires is political leadership and that is where it fails.  Rather than accepting the reality of needing the labor force people here illegally provide and giving them a legal option, our political leaders simply kick the can down the road for our children to deal with.  To put it bluntly, anyone with an entrenched position that refuses to compromise is part of the problem and prevents a solution.

The law passed in Arizona seems to take a “just get rid of them” approach.  Expanding that to a national level would mean the removal of a little fewer than twelve million people[v] from the United States.  The cost and logistics of such a move is staggering.  By the very nature of the individuals being undocumented, how would we prove them to be citizens of a particular country to return them to?  It is not as if a country will allow us to dump them on their doorstep because we do not want them.  A better solution is to punish the ones giving the incentive in the first place and then develop a system that allows people to work here legally.  Why do we need to send them home first?  It is more cost-effective to document them where they are and move on.

It is often stated that it is unfair to people who followed the rules to allow the people here illegally to simply get in line for citizenship.  It rewards illegal behavior.  That is not true as there is no need to grant them citizenship at all.  Instead, we grant them foreign worker status, collect taxes, and move on to the next problem.  If they wish to become citizens, let them use the process in place now, if not they can simply work until they wish to return to their home countries. We can thank them for their hard work and they can thank us for the opportunity to earn some money to support their families back home.

Accepting that Arizona’s only wishes to address valid issues surrounding people entering the country illegally, Washington’s inability to take action is the root problem that drives the issue.  We need to remove the politics and just deal with the problem.  Then Mexico can start dealing with its own problem of not providing for its citizens to the point they seek to enter the United States illegally, President Calderón – that is the true human rights violation you need to address.


[i] Booth, William. “Mexican Officials Condemn Arizona’s Tough New Immigration Law.” Washingtonpost.com – Nation, World, Technology and Washington Area News and Headlines. Web. 07 May 2010. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/26/AR2010042603810.html&gt;.

[ii] Length of United States Border with Mexico. Wolfram|Alpha. Wolfram Alpha LLC. Web. <http://www.wolframalpha.com/&gt;.

[iii] 1950s, The Early. “Checkpoint Charlie.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 07 May 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checkpoint_Charlie&gt;.

[iv] Mellmann, Helga T.H. A View of Checkpoint Charlie, the Crossing Point for Foreigners Who Are Visiting East Berlin. 1977. Photograph. DefenseImagery. United States Department of Defense. Web. 7 May 2010.

[v] United States of America. Department of Homeland Security. Office of Immigration Statistics. Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2008. By Michael Hoefer, Nancy Rytina,, and Bryan C. Baker. Office of Immigration Statistics. Web. 7 May 2010. .

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