August 08, 2005,
I am generally pro-immigrant, and would be even if I weren't an immigrant myself (from Canada). But Victor Davis Hanson's book Mexifornia was key to convincing me that we have to get serious about actually closing the borders and quitting our reliance on cheap illegal immigrant labor. As Hanson points out, besides the obvious problems illegal immigration causes California with overcrowded schools and hospitals, the situation exploits the immigrants themselves.
An article in the Los Angeles Times last week, about yet another L.A. County emergency-room closure because of the high price of treating the uninsured (20 percent of whom are illegal immigrants), reminded me yet again that we’ve become like those proverbial frogs in slowly heating pans of water; somehow we’ve come to accept as normal what once would have been considered intolerable.
L.A.’s year-round school calendar, for instance, began as a temporary fix to overcrowding but is now taken for granted and entrenched. Three quarters of our public school population in L.A. is Hispanic, but it’s hard to know how many are either here illegally themselves or the children of illegal immigrants; the school district has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Los Angeles now has more multi-track schools than New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and Houston combined, and the year-round calendar is one big reason L.A. middle-class families avoid the public-school system; camp and other summer-enrichment activities obviously aren’t possible for those in school June through August.
People in other parts of the country are often unaware of this situation. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when University of Virginia law professor Rosa Brooks, one of many non-local Times op-ed columnists hired by departing editorial and opinion editor Michael Kinsley, wrote an especially clueless piece a few weeks ago lamenting that summer is fun for kids but not for working parents. Apparently Brooks is entirely innocent of the fact that L.A.’s year-round public-school situation makes summer a particular problem only for the one third or so of working parents whose kids are on the traditional A-track.
All this doesn’t mean that L.A. public schools never offer fine opportunities. My 16-year-old daughter, who’d been in private school since the middle of fifth grade, begins her senior year later this month at our crowded local neighborhood public high school. It has more AP and honors classes than the private school she’d been attending, an excellent advanced-studies program, and gave us no argument about graduating a year early. (Unlike the private school, which didn’t want to lose that extra year’s tuition and so ended up losing two.) I was impressed with this big public high-school when we actually went there to visit, despite all I’d heard against it, and wished we’d checked it out earlier.
But that year-round calendar would have been a problem. The summer before 10th-grade, for instance, my daughter studied Russian at a language camp, a wonderful experience that also earned her a year’s foreign-language credit. Naturally the typical reaction she got about this was “Why Russian?” The year before, when she took French at a local community college, it was “Why French? Why not Spanish? Isn’t that more useful around here?”
Well, no. What’s useful in Los Angeles is English, which every immigrant child I’ve ever met over age three speaks quite well. But this unthinking, patronizing attitude has much to do with why Hispanic students in L.A. are often ill-served. In L.A. public schools, most students speak at least some Spanish at home. So what is the typical foreign language taught in these schools? Spanish, which they already know. The notion that they might find it more useful to learn French (or another foreign language) never seems to have occurred to school officials.
As it happens, French might come in handy, even here in southern California. During the L.A. bus strike, I often gave one of my daughter’s classmates from her community college French class, a 19-year-old girl from Guadalajara named Veronica, a lift home to East L.A. Veronica, who’s here legally (she was born in the U.S but raised in Mexico), worked in a corner grocery store on weekends, and told us she often got into language trouble with customers.
“I was born here!” they’d say angrily, if she spoke to them in Spanish. “Speak English!”
So then she’d try English with the next customer, who’d snap, “Who are you trying to pretend to be? Speak Spanish!”
I suggested she start speaking to everyone in French. Then they could all feel equally offended.
I'm not as unsympathetic as many people are, by the way, to employers who are less than scrupulous about hiring only legal workers, because I can't see how it's an individual's responsibility to enforce laws that the federal government ignores. Nor am I unsympathetic to illegal immigrants themselves, any more than I'm unsympathetic to people trying to get on a crowded elevator. But at some point you've got to shut the door and those people are going to have to wait for the next one, or we're all going to be stuck on the ground floor.
The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article last month that was a useful reminder of why we have an illegal-immigration problem: Mexican society continues to be remarkably regressive and unfair; the rich own practically everything, and the poor practically nothing, with little hope of rising to the middle class which basically doesn't exist there anyway. The typical L.A. busboy or cleaning lady is about ten times better off than the typical Mexican peasant. I can’t blame hardworking people for wanting to come here and escape miserable circumstances.
Still, I think we've got to close the border. The alternative is to realize that an open border is no border, in which case we face facts and annex Mexico as part of the United States. Make it a territory, like Puerto Rico.
That might not be the worst thing in the world. At least then we could force the Mexican ruling class to realize that, no, you can't tax only the poor; that you have to at least give all children the opportunity for an education; that you can't except the poor to drive their jalopies on the shoulders of the road so the rich can speed past them in Ferraris to use just one horrible example from that Journal piece.
The libertarians, of course, part company with me about all this. My friend Matt Welch, of Reason magazine, said recently he found it funny that an immigrant like me should want to close the borders, which he thinks would be an unmitigated disaster. But I can’t see how. I suppose actually enforcing laws against illegal immigration would mean relatively higher grocery and restaurant prices, a return to the traditional September-to-June school schedule, and middle-class kids forced to make their own beds. These are disasters I can live with.
Regarding my own background, my family immigrated here legally, and it wasn’t easy; they had to prove they’d not be a drain in the American taxpayer, and then they got in line. I am indeed pro-immigrant, and sympathetic to the desperation of illegal immigrants, but against illegal immigration. Is that really so hilarious?
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.