Tuesday, April 12, 2005


First, understand the problem.

That's a good rule. Whether you're trying to answer a math problem or trying to reform Social Security, if you aren't clear about the nature of the problem, the odds are that your solution won't address it. If it does, it's just dumb luck -- and who wants to rely on that?

These are the thoughts that arise when I think about the Minuteman Project now in progress down in Arizona. For the remainder of the month, volunteers will be providing "assistance" to border patrol agents who are attempting to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across the border. These volunteers are motivated by their belief that the federal government "is not fulfilling its mission to protect American citizens from the economic and physical danger of porous borders." The hope is that, by bringing attention to the issue, the federal government will be shamed into action.

Unfortunately, I strongly believe that the Arizona Minutemen do not understand the problem that they are supposedly trying to address. Therefore, they are doomed to fail.

Here's the situation. There are, in the most general sense, two types of crime. First, you have victim/perpetrator crime. In each instance there is an entity that profits from the activity and an entity that experiences harm. These crimes are zero-sum in that there must be a winner and a loser for each occurrence. Murder, theft, and vandalism are all examples of victim/perpetrator crime. The second class of crime is what you might refer to as transactional. In these crimes, both of the directly involved entities gain from its commission, while the negative effects are experienced by tangential entities. Drug sales and prostitution fall into this category.

From a law enforcement perspective, transactional crimes are much more difficult to address for numerous reasons. First of all, since those directly involved benefit from the crime’s commission, the police are usually unaware that a crime has even occurred. There may be complainants, but due to the fact that they are tangential entities, they rarely have valuable information to offer. The second difficulty facing law enforcement is that transactional crimes tend to follow a supply-demand dynamic. Merely focusing upon the supply side of the equation results in higher demand and thus a stronger incentive to engage in the specific criminal activity. Busting drug dealers has the effect of driving up the street value of narcotics, which in turn draws new dealers into the market. Therefore, any effective law enforcement response must address both supply and demand. If you don't, you'll never make a difference.

What about illegal immigration? Where does it fit in? Well, despite all the rhetoric about immigrants stealing jobs and using up valuable municipal resources, it pretty clearly falls into the transactional category. While most people recognize the immigrants themselves as criminal entities, few seem to recognize their partner in crime: employers. Overwhelmingly, individuals cross the border in order to find work, not to live off of the American welfare state. And employers are all too happy to have them. When the two sides meet, they both benefit and a transactional crime is born.

Now, let's return to the Minutemen. Their focus is sealing the border, pure and simple. But, in the transactional crime model, this addresses only one half of the equation -- the supply half. Assuming they are successful in reducing the flow of immigration, it will merely serve to drive up wages, making immigration that much more attractive. Through this process they could potentially drive wages so high that it would no longer make sense to hire illegal workers, but it is hard to imagine anyone investing the resources that that would require.

If the Minutemen truly wanted to make a difference they wouldn't merely be standing on the border. They would be monitoring strawberry and avocado farms or standing outside HomeDepot and writing down the license plate number of each car that picked up an immigrant to help around the yard. But, I've noticed that they aren't doing that. No one is.

Having insecure borders is a real problem, especially when we live with the constant threat of terrorist infiltration. That said, it's a fantasy to think that we can address the problem in this manner. As with most transactional crime, the solution isn't to stop it, the solution is to regulate it. Secure borders could be achieved with an appropriately constructed guest worker program. Immigrants would much rather pass through a border patrol station than through the Mexico-Arizona deserts. Employers would be happy to continue to employ these workers. Border patrol agents would much rather focus their efforts on immigrants with truly nefarious intentions, as opposed to those simply trying to earn a living. It's a win for everyone.

Unless, you just don't like foreigners. The following is from the Minuteman Project welcome page:
[The Minuteman Project] is a reminder to Americans that our nation was founded as a nation governed by the "rule of law", not by the whims of mobs of ILLEGAL aliens who endlessly stream across U.S. borders. Accordingly, the men and women volunteering for this mission are those who are willing to sacrifice their time, and the comforts of a cozy home, to muster for something much more important than acquiring more "toys" to play with while their nation is devoured and plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens. Future generations will inherit a tangle of rancorous, unassimilated, squabbling cultures with no common bond to hold them together, and a certain guarantee of the death of this nation as a harmonious "melting pot."

The result: political, economic and social mayhem.

Historians will write about how a lax America let its unique and coveted form of government and society sink into a quagmire of mutual acrimony among the various sub-nations that will comprise the new self-destructing America.
Okay -- maybe my solution isn't a win for everyone. But it sure makes clear what everyone's problem really is.
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