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America's Second Marshall Plan: A New Perspective on "Illegal Immigration"
Today, the United States provides many forms of foreign aid to the underdeveloped nations of the world. We may simply give money to other governments, or arrange to provide them with generous loans at very favorable rates. We may send them various sorts of free supplies, ranging from food to military equipment. Special arrangements may provide foreign governments and companies with lucrative business deals; in the form of Peace Corps volunteers, we can assist other countries with subsidized workers who will serve their citizens in a variety of ways.

And there is another form of foreign aid which, depending upon how you look at it, is either receiving a great deal of attention nowadays, or is not receiving any attention at all.

In this foreign aid program, certain residents of poorer countries are informally allowed to come to the United States to live and to work; some may stay for only a short period of time, while others may remain indefinitely. The program provide several benefits to foreign countries in need: some of their citizens get to enjoy the higher wages and more comfortable lifestyle available in America; because these citizens are no longer living in their home countries, the governments save money because they no longer need to provide them with services such as education, police protection, and health care; and the vast majority of people participating in the program regularly send a large portion of their income to relatives back home, providing numerous citizens of those countries with valuable subsidies.

To be sure, there are some problems in this foreign aid program that arguably should be addressed. Because the United States does not assist with the transportation of these foreign citizens, the program is primarily helpful only to those nations which are in close proximity to our borders. The program is not carefully monitored, so that its true dimensions and benefits can only be measured by highly uncertain statistical estimates. And while the costs of foreign aid are traditionally borne solely by the federal government, this foreign aid program draws its resources from a broad array of federal, state, and local agencies.

Still, if one takes everything into consideration, this foreign aid program is one that deserves the full support of the American people, since it has proven to be effective and successful in helping other nations that truly need and deserve our assistance. More than that: compared to the other sorts of assistance previously discussed, I think this is a great foreign aid program.

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I recognize that many readers may resist where they think this argument is going, but if everyone can take a deep breath and briefly reconsider "illegal immigration" as a form of foreign aid, I believe that the strengths and advantages of this inadvertent foreign aid program will become apparent.

First, while a few programs like the Peace Corps may provide direct personal assistance to citizens of other countries, the vast majority of foreign aid goes directly to foreign governments—which are frequently corrupt, inefficient, or both corrupt and inefficient. For every $100 that is sent to these governments, $70 or $80 may be wasted—diverted to officials' private bank accounts, used to overpay ineffectual businesses in cahoots with unethical leaders, or deployed to support a vast, inert bureaucracy. Much of the history of American foreign aid is a sad story of vanished funds and expensive projects that, in the end, provided almost no real benefits to the citizens of poorer countries. In contrast, while foreign governments may as noted gain indirect financial benefits from this form of foreign aid (due to the absence of many of their citizens), the vast majority of this foreign aid goes directly into the pockets of individual citizens who desperately need it; there are no predatory middlemen involved.

In addition, while many foreign aid initiatives undoubtedly do provide some tangible assistance to foreign nationals, the role of the United States as the benefactor may be virtually invisible. Consider Egypt, the country that, with the exception of Israel, has received more American financial aid than any other nation. Thanks to our unprecedented generosity, the average Egyptian citizens today enjoy a much better life than that of their compatriots in other Arab nations. But do they recognize that the United States is responsible for their condition, and are they grateful to the United States for its contributions to their well-being? Not at all; not only is our generosity largely unnoticed and never publicized by the Egyptian government, but the average Egyptian citizens, largely due to rabid anti-American propaganda, despise the United States and everything it represents. And if such people ever gain control of the Egyptian government, our only reward for billions of dollars of financial support for Egypt may be the creation of another powerful enemy in the Middle East.

In contrast, the role of the United States in assisting its illegal immigrants is inescapably apparent to all. While some undocumented workers may encounter discrimination and mistreatment, most of them eventually come to realize that the vast majority of American citizens are kind and generous people, and that our system of government, despite its flaws, is basically devoted to helping its citizens instead of oppressing them. In their letters and their visits to relatives back home, these workers speak about the nice Americans they have met and the benefits of living in America. As a result, although many Mexicans may understandably oppose some of America's policies, they generally view the United States in a positive light. In South America, some leaders have gained power on the basis of vehemently anti-American stances, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, but no Mexican politician has ever run for president on a platform of unyielding opposition to the United States. Such an approach would never be successful, because most Mexicans recognize that, however much they may disagree with some of our actions, the United States is generally a good neighbor, and they want the United States to remain their good neighbor.

Furthermore, since the United States has little direct contact with the citizens of most countries that it supports with financial aid, and cannot readily communicate any positive messages about America to them, these foreign nationals are readily susceptible to vicious anti-American rantings and the insidious appeals of radical factions. The streets of Egypt are full of young men, and even young women, who could easily be recruited to participate in violent attacks on Americans and on America. In contrast, the people on the streets in Mexico pose no such threats to our interests. Many opponents of illegal immigration argue that lax border security could allow terrorists to enter the country and threaten our citizens, and it is true that a few people from the Middle East with such ideas may be trickling across the border. But the vast majority of illegal immigrants are from Mexico and Central America, and although a few of them might be hardened criminals or drug-dealers, none of them are terrorists. No Mexican in his right mind would ever crash an airplane into an American skyscraper, because he would know that he might be killing his brother or his cousin, or his friend's brother or his friend's cousin, and because he would know that, whatever evils the American government might be perpetrating, the average American citizens who would be killed in such an attack would not deserve such a fate. By creating personal bonds between Americas and citizens of other countries, and by communicating accurate and supportive information about America to citizens of other countries, the foreign aid program known as illegal immigration does not harm America's security, but rather it strengthens our security.

Finally, a recurrent frustration in traditional foreign aid programs is that they can do nothing to improve the corrupt or dictatorial regimes that are often, as a matter of necessity, the recipients of the assistance that is badly needed by their oppressed and neglected citizens. The aid will invariably be manipulated to support, and not to undermine, governments that badly need to be reformed or replaced, and misinformed citizens who should be resisting those governments may instead continue to complacently tolerate them. In contrast, the effects of illegal immigration are powerfully subversive. Mexico is again the obvious example. The citizens of Mexico know full well that bribery, theft, and inefficiency are not essential attributes of a government—because they have experienced, or they know people who have experienced, a government which largely lacks those vices. They have learned that it is possible to have a government that actually responds to the needs of its people, instead of ignoring them or stealing from them. It is no coincidence that the rise in illegal immigration from Mexico in recent decades was accompanied by a rise in opposition to an entrenched, and thoroughly corrupt, Mexican government. Thus, after nearly a century of virtually dictatorial one-party rule, the Mexican people demanded fair elections, and in the year 2000 they finally succeeded in throwing that party out of office in favor of a new party, led by Vicente Fox, that promised sweeping reforms. Six years later, both candidates vying to replace Fox agreed that he had not accomplished enough, and promised additional reforms. Thus, a program of tolerated illegal immigration can achieve what no other foreign aid program has ever been able to achieve—namely, to make bad foreign governments change their ways and better serve their citizens.

So, suppose somebody came to you and asked you to support a new foreign aid program that was virtually guaranteed to tangibly improve the lives of many foreign people, that was virtually guaranteed to increase support for the United States and to heighten its security, and that was virtually guaranteed to prod foreign governments into becoming more democratic and more benevolent. Given our traditional inclination to provide generous support for needy people throughout the world, such a program should garner broad and enthusiastic approval. Instead, this program—which in fact has already existed for decades—is attracting increasingly vehement opposition, largely because it has never been properly understood.

*   *   *   *   *

Therefore, it is high time to entirely change the nature and the tone of the ongoing debate on illegal immigration in America. First, we must immediately bring a halt to all discussion about "the costs of illegal immigration." Opponents of illegal immigration seize upon and massage certain estimates in order to demonstrate that illegal immigrants are costing American taxpayers billions of dollars; supporters of illegal immigration seize upon and massage other estimates in order to demonstrate that, in fact, illegal immigrants are beneficial to the American economy. But this entire argument is irrelevant. Foreign aid programs are supposed to cost money; foreign aid is supposed to be unprofitable. Suppose, at the time of the Marshall Plan that sent vast amounts of funds to the devastated nations of postwar Europe, some economist had announced that, according to his analysis, the plan was costing American taxpayers much more money than it was providing in the way of economic benefits to America. He would have been laughed at for stating something that was both obvious and unimportant. True, a few Americans at the time no doubt argued that we should stop giving money to those downtrodden Europeans and instead use the money to make Americans a little bit wealthier; but thankfully, they were ignored. Today, we have inadvertently launched a second Marshall Plan to give money to other downtrodden nations, primarily Mexico and Central America, and it is open to attack on the same grounds; but before we start rounding up and deporting illegal aliens and building a wall along the Mexican border, Americans need to stop and think about who we are, and what we are supposed to be doing.

The point is this: the United States of America is a wealthy nation, and historically it has been a generous nation. For a long time, we have been able to afford, and we have been willing, to send billions of dollars in foreign aid to other countries whose citizens were in dire need. Today, we can afford, and we should be willing, to pay for some extra students in our classrooms, some extra patients in our emergency rooms, and yes, if you must mention it, some extra criminals in our prisons.

This is not to say that the present system is ideal; as already intimated, there are some problems that could be addressed, and there is plenty of room for healthy debate about how to address those problems. But in order to have fruitful discussions, we must change the underlying premise of the debate: instead of seeing illegal immigration as an evil that must be eliminated, or as an economic necessity that must be maintained, we must see illegal immigration as a foreign aid program which has done some good but which could also be significantly improved in several ways.

First, it cannot be denied that illegal immigration has benefited the poor nation of Mexico and the poor nations of Central America, but because of the practical difficulties involved in getting to America from great distances, it has done little to benefit the poor nations of other continents. And this is not really fair, and this is an inequity that we might do something to address. Perhaps, for example, we could go along with proposals for heightened security along the Mexican border, but at the same time we could quietly introduce a policy of heightened leniency in allowing foreign nationals to obtain visas, and heightened leniency in allowing foreign nationals to indefinitely overstay their visas. The net result, after a period of time, might be a decrease in the numbers of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and an increase in the numbers of illegal immigrants from other countries. Due to geographical realities, the numbers of illegal immigrants from Nigeria may never equal the numbers of illegal immigrants from Mexico, but carefully crafted policy initiatives like these might serve to achieve more of a balance, so that our entire population of illegal immigrants includes fewer people from Mexico and Central America and more people from South America, Africa, and Asia—thus distributing the stipulated benefits of illegal immigration more equitably among the various poor nations of the world.

Second, it would indeed be helpful to know, with a modicum of certainty, precisely how many illegal immigrants are now in America, which countries they came from, which states they are living in, what they are doing, and how much of a financial burden they are really imposing on local and state governments. Today, they are more than enough studies that purport to provide answers to such questions, but they have often been conducted by researchers with visible axes to grind, either in opposition to or in support of illegal immigration, so they can rarely be entirely trusted. Thus, it would valuable if the federal government could launch a special research initiative, recruit the most qualified and most unbiased experts available, and endeavor to get the best possible data on the true dimensions of illegal immigration in America. With such information, this foreign aid program could be better understood, and more effectively manipulated.

Finally, as noted, the federal government has traditionally been responsible for providing all forms of foreign aid, as determined by legislation passed by Congress and implemented by the executive branch. Thus, when state welfare agencies or local hospitals find themselves in the position of providing services to illegal immigrants and thus of providing foreign aid to other countries, they might reasonably protest that they are doing something which they have never been asked or expected to do. This is where some reasonably accurate data could prove useful. Let us suppose, just to toss out some ballpark figures, that there are indeed about 11,000,000 illegal immigrants in the United States, and let us suppose that, on average, each illegal immigrant costs state and local governments about $5000 a year. Congress could then pass a law directing the State Department to annually give each state a check for $5000 times the number of estimated illegal immigrants in that state; the states would then be responsible for compensating the various individual agencies that are being impacted by illegal immigrants. The total cost would be 5.5 billion dollars a year—which sounds like a lot, but this would only represent about a 25% increase in the amount that the United States is already spending on foreign aid, and, as already indicated, it would be subsidizing a form of foreign aid that seems far more effective than other current programs.

Still, if the American public would be disinclined to support a 25% increase in American foreign aid, some adjustments could be made to reduce the total cost. To be specific, if it is determined that a country is costing the United States a certain amount of money due to illegal immigration, the amount of money it is receiving in other forms of foreign aid could be proportionately reduced. Overall, then, even though there still might be a net increase, the United States, by including illegal immigration in its foreign aid calculations, could achieve the benefit of more genuine equity in the aid that it disperses, sending less aid to nations that provide many illegal immigrants while possibly sending more aid to nations that send us few illegal immigrants.

Whether or not such new policies are implemented, it remains essential that we at least change the tone of the debate over illegal immigration. Today, we should be paying less attention to the new proposals of President George W. Bush and paying more attention to the worthwhile goal once announced by his father, President George H. W. Bush: that America should strive to be a "kinder, gentler nation." We are fond of saying that the United States is the most generous nation in the world, and whenever a disaster strikes anywhere in the world, American citizens invariably respond with outpourings of charitable contributions. If a devastating hurricane struck a poor coastal town in Mexico, television images of starving, homeless Mexican citizens would undoubtedly inspire millions of Americans to flood relief agencies with donations of money and goods. Yet, if a few of those Mexicans came to America and stood on a street corner looking for work, some of those same Americans might vigorously protest against their presence and demand that police officers arrest or deport the interlopers. To say the least, this attitude is bizarre and paradoxical. Foreign aid freely given to persons less fortunate than ourselves fulfills the highest ideals of American civilization, and we should always be willing to provide such assistance without hesitation and without complaints. And whether that aid goes to a foreign citizen who is living at home, or a foreign citizen who has chosen to come and live next to us, should make absolutely no difference at all.

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