As I write this, immigration is an issue where we would rather shut down the government than engage in reasoned analysis.
The issue isn’t really whether the people who want to stream across the southern US border are murders and rapists. Or those who stream into Europe from the Middle East, either. Like most social problems, immigration is an emergent behavior in a complex system, and the response of the receiving society is likewise an emergent behavior. Any society is a complex system. If you wish to alter an emergent behavior, you must alter the rules by which members of the society interact. That’s true, whether the “society” is a school of fish or a pile of sand grains or citizens of a country.
A few individuals seeking asylum are usually welcomed when they participate or assimilate in the receiving culture. However, when masses arrive, they bring their culture—the good and the bad—with them. Mass migrations can generate pools of low-cost labor and neighborhoods disconnected from the civil authority. American industry and farming have welcomed the cheap labor. But the labor market ignores the social costs that appear in schools, hospitals, welfare agencies, and the unofficial governance that can develop in a disconnected subculture.
In the US, we are unable to agree on a coherent immigration policy, much less establish social mechanisms to integrate thousands or millions of immigrants. European countries now struggle with the political divisions and social costs brought by some 2.7 million asylum seekers admitted in 2015-16, and a previous 2 million welcomed during 2000-2014. We can’t even deal with our home-grown homeless population.
Why do we fear?
We sympathize with the Central American emigrants who attempt to escape from crime, corruption, abuse, poverty, and the absence of justice. Yet if immigrants arrive en mass, we fear that these oppressive social problems will emerge here. We’re afraid the immigrants will unintentionally foster the very things that they seek to escape. Our political arguments intentionally amplify our fears rather than resolving them.
A stable society requires trust in the police, the courts, and the governance, assumptions now fragile in our own culture and absent in the immigrants’ culture. We already have homeless people, unequal opportunity, poverty, class polarity, and insufficient welfare. We don’t need an unending influx of people with more problems. The source of distressed people in Latin America appears inexhaustible. An individual might be welcome, but a horde is not.
Solutions, if any, must emerge in their countries of origin.
That’s just the facts. An open border with hopeless, oppressed masses on one side and a better-off society on the other can generate a “tragedy of the commons“—the disaster that occurs when too many consume, rather than replenish, the shared well-being and assumptions of behavior that comprise an economy, a governance, and a culture. Culture is the set of mostly unwritten rules by which the social complex system operates, and immigrants are likely to have different rules.
Why did many central and south American countries develop unstable, corrupt governance during the same time the US developed justice and opportunity (at least for whites)? A Hoover review released in 2018 offers reasons why much of Latin America continues without the rule of law and stable institutions. The reasons have to do with the presumed rules of interaction in the society, and the acceptance of a strong-man leader.
So what’s the point?
We can no longer ignore our porous borders because we have not determined how to relieve our own poverty, economic disparity, and polarizing anxiety. In an overcrowded world, we cannot save everyone. Therefore, we need to define whom we will help, and the processes by which we will support their success.
Legal processes and enforcement can work, although I dislike walls. A realistic solution is a secure border (fenced or otherwise), efficient processing of asylum cases, and more investment in developing stable governances in middle America—in contrast with previous efforts to promote corporate advantage or cheap oil. Any other solution propagates the problem.