Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Losing traction on immigration

Peter Drucker related a conversation he had with General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan at the start of Drucker's first big consulting assignment. The executive called him into the office and said,

I shall not tell you what to study, what to write, or what conclusions to come to. That is your task. My only instruction to you is to put down what you think is right as you see it. Don't you worry about our reaction. Don't you worry about whether we will like this or dislike that. And don't you, above all, concern yourself with the compromises that might be needed to make your conclusions acceptable. There is not one executive in this company who does not know how to make every conceivable compromise without any help from you. But he can't make the right compromise unless you first tell him what right is.*

This is where the debate on illegal immigration is spinning its wheels. There is no question that we have millions of uninvited residents who entered the country illegally. It is obvious that many businesses benefit from their labor, particularly in unskilled work and service industries, and that consumers likewise benefit. Ultimately, it is difficult to fault a person for wanting to live in our country and seek a better and more prosperous life for himself and his family. Yet it is undeniable as well that by definition, these millions are here in violation of our law, and the failure to control our borders and points of entry is a critical weak link in our national security. This is an era when the next attack on our people and institutions will not involve waves of missiles, bombers, and uniformed armies, but will come at the hands of individuals and irregular units smaller than a platoon. A sophisticated radar net and surveillance satellites are no more effective for preventing that sort of attack than France's Maginot Line was against Hitler's Panzers.

Before we talk about economic impact, cultural issues, and the history of immigration cycles, we need to focus our debate first and foremost on the true problem -- unauthorized and uncontrolled passage of our borders -- and settle on the desired state at that point of breakdown. Until we determine what "right" looks like, the necessary political judgments -- i.e., compromises -- will be impossible to nail down with any accuracy.

Charles Krauthammer recently said that the solution to the larger problem will be both some sort of program to assimilate these workers, however that program is organized, but first, we have to stop the ingress of new illegal residents. Placing more agents and more effective barriers along the boundary is a necessary step, and having the means and will to return those caught in the newly placed nets is part and parcel of it. For those who are already here, returning to their homeland now should be a doorway which latches behind them.

However, doors have knobs and locks have keys, and how we manage future immigration as well as the dozen millions who have already moved here and integrated themselves into our economy is a separate and subsequent question.

When the ship is taking on water, argument whether to pump to the left side of the ship or the right is premature until the leaks below the waterline have been addressed. Once the situation is stabilized, it may well be that the additional ballast is a help and not a threat. We will not be able to sort that out on the immigration issue until we take care of the primary problem.

* Peter F. Drucker, "The Effective Decision," Harvard Business Review, January-February 1967; reprint 67105.


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