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Border Control vs. Cleaning Up Wall Street

Governor Cuomo’s recent decision to withdraw New York from the federal Secure Communities program?which sent the fingerprints of all jailed suspects to Homeland Security–got me thinking again about this country’s never-ending struggle with illegal immigration. Upon reflection, the worst thing about illegal immigration is that it’s, well, illegal.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of?undocumented workers. I came of age playing high school soccer in Southern California with some of their children; no one works harder than these people. But as a strong believer in the rule of law, it’s hard to get beyond the basic fact that crossing borders without passports and visas is against the law. Here in the US, and everywhere else.

It doesn’t matter that undocumented workers provide far more to the US economy, welfare state and Social Security than they take from it.

Or does it? Doesn’t that count for something? Given that we’ll never be able to fully choke off the arrival of the undocumented–even with an alligator-filled moat–it’s fair to do a little comparative analysis of American law-breaking, routine and otherwise.

Is the rule of law under greater threat from paperless immigrants or from bankers on Wall Street and the Obama administration in Libya? How many bankers, mortgage brokers, and the rest of the well-renumerated hooligans who brought the economy to its knees have been investigated or prosecuted for what appears to be some highly questionable activities? Very few.

How many Bush administration officials have been investigated and tried for the long list of crimes committed during the Global War on Terror? Answer again: very few. Hardly any, in fact. Far fewer than deserve serious, sustained scrutiny.

Yet we deport tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants every year.

The aim of law enforcement is, of course, to serve justice and provide deterrence against copycats. Failing to investigate what looks like blatant criminality leaves us with neither. Thus, bankers and government officials continue on their merry (sometimes illegal) ways. Look at the continued shenanigans on ‘self-regulating’ Wall Street (ever hear of Raj Rajaratnam?) and the refusal of the Obama administration to abide by the War Powers Act in Libya.

Who commits the more serious crime? What are the stakes? An honest financial system, a country that abides by its own Constitution, and an immigration system that has failed to keep out millions who toil to feed and clean up after us. Not much of a contest.

You complain that you’re neither a banker, nor approve of presidential failure to respect the separation of powers. My examples apply to too few of us. You pay your taxes, stay out of trouble, and otherwise contribute to society. So do the vast majority of undocumented workers.

Do you ever exceed the maximum speed limit in your car? Speeding contributes to thousands of deaths every year on America’s roads and highways. Ever cheat on your taxes? Ever jaywalk? Ever get in your car and drive after one too many? Ever make a rolling stop before turning right at a red light? Always wear a seatbelt? Ever talk on your handheld phone while driving? Ever knowingly overcharge a customer? Ever claimed more from an insurance company than was fair? Insurance fraud costs us tens of billions dollars per year, and contributes to higher premiums. Always pay your child support on time? Ever smoked marijuana?

Are these less serious crimes–in social terms rather than in terms of the penal code–than overstaying a visa or sneaking across a border?

Have you ever left a restaurant because you thought there were illegal aliens in the kitchen? Have you stopped buying or eating lettuce or other produce? Chances are that your salad fixings were picked by an undocumented farm worker. Ever refused to stay in a hotel because you suspected the housekeepers had fake papers? Ever failed to enjoy yourself at the horse track because some of the stable help may be here illegally?

The point is not to justify illegal immigration. It’s only to put it in the proper social context. As law-breaking goes, it’s the sort that actually enriches all of us, not just a powerful few. Think how we could clean up Wall Street if we devoted even a fraction of the resources to it that we expend on border control. Think how we might rein in official lawlessness if we spent even a fraction of the time and energy debating it that we do with illegal immigration. I’ll take an undocumented busboy over a native-born criminal banker or government official any day. ?

Steve Breyman is Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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