The crazy thing, the maddening thing, about what for the past five or six years has been casually referred to in the general discourse of American politics as the "Immigration Problem" (or the "Illegal Immigration Problem" when time or typespace permits), is that the solution is actually fairly straightforward. It goes like this:
Step 1: Create a single, counterfeit-resistant national ID card for all legal residents.
Step 2: Enforce existing hiring laws, as regards legal residency and work eligibility.
The people who are entering the country illegally are, by definition, unreachable by laws; any changes to the law, or any new laws will have little or no effect on them. They circumvent the law to get here, they constantly strive to avoid being noticed by the law, and, unless there's a simple path from their current shadow lives to remaining in the United States legally, they will continue to hide from the law so long as they are here. Because we don't know who they are, where they are, or what they are doing, we cannot take any legal actions against them, pass any laws which target them, or enforce any already existing such laws in a way that will deter illegal immigration.
However, undocumented immigrants are only half the problem (if you are among the majority of Americans who believe there is a problem). Overwhelmingly, people cross into the United States, often at great cost and great peril, for one reason: employment. Employers all over the country benefit greatly from these undocumented workers, who are willing to undertake strenuous and often dangerous work for a fraction of what legal residents would ask. Further, because they live their entire lives outside the law, these workers are unlikely to report workplace abuses (such as being locked in the workplace, or being sexually harrassed), and cannot join labor unions. The dirty secret behind all of the indignation about "illegals" is that employers want these exploitable, expendable workers to help pad profits and keep costs low. And most Americans, despite the majority who want to close the borders with fences and kick the "illegals" out, also want the low costs (especially for food goods) these workers help create. And, when it comes to hiring in-home help, whether it be a gardener or a nanny or a housecleaner, many Americans, especially in border states like California and Texas, opt for the lower-cost undocumented worker.
But, while the undocumented immigrants are unreachable by the law, U.S. employers are not. Businesses interact regularly with their state, local and often federal governments. And laws against hiring undocumented workers (or documented "visitors" to the United States who have non-work Visas) are already on the books, and carry fairly serious penalties. What's more, we know which industries rely heavily on undocumented workers (restaurants, food processing, construction, cleaning, etc.). If we really wanted to stop, or at least curb, illegal immigration, zealously targeting these specific sectors and punishing the employers who use these immigrants as de-facto slave labor would be the way to go. And, with a tamper proof National ID card, which would be identical for every legal resident (with work status clearly defined), employers could no longer skirt these existing employment laws by stating that checking employment eligibility is too burdensome.
The thing is, the business community, and especially those industries listed above, don't want to stop illegal immigration. They like having a large pool of cheap, submissive, disposable labor which allows them to keep costs low and profits high without production innovation. But, they do want to appear as though they want to stop it, since Americans supposedly see it as a big issue. So, through lobbying efforts and generous donation, the business community and the congressional representatives they own push forward ineffectual laws which state the intent to curb illegal immigration (fences and border patrols and two-tier, discriminatory foreign worker systems and costly amnesty and "touch base" registration), but which will actually be totally ineffective. They can say that they are "tough on illegal immigration" and "believe in strong border security," but it is all pageantry. We all know, from the lawmakers in Washington to the businesses in California to the families in Texas in need of a live-in nanny: things are bad in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Eastern Europe. Unemployment is impossibly high. Wages are depressingly low. Things are better here. There's a promise of work, of wages. If you manage to make it here, and you keep your nose mostly clean, some employer might well hire you. You'll be worked to the bone, but you'll be able to buy bread. Maybe even enough to send a little money home. That promise is why people brave death in the long desert crossings, and/or pay thousands of dollars to disreputable coyotes, to get here. If we really wanted to stop illegal immigration, we'd take away that promise of work. But we don't. So let's please stop complaining about it. And please, please, let's stop planning on throwing billions of our tax dollars down the toilet for policies that will not, that cannot, work.
In the end, I'm not certain there is an immigration problem. The so-called immigration problem is really a monumental civil rights problem: the world is filled with mind-boggling poverty. Employers want workers to do dangerous and backbreaking work without adequate pay, and without complaining. In undocumented workers, fleeing their hopeless lives in their depressed homelands, they find people willing to live that way. If we, as a society, can start placing as much value on the worker as we do the low-cost of our consumer goods, wages and working conditions will improve. And, if we focus our efforts further on trying to alleviate the problem of crushing poverty all over the world (instead of, say, spending hundreds of billions to steal oil in illegal wars), we will lessen the need for foreign workers to attempt the dangerous, illegal journey across our borders.
The path to curbing illegal immigration is a relatively easy one, if we choose to follow it. The path to curbing our own greed, and to facing down the specter of global poverty, is much, much harder. It seems clear that Americans, especially those who hold the majority of our wealth and power, are not truly interested in heading down either one.