By Molly Ivins
AUSTIN, Texas—In 1983, I was a judge at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, and my memory of the events may not be perfect—for example, for years I’ve been claiming Jimmy Carter was president at the time, but that’s the kind of detail one often loses track of in Terlingua.
Anyway, it was ‘83 or some year right around there when we held The Fence climbing contest. See, people talked about building The Fence back then, too. The Fence along the Mexican border. To keep Them out.
At the time, the proposal was quite specific—a 17-foot cyclone fence with bob wire at the top. So a test fence was built at Terlingua, and the First-Ever Terlingua Memorial Over, Under or Through Mexican Fence Climbing Contest took place. Prize: a case of Lone Star beer. Winning time: 30 seconds.
I tell this story to make the one single point about the border and immigration we know to be true: The Fence will not work. No fence will work. The Great darn Wall of China will not work. Do not build a fence. It will not work. They will come anyway. Over, under or through.
Some of you think a fence will work because Israel has one. Israel is a very small country. Anyone who says a fence can fix this problem is a demagogue and an ass.
Numero Two-o, should you actually want to stop Mexicans and OTMs (other than Mexicans) from coming to the United States, here is how to do it: Find an illegal worker at a large corporation. This is not difficult—brooms and mops are big tipoffs. Then put the CEO of that corporation in prison for two or more years for violating the law against hiring illegal workers.
Got it? You can also imprison the corporate official who actually hired the illegal and, just to make sure, put some Betty Sue Billups—housewife, preferably one with blond hair in a flip—in the joint for a two-year stretch for hiring a Mexican gardener. Thus Americans are reminded that the law says it is illegal to hire illegal workers and that anyone who hires one is responsible for verifying whether or not his or her papers are in order. If you get fooled and one slips by you, too bad, you go to jail anyway. When there are no jobs for illegal workers, they do not come. Got it?
Of course, this has been proposed before, because there is nothing new in the immigration debate. As the current issue of Texas Monthly reminds us, the old bracero program dating from World War II was actually amended in 1952 to pass the “Texas proviso,” shielding employers of illegal workers from criminal penalties. They got the exemption because Texas growers flat refused to pay the required bracero wage of 30 cents an hour. Instead of punishing Texas growers for breaking the law, Congress rewarded them.
In 1986, the Reagan administration took a shot at immigration reform and reinstated penalties on employers. They weren’t enforced worth a darn, of course. In 2004, only three American companies were threatened with fines for hiring illegal workers. Doesn’t work if you don’t enforce it.
This brings us to the great Republican divide on the issue. Conservatives, in general, are anti-immigrant for the same reasons they have always been anti-immigrant—a proud tradition in our nation of immigrants going back to the days of the Founders, when Ben Franklin thought we were going to be overrun by Germans. But Business likes illegal workers. The Chamber of Commerce lobbies for them. It’s lobbying now for a new bracero program. What a bonanza for Bidness.
Old-fashioned anti-immigrant prejudice always brings out some old-fashioned racists. This time around, they have started claiming that Mexicans can’t assimilate. A sillier idea I’ve never heard. Why don’t they come to Texas and meet up with Lars Gonzales, Erin Rodriguez and Bubba at the bowling alley. They can drink some Lone Star, listen to some conjunto and chill.
Racists seem obsessed by the idea that illegal workers—the hardest-working, poorest people in America—are somehow getting away with something, sneaking goodies that should be for Americans. You can always avoid this problem by having no social services. This is the refreshing Texas model, and it works a treat.
Aren’t y’all grateful that we’re down here doing exactly nothing for the people of our state, legal or illegal? Think what a terrible message it would send if you swapped Texas with Vermont, and they all got healthcare. In Texas, we never worry about illegals taking advantage of social benefits provided by our taxpayers. Incredibly clever, no?
One nice thing about the benefit of long experience with la frontera is that we in Texas don’t have to run around getting all hysterical about immigrants. The border is porous. When you want cheap labor, you open it up; when you don’t, you shut it down. It works to our benefit—it always has.