“I’ve always felt that a person’s intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting points of view he can entertain simultaneously on the same topic,” said Abigail Adams toward the end of the 18th century. This is how I feel about immigration policy.
Mrs. Adams’ quote came to mind in the last few days, as we planted trees on the farm. To be honest, the “we” doing the actual sticking in the ground was almost entirely a crew of younger men. My usefulness is more in carrying batches of trees out, picking up boxes, and performing whatever odd jobs a nearly worn-out old man can do.
“We” planted a lot of trees, too—right at 70,000 slash pine seedlings. While 70,000 may sound like a lot trees, and it is to us, in the larger scheme of the overall forestry industry, it’s not really that many. The vast majority of our trees went into the same ground where a similar planting effort two years ago failed due to drought. Beyond the expense of planting more than 100 acres a second time, we’ve also lost two years of growth on something that takes 14 years at minimum before it’s ready for any sort of harvest.
Planting by hand is more expensive and difficult than planting by machine, but when done by a skilled crew, it’s more cost-effective than the alternatives. The crews plant further to the edges of the fields and can adjust where they stick the tree, so they end up avoiding old stumps and other things that a machine would just plant a tree on top of.
Of course, Mrs. Adams’s words have nothing to do with how trees get planted. They bear directly on my seemingly conflicting views on immigration, since I employ a crew of young men, mostly immigrants, to plant these trees.
Many Years of Interactions with New Americans
Having previously spent 35 years in the seafood business here in Florida, my view of immigrants has come to be positive to a great degree,because of many thousands of interactions across the fish case. These more often than not involved me in my rubber boots and apron waiting on a customer, helping him select a fish, then cleaning it for him.
On more than a few occasions, the customer could not speak English, nor could I speak Chinese or Farsi or but the smallest amount of Spanish, so their instructions for how I was to clean the fish were communicated by hand. This wasn’t too hard when they simply wanted the fish to be scaled and gutted, with head removed. It was a bit more difficult when they desired trimming the fins, removing the gills, and sectioning the fish into chunks. And it got really complicated if they wanted the bones removed while keeping the fish basically intact.
It’s posited as one of the great values of capitalism that when we engage in voluntary interactions—when we trade value for value—and when we truly understand what is in our own self-interest, that we will find politely and honestly treating others garners the same in return. This has been true for me, at least from across the fish case.
The other end of the seafood business, the sourcing of product for the market, also generated positive interactions with immigrants. Miami is a major import point for all manner of seafood from South and Central America. Only the dullest of minds could not realize how valuable immigrants are to facilitating that trade. Whether due to familial connections or an understanding of how things worked in a particular place, or simply the ability to seamlessly surmount language barriers, immigrants have made much of that trade work. Our customers in the market, whether immigrant or native-born, benefited from this also, as it enhanced the quality and variety available to them.
If you wait on a customer for decades, and if you source from a supplier for similar lengths of time, you will inevitably end up talking to one another. Invariably, the time will come when you and the supplier or customer go past the simple pleasantries of “Yes, ma’am” and “What have you got today?” to actually asking a question of substance. It’s those small extra learnings about each other that help tie us together as human and that let us more easily accept differences. These interactions create individuals from groups rather than groups from individuals, the latter being something the political professionals seek to do, so they can more easily herd us.
So, too, has been the general experience of working with a number of crews from Central America over the last few years here at the farm. Some of the men are able to speak English (the crew leaders in particular), and as in the fish market, we end up eventually getting to the learning questions—the ones that bind us as humans.
The Stories of Immigrants from Guatemala
The tree crew and its leader were from Guatemala this time. As we hauled trees to the guys doing the planting, the crew leader taking time to assess planting density and give general directions, we had time to talk.
I discovered he is almost 38, has been coming to the United States for the planting season for 20 years, and likes his job. For all those years, he’s worked for the same company—something that points back to that trading value for value idea.
Back home, he farms coffee on his own land. Knowing nothing of coffee farming, I asked questions to learn. Turns out that farming coffee is as hard as planting trees, though in different ways. He also offered that some, if not all of, the other men also farmed coffee, most on their own land.
We also discussed that his wife was working their coffee farm while he was here, and that it was a busy time back home. The common thread—my wife and I having worked the fish market together, and now working the tree farm, in unison with what him and his wife are doing—was hard to miss.
Now, when you think all that through rationally, you realize this man has made a decision not all that different from one a friend’s daughter and son-in-law have made. The son-in-law takes off and works wherever his company sends him, for up to six weeks at a time, while his wife works her job here. It’s exactly the same setup, borders between nations rather than states being the big difference.
In each instance, the effort, the industry, the pulling in tandem, the familial attachments, and the personal sacrifices in service of a better life are exactly the same. In both instances, I think admiration is due.
More Complex than ‘Open Borders’ vs. ‘Build the Wall’
I know, so far I sound unconflicted. You’d even possibly assume me to be an open borders advocate. To be honest, I would lobby hard for more immigration, tilted towards our neighbors to the south. But there is more to it, much more, some of it seemingly at odds with my initial exploration of the issue.
You see, I agree with building “the wall” provided it’s coupled with a thorough vetting of those arriving with claims of asylum, and a generally robust and prompt response to illegal crossings. I’d even entertain the idea of ending “birthright citizenship” as it currently exists and imposing some requirement for a level of proficiency in English to be attained before citizenship is granted.
Now, all of a sudden, after those last couple of sentences, you’re thinking I’m anti-immigrant. You’d be wrong, just as wrong as your initial assumption that I’m an open borders advocate.
The apparent disconnect comes down to the value of the rule of law. For I am as certain as I can be that a good portion of what makes coming to the United States (or, for that matter, England or Canada or any other nation embracing rule of law and basic ideals of liberal Western democracy) a desire for so many has to do with the freedoms and the safety and the economic opportunity that flow from those ideals.
This being so, it is a reasonable conclusion that to properly serve those immigrants who follow the law, to put them at the head of the line, to align our resources and policy to accommodate and embrace them, and to serve more of them, means that we must stem the flow of those who seek access illegally. In my view, a view not from some theoretical vantage, or from a place where seeking votes is the actual goal, but a view informed by interaction, by having served and having been served, is that it is the antithesis of embracing immigrants to embrace the lawbreaker ahead of the legal.
When we acquiesce to the demands of the illegal as compared to embracing those who demonstrate a culture of legality, we send the wrong message. People carry culture with them, even on to the third and fourth generation, and culture can be learned and unlearned. We need to teach a culture of legality. If we desire to remain a place where immigrants want to come, then we must chose legality over illegality and embrace first and foremost those immigrants who embrace that.
By setting standards, by embracing the admirable, by adhering to ideals that have shown worth and efficacy in producing free and prosperous societies, we will remain a place where immigrants seek to bring the benefits of their abilities and talents. By doing that, we will remain an example, and it is by being an example that we can do the most good.
Realistically, we can’t take in enough people to solve the social and political problems of billions in dozens of countries around the globe. But by being an example and showing the way, we can help billions.
It’s Okay if Political Categories Don’t Speak for You
That brings me back to the difficult truth penned by the most admirable Mrs. Adams. At one time, I assumed it was a deficiency in me that caused this inability to pick a political side, to climb into one of the camps on this issue. But the other day, while working out in the field, her thought really hit home.
In considering the positives I see in immigration, balanced with an understanding of the need for the rule of law, I’ve come to a different conclusion than lots of people. That conclusion: it’s those who smugly and sanctimoniously pick a side, adhere to a party line, and are willing to be driven by the political professionals rather than rationally think through such a complex and difficult issue themselves who are the problem.
A final thought: Those “political professionals”—the ones with knowledge of how to drive people emotionally, of how to divert and narrow and conflate and wordsmith such that huge amounts of us become distrustful of one another—I’d venture Mrs. Adams would find them, at best, distasteful and, at worst, dangerous. In her world, a “faction” was something to avoid rather than embrace as a tool for political gain.