Saturday, May 1, 2010

What really is the problem?

Illegal immigration has vaulted its way into the American conversation largely because of Arizona’s new law that mandates local law enforcement to get involved in a federal issue. The debate has been hot, filled with shrill rhetoric regarding the dubious benefits of this law. And while the various parties have a wide array of opinions on how to deal with illegal immigration, all parties appear to agree on one thing: illegal immigration is a problem.

Really? Illegal immigration is a problem? How is it a problem? I’m serious with this question: how is illegal immigration a problem for society and for us as individuals? We run around saying that it is a problem, but do we really understand the problem?

This whole conversation makes me think of a man with an arrow through his shoulder. Hmm.

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.” (MN 63)

If we skillfully examine the notion of one’s immigration status, we understand that it is a fabrication. As a fabrication, it is empty. In fact, “immigration status” really doesn’t exist at all. The only reason we believe there is such a thing as “immigration status” is that we collectively believe that there is. As long as we collectively agree that there is such a thing as “legal immigration status” and “illegal immigration status,” then we experience no embarrassment over the fact that we believe in something that doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t matter. Because the alleged “problems” with illegal immigration have little to nothing to do with one’s immigration status.

“Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“And did you ever say to me, ‘Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?”
(MN 63)

There is real suffering connected with the fabrication “immigration status.” Just because something is a fabrication and is empty doesn’t mean that our collective belief in it as something real doesn’t have consequences, that it isn’t a source of suffering. But instead of dealing with the real issue – the arrow in the shoulder – we get caught up in a lot of unskillful conversations about who shot the arrow, what kind of arrow it is, what time of day was the arrow shot, etc.

So the conversation about illegal immigration gets guided by those who point the finger at illegal immigrants and say, “He’s the problem. He’s the problem because he’s breaking the law coming here. He’s the problem because he is causing us to have to deal with him. He’s the problem because he creates a drain on our government services. He’s a problem because he doesn’t pay taxes.”

But those “reasons” are nothing but ruses. The illegal immigrant is not the problem: illegal immigrants are not the arrow. To identify the arrow, let’s look at just one industry: agriculture.

We collectively demand cheap food. And we want a lot of it. Producers know this, and they also know if they can’t produce food cheaply enough, they won’t make any money. This leads to many producers intentionally hiring undocumented workers because they don’t have to pay them as much, which reduces costs.

They don’t have to offer them health insurance, which also reduces the product’s cost. When a worker or someone in his or her family gets sick, he or she goes to a hospital emergency room because they don’t have insurance. The hospital is a business too, and it passes the lost revenue on to someone who can pay, someone with insurance. Insurers don’t like paying benefits even though that’s what their job is, so they raise rates and look for reasons to not insure someone.

The worker doesn’t pay taxes because the producer pays him or her in cash, if the producer pays at all. Often, producers let it leak out there are undocumented workers at his or her operation, which leads to a roundup by immigration authorities and the workers get deported without pay. The producer gets away with this because he or she is seldom held accountable for hiring the workers in the first place.

The workers live in intolerable conditions that often breed violence. The workers can’t complain because they would be found out. So they keep quiet. And while they aren’t being paid a lot of money, the workers endure it because what they are paid is a hell of a lot more than what they could make back in their home country.

These workers also travel a lot back and forth from their illegal job and their home. This requires help with that transportation, which leads to a new industry – trafficking in illegal immigrants. This often gets connected with the drug trade because as an illegal trafficker, I would have clients motivated to get my service, so I can manipulate them into carrying product on them and have them distribute that product to my contacts. The immigrant suddenly sees there’s a lot more money to be made being a drug mule than in the back-breaking work of picking tomatoes, and there’s plenty of demand to keep busy because there’s plenty of liberal white people who are too lazy to grow their own marijuana.

If all we do is focus on a person’s immigration status, we’ll never remove the arrow.

“Suppose that a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon. The surgeon would cut around the opening of the wound with a knife and then would probe for the arrow with a probe. He then would pull out the arrow and extract the poison, leaving no residue behind. Knowing that no residue was left behind, he would say, ‘My good man, your arrow has been pulled out. The poison has been extracted, with no residue left behind, so it is not enough to do you harm. Eat suitable food. Don’t eat unsuitable food, or else the wound will fester. Wash the wound frequently, smear it with an ointment frequently, so that blood & pus don’t fill the opening of the wound. Don’t walk around in the wind & sun, or else dust & dirt may contaminate the opening of the wound. Keep looking after the wound, my good man, and work for its healing.’” (MN 105)

A note about the photo: I do not know the immigration status of these boys. I took this in about 1989 in White Oaks, N.M., at the end of the annual Pony Express race. The boys are brothers who participated in the race as a team, replicating a Pony Express run from Capitan, N.M. through the mountains to White Oaks. During the final leg of the race, their horse became lame, so the brother on the right ran alongside his horse, leading it, for about 3 miles (I said 12 miles earlier, but that can't be right, the entire race isn't much longer than that) to finish the race. The kid was running in cowboy boots.

Additional note about the photo: My memory is slowly gathering the facts, but not all of them. The two boys in the photo are not Hispanic as I originally thought. Rather, they are both Mescalero Apaches. I still can't recall their names.


  1. Wow, great post Richard. And while what you say makes sense to some of us, so many others are wrapped up in their ideologies to even try see something from a different viewpoint.

  2. Thanks Nate. So many of the arguments about this issue are self-contradictory. For example, some (not all) of the people who complain about illegal immigrants not paying taxes are themselves members of anti-tax groups. Which means shouldn't they see illegals as heroes for their cause to end taxation?

  3. Good post, Richard. You are absolutely right from the view of the ultimate truth. I’m sure you are familiar with the Two Truths: ultimate and relative. From the ultimate truth, borders are fabrications, so is race, gender, name, identity and so on. Since we are all interlinked in the web of causes and conditions, we are all one, all part of each other.

    My feeling is that from the view of the relative truth, there are some problems. For a long time, I have had mixed feelings about this issue. I consider myself a liberal and, obviously, a Buddhist. From the ultimate truth, those are just meaningless label, but in the relative world, they may help you understand where I am coming from, or at least, what I am not.

    In spite of the many good points you make, it seems as though you are putting the onus of responsibility on the citizens of the United States alone. Where is the responsibility that the illegal alien should have?

    Can we say that entering a country to work and live illegally is right intention, right action, right livelihood, or right effort? I know somewhere in the Pali Canon the Buddha says something about respecting laws, I just can’t remember where it is, but anyway, what about the karma created by their actions.

    Ok, they’re not Buddhists. Let’s look at it from a fairness point of view. Is it fair or right to go somewhere and take things that legally you are not entitled to? Is it fair for someone who does not pay taxes to take advantage of the services that I pay taxes in order to receive?

    So the hospital passes the cost on to someone else. Not all those people can pay. Someone who is struggling to make ends meet and take care of their family has to deal with higher premiums because illegal aliens use the emergency room. Is it fair to the person who comes to the hospital with a real emergency and has to wait for long periods of time, possibly enduring further suffering, because the emergency room is jammed with illegal aliens who really should be seeing a general practitioner or some other kind of doctor.

    I am in a county run health care program because I have a pre-existing condition and I can’t get insurance. The quality of the care I receive is compromised because the program is overburdened. If the people we are talking about were in the country legally, paying taxes, receiving higher wages, then they could receive and afford health insurance and the burden would be eased. So how is illegal immigration fair to people like me?

    All I am saying is that there are two sides of this coin. I don’t believe in demonizing illegal aliens, but at the same time, I think there is some responsibility on their side that’s missing. I look forward to the day when we can have open borders and all that but now is not the time. You also need to take into consideration the crime and national security issues here too. Sorry this is so long.

  4. Hi Dave,

    You're right, your comment is quite long, but you obviously have some thoughts on this issue and you took the time to air them here. I respect that. You are correct to say there are "two sides" to this, but that does not mean that each side is equally valid. I believe your concerns about the health care you receive are based on a flawed presumption that your troubles would be alleviated if illegals were legit. The problem is not with illegals, but with the insurance companies, and your solution does nothing to solve your issues, nor does it solve the reasons why illegals come here to begin with.

    Your point on illegals using services you pay taxes for is also misplaced. Government services in state A are paid for with taxes from residents in state A. When I come to visit state A, I get to enjoy those services without having to pay for them. When I travel to another country, I get to enjoy the services there without having to pay for them. And I am not an illegal alien. That argument is a straw man.

    We are in the present moment; there is no other moment. To debate how we got here is a waste of time. To debate the decision making skills of others, over whom we have no control, is also a waste of time. What we do have the ability to influence is the future via how we act right now in the present. Rounding up and throwing illegals out of the country does nothing to remove the arrow. They will just come back.

  5. Sorry again about the length of that post. Thanks for being cool about it.

    As far as health care goes, I'm not saying my troubles would be alleviated if illegals were legit. I'm just saying that they place a burden on the system which compromises everyone including the illegal aliens.

    You have a right to use services in State A because you are a citizen and you have certain rights and privileges that a non-citizen does not have.

    I agree with everything you are saying, and I disagree. I still think you are approaching this from the ultimate truth and dismissing the relative or conventional side. As Nagarjuna pointed out the ultimate cannot be reached without the relative.

  6. @David,

    See, now you're changing what you've said. First you said "Is it fair for someone who does not pay taxes to take advantage of the services that I pay taxes in order to receive?" Now you say "rights and privileges." Rights and privileges are not financed by taxation. Government services, which are financed by taxes, are available to everyone regardless of citizenship or whether he or she paid taxes. A visitor from China can call the police in Chicago and expect service without paying for it.

    I guess I'm not clear about what's your point. Or maybe you're not clear about what your issue is. Sounds like dukkha.

  7. It's two different scenarios but I should have said rights, privileges, and duties, as paying taxes falls under duty I suppose. Not all government services are available to everyone. For many federal and state programs you must be a citizen to qualify.

    My point is that both sides have to have some accountability and take some responsibility. It can't be a one-way street, there has to be a middle lane somewhere and too often I feel discussion on this issue is lopsided.

  8. @ David

    Welcome to the First Noble Truth!

  9. Citizenship, itself, is a fabrication designed to privilege some people and keep others oppressed. Get convicted of felony in this country, David, and then see what happens to your "citizenship." You can pay taxes and be a law-abiding "citizen" for years, and still be locked out of some of those privileges because you screwed up as a young adult.

    And at the same time, like Richard pointed out, other things are available to everyone, regardless of whether they are visiting for a single day or living here 100 years.

    So pointing to a single group - undocumented immigrants - as being responsible for the problems in this country is ridiculous.

    As for the tax argument, some undocumented folks are paying income taxes, and all undocumented folks are paying sales taxes to some degree.

    The borders of the United States, as they are configured now, didn't exist even one hundred years ago. The vast majority of white Americans can't claim ancestry that goes back even two hundred years. And yet nearly every immigration law on the books was written by white Americans who are really, in the grand scheme of things, newcomers. It seems pretty arrogant if you ask me.

    Meanwhile, as Richard points out so well in his post, we never get at the root causes of the struggles going on in the U.S. Our obsession with "securing borders" is, in my opinion, like wanting to impenetrable sand castles.