»  National Review Online

November 20th, 2001

  Workin' at the I.N.S. Blues


Rosanna Valdez has suffered a terrible, heart-breaking misfortune. Her husband of 13 years was killed in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 last Monday. He was taking a trip to the Dominican Republic, the country of his birth. Ms. Valdez was born there, too. She is an illegal immigrant in the U.S. Now she fears that if she accompanies her husband's body to the Dominican Republic, she will not be allowed back into the U.S.A. Antonio Hidalgo is in a similar fix. He lost his 4-year-old daughter in the crash, and wants her buried in the Dominican Republic. "I just want to get my baby home," says Mr. Hidalgo. He, like Ms. Valdez, fears that he will not be allowed back in the U.S. if he leaves for the place he calls "home."

I picked up these items from a story by Douglas Montero in The New York Post. Montero (who has now, apparently, managed to extract his tongue from Fidel Castro's trastero, where it was firmly lodged for the duration of the Elián González affair) went on to introduce us to "community activist" Fernando Mateo. Says Mr. Mateo: "These people … did not want to claim the bodies. They are terrified to admit that their wife, husband, sister, brother and child are dead because they are illegal. They were scared because they didn't know if they were going to get arrested or deported." Montero continues:

Mateo sent out an urgent plea to President Bush and local politicians to enact an amnesty program for the illegal relatives of Flight 587 victims. To many, a "proper burial" means depositing the remains of a loved one next to their mother, their father, their grandparents. That's why the heartbroken illegal immigrants are obligated to go home and risk giving up the life they have established in New York. "These are the people who are trying to put the pain aside and deal with the reality of tomorrow," Matteo said. "We have to do something for them."

A mean-spirited person — the kind of person who writes for conservative magazines — might want Mr. Montero to explain why, if these unfortunate people have "established" a "life" in New York, they still regard the Dominican Republic as "home." A mean-spirited person with a particular dislike of government bureaucrats might even suggest that the current, very pitiable, distress of Ms. Valdez and Mr. Hidalgo is largely the fault of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. If the I.N.S. had enforced U.S. laws in the first place, as they are charged to do, these poor people would not be in such tragic difficulties. I am, of course, not either of those mean-spirited kinds of person.

Now let us consider the case of Deena Gilbey, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11th. Mr. Gilbey was here on an H-1 visa, which means that he had been admitted to the U.S. to work at a specific job for a specific company. His wife is an H-4, which is defined to be the spouse of an H-1. An H-4 is one of the lowest categories of U.S. visa, with no right to take paid employment at all. Both Gilbeys came here from Britain. The couple had been in the U.S. for nine years, and would have attained permanent resident status if the I.N.S. had not lost a set of papers the Gilbeys had filed, obliging them to go back to square one of the application process. Just days after Mr. Gilbey's death, the I.N.S. — yes, folks, that same I.N.S. that had screwed up the Gilbeys' application for residence, the same I.N.S. that had waved Mohammed Atta through its checkpoints with a smile and a greeting — sent Mrs. Gilbey a computer-generated letter telling her to pack up and leave, as she no longer had any right to be here without her husband.

What do you think of these cases? Of course, all of them have been taken in hand by sympathetic politicians. Mrs. Gilbey's has actually been resolved, by act of Congress, and she can stay here. The case of the Dominican illegals has been taken up by New York's two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, and we can be pretty confident that some sort of deal will be cut for them, too. (Though in this case I'm not sure that "sympathetic" is the right qualifier for Schumer and Clinton. "Politicians with an eye on key constiuencies," might be closer to the mark.) My guess is that most NRO readers will wish good luck to Mrs. Gilbey, but insist that Ms. Valdez and Mr. Hidalgo be denied re-entry if they leave. Mrs. Gilbey, after all, followed the rules; Ms. Valdez and Mr. Hidalgo ignored them — broke the law, in fact.

All these cases, though, illustrate two key facts about U.S. immigration laws. First, they are routinely bent, or changed ad hoc, by politicians for reasons sometimes good (Mrs. Gilbey, for my money) and sometimes bad (the Dominican illegals, as much as we pity their grief). Second, they are administered with a maximum of incompetence and inefficiency. Nobody much favors their absolutely inflexible application; and nobody who has ever had to deal with the I.N.S. believes that agency capable of it, anyway.

A good friend of mine, a Chinese lady, was, like Mrs. Gilbey, an H-4 for several years, with no legal right to work. She and her husband had no kids for most of that time, and it is a very hard thing to ask an intelligent and capable young woman to sit home doing nothing for years at a stretch. It is especially hard to do so in New York City, where "off the books" jobs are to be had for the asking, at quite decent wages. My friend, who is now a citizen, worked pretty steadily through those H-4 years, mostly for small businesses in Chinatown, run by people who considered that they would be disgracing themselves before the shrines of their ancestors if they paid more than one per cent of their income in taxes. Typical of the outfits she worked for was a jewelry store on Canal Street that accepted payment only in cash. They put the cash into a large safe in the back room. When there were so many bills in the safe that its door wouldn't shut, the store owners took a long-weekend trip to play the tables at Atlantic City, carrying the money with them in bags. If you say "taxes" to a merchant in Chinatown, he snickers.

In an atmosphere like that, it's awfully hard to maintain respect for the rules. Was my friend doing a wrong thing? Yes, she was. Would she have been deported if the I.N.S.'s rules had been applied with inflexible strictness? Yes, she would. Can I, in all conscience, say I favor such inflexible strictness? I guess I can't.

Back in August 1988, Nicholas Colchester wrote a famous editorial in The Economist in which he divided the world's systems into the "crunchy" and the "soggy."

Crunchy systems are those in which small changes have big effects, leaving those affected by them in no doubt about whether they are up or down, rich or broke, winning or losing, dead or alive … Sogginess is comfortable uncertainty … The richer a society becomes, the soggier its systems get. Light switches no longer turn on or off: they dim … A crunchy policy is not necessarily right, only more certain than a soggy one to deliver the results that it deserves …

The human tendency — certainly my tendency — is to favor crunchiness in theory, but a degree of sogginess in practice. Everybody wants to see the rules firmly and fairly applied, but when confronted with a Ms. Valdez or a Mrs. Gilbey, people — though different people in different cases — start to scratch their heads and say: "We-e-e-ell …" Hard cases make bad law, and any experienced judge knows the virtues of a little measured sogginess. (This is true in civilian life, anyway. Military law is another matter — think of Billy Budd.)

U.S. immigration policy is, I think it can be said without much fear of contradiction, far gone in sogginess. It is so far gone that you can, like Ms. Valdez, break the law without anybody minding very much. It is in fact considered impolite, in respectable circles, to refer to an alien who breaks the immigration law as an "illegal alien." He is an "undocumented alien," a "day laborer," an "asylum seeker" — anything but a law-breaker. Why things have got to this pass is an interesting question. Probably a large part of the answer is just that in an age of exploding Third-World populations and easy international travel, there are too many who want to immigrate, and not enough intelligent people in the I.N.S. to manage the process rationally, under any rules. And, of course, the thicker our kudzu-tangle of laws, rules, regulations and taxes grows, the easier it is for people like my friend and her Chinatown employers, and Ms. Valdez and Mr. Hidalgo — not to mention Mohammed Atta — to hide securely among them.

Anyone remember Jim Croce? He was a singer-songwriter of the early 1970s who specialized in ballads about life down at the minimum-wage end of the working class. One of my favorites was "Workin' At The Car Wash Blues":

Well, I should be sittin' in an air conditioned office in a swivel chair
Talkin' some trash to the secretary
Sayin', "Here, now mama, come on over here."
Instead, I'm stuck here rubbin' these fenders with a rag
And walkin' home in soggy old shoes
With them steadily depressin', low down mind messin'
Workin' at the car wash blues …

How strange this song seems now! For it to make any sense, it would have to be sung in Spanish. No English-speaking person works at a car wash any more, Ally McBeal notwithstanding. That's one consequence of our soggy immigration laws. Soggy immigration laws mean no more "walkin' home in soggy old shoes" — not for U.S. citizens, anyway. Another, related, consequence is that all those Americans who, thirty years ago, would have been working at the car wash now have to be found something else to do.

This is accomplished on the best socialist principles. The government creates make-work jobs for them: some light paper-shuffling, some low-grade repetitive tasks indoors — "sittin' in an air-conditioned office in a swivel chair" — in a unionized government bureaucracy where nothing need be done well, where the interests of those being "served" come absolutely last (with the national interest, when it intrudes, second to last), and where there is no penalty for incompetence or failure. Oh, look! — we have arrived back at the I.N.S.