Thanksgiving Notes

In preparation for a Thanksgiving-related service at my church today, I was asked to prepare 200 words to share. At first I thought the topic was “My first Thanksgiving as an immigrant”. After I submitted that, I learned that the topic was actually “Coming to America”. So I wrote a second piece on that. Here are both items.

Coming to America

Others have stories of family lore, set in dramatic political times either in historic past or in modern wars and other hardships. Mine is not that exciting.

I was 30 years old, recently divorced, and feeling in a rut at my work. I told my boss that I would be leaving within the next year, once I figured out where to go, and when I figured it out he would have two weeks notice, so he should start thinking about my replacement. He said “I know you are divorced
and had to buy your own house, so money is tight. You need a vacation that you can’t afford, so I will figure out a way for the company to pay for a vacation.”
So he sent me on a business trip that had me spend a week in Santa Barbara, a couple of nights in Laguna Beach, and then a week of technical work in Lowell, Massachussetts. I loved Santa Barbara, and on my last day I asked if there were any openings at the company I was visiting. “Give us a call after you have
given notice”, said the CEO. That was the week before Easter 1980. 6 months later I moved here. 5 years after that, I bought the house we live in now, and within three years after that I was married again and had a daughter.

What a lucky break to come here for my first visit!

My First Thanksgiving

I arrived in Santa Barbara in middle of October 1980.
I had barely gotten settled in at work and in my apartment on San Pascual Street when I was approached by a co-worker who asked what I was doing for Thanksgiving, and would I care to join his family in Solvang. I had no real idea what that was about, but I said yes, and he gave me directions to a ranch on Alamo Pintado Road in Solvang. He impressed on me the need to fill up the gas tank of my car the night before because the gas stations would be closed.

It was very impressive; there were about 30 people gathered and I met a bunch of people, that became a local Danish family for me for the next few years. In particular, I liked Alice, a bright, somewhat recent divorcee living in Palo Alto who invited me to follow her to her parents house and hang out for the evening watching old movies on the TV and eating ice cream. We were friends for years after that. I would visit her in Palo Alto a couple of times a year, and she would show me around the Bay area. After she moved to Santa Barbara, she married my boss.

Do crazy Democrats want Open Borders?

Republicans (who call themselves “conservatives” although recently most of them seem more like right-wing radicals to me) accuse Democrats of advocating for “completely open borders”, which they say would be the end of the United States as we know it. Since we Democrats are so obviously crazy, it is their patriotic duty to oppose us!

This is a travesty. I don’t know any mature adults – of any political persuasion – who advocate for completely open borders. So instead of this distortion, let us explore what problems we have with our borders as a nation, what changes might be desirable, and how to make progress on these issues.

Some problems

  1. We have 13 million undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants in the USA
  2. It is physically impossible to deport them all, and if we did, our economy would be severely damaged
  3. Having this large an undocumented population undermines the general respect for law and order
  4. The countries from which most of these people have come are unable to absorb them back
  5. The US immigration rules are such that most people originating in these countries will never be eligible for legal immigration. If they were to apply, they would join a 20-year waiting list

These factors combine in ways that make it very hard to make any progress.

We are country of immigrants

The United States is a nation built almost entirely on immigration. I am a first generation immigrant – a moved here from Denmark, when I was 30 years old. My wife’s family came here from England about 10 generations ago on one branch with another arriving from Luxembourg about 4 generations ago.

Some came because they lived in poverty or other hardship, and they saw hope of a better future here. Others – like me – were comfortable where they were, but went out in search of adventure.

We want to allow for some immigration to continue; the flow of fresh ideas that immigrants bring, is a great source of innovation, creativity and in the long run prosperity.

On the other hand, we want to maintain some control over the volume of immigration, so that we are not swamped with new people faster than our economy and our culture can absorb them.

We also want to honor some ethical imperatives for the welfare of human beings. Firstly, our nation has an obligation to look after the welfare of our own people. If we have many unemployed low-skill workers, we should probably not be allowing a lot of poor, poorly educated Central Americans in to further depress their chances of employment. Second, if people are fleeing war zones (maybe in areas where we have been at least partially responsible for the instability), we should be willing to – along with other nations – take our share of those whose very survival depends of them getting to a safe place. And thirdly, if we have a border to a country riddled with dire poverty, we should try to find ways to help alleviate this poverty, so that the people there can make a living there and not have a strong incentive to travel on dangerous routes and sneak across our border to live in the shadows here.

That third item is important. One of the motivations for NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement – was to create good jobs in Mexico. And it did work to a certain degree.

Where we ought to try to get to

We want to have a fairly free movement for highly educated people who are so good at their job, that they command a premium in the job market. Doctors, engineers, scientists, successful artists, winning athletes. The free flow of these people – who are likely to want to go back and forth between several countries – is a benefit for all the countries that they touch.

We also want to allow people in certain professions where we have a shortage of trained people to come in and join in our labor market, so long as they don’t flood it and depress the wages for our own citizens with similar skills. Nurses, toolmakers, even sheepherders. In doing so, we need to be careful not to drain the countries where they are coming from of all their talent, leaving them unable to make progress.

Finally, we want to allow families to come together. The nurse, who came here from the Philippines should be able to bring her husband and children, so long as she can earn enough to support them. The young man who went to live in France for a few years, should be able to bring in the wife he married during that time.

The procedures for these differently motivated flows should be fair, and workable. It is ridiculous to have 20 year waiting lists for Mexicans and Indians, while people from Britain in similar circumstances can be admitted in less than 2 years.

And to incentivize people to follow the proper procedures, we should block those that do not qualify from entering and expel those that broke the rules and overstayed their visitor visas or snuck in across the border.

Why is it so hard to clean up this mess?

President Trump and his helpers claim that we can fix most of our problem with undocumented immigrants by building a wall along the Southern border. This will not work for several reasons:

  1. It addresses only immigration from Mexico. While it is true that a large proportion of undocumented immigrants currently in the USA are of Mexican or Central American origin, the net immigration from Mexico has not only stopped in recent years, but to some degree been reversed. Partially because of NAFTA, partly because under Obama the enforcement actually got stricter. Today most illegal border crossings are people from Honduras and Guatemala, who really have a good case for asylum.
  2. Most undocumented immigrant entered legally at a port of entry on a tourist visa, and just “forgot” to leave. A border wall does not address this. At all.

One of the problems is that the system of administrators and judges that are supposed to process asylum seekers as well as people apprehended at the border is so dramatically understaffed, that anyone that has access to a lawyer and insists on being treated by the book faces an 18-24 month wait time for a court date. In the mean time they have to be either locked up at great expense or released in the US and given some assistance while they wait. By the time the court is ready for them, they have gotten themselves connected to the underground support system. If we could get new arrivals to their first court hearing in 3-5 days, this would not happen. And we would save a ton of money.

Another problem, is that large business sectors employ the undocumented at sub-minimum wage. If we could stop this (by imposing such heavy fines on these law-breaking employers that it would not be worth the risk of getting caught), the pull factor that draws these people across the border would fade away.

To really enforce the rules that allow people to live for years in the undocumented underworld, we need to be able to determine who is here legally and who is not. Our population is so diverse, that you cannot tell by looks or speech/language. We need to have a national ID card that tells us who is a citizen, who is a permanent resident, and who is a student or a guest worker. And whoever is none of these can be heldĀ  until their status can be determined. The 1986 immigration reform bill anticipated the introduction of such an ID card, but it was too controversial to pass Congress.


I do not understand why this is such a wedge issue. Most people from both parties should be able to agree on many initiatives that would greatly diminish this problem.

Should the 2020 U.S. Census ask about your citizenship?

In a sane world, absolutely. It is valuable for all sorts of government planning to know as many dimensions as possible about the population you serve. But then, the USA is not exactly a sane place, when it comes to issues that relate in some way to immigration.

In a sane world, the population of “undocumented immigrants” – also known as “illegal aliens” would be miniscule. We would enforce our borders, and we would make it very hard for “undocumented” people to find work by imposing severe penalties on those who illegally employ them. But important industries like to employ “illegals”, because you do not have to pay them a normal or a living wage, and if they start to demand decent pay and working conditions, you can call the immigration police and have them deported. Problem solved. So these industries have influenced Federal and State legislatures to be lenient to illegal employers. And now we have 13 million “illegals” and if they were to leave (voluntarily or otherwise) farmers, slaughterhouses and several other industries would be in deep trouble.

In California, we have a large “undocumented” population. We need to count them and include them in our population statistics in order to fairly allocate things like school funding and the number of seats in the Federal House of Representatives. And that is precisely why Republicans do not want to count them. They want to citizenship question added to the Census because it will make the “undocumented” afraid to participate in the Census.

In theory, the rules for the Census should alleviate that fear. The Census data is confidential, and individual records are not to be shared with the public or other government branches. But when the head of the Census department is a Republican, how much do you trust that that confidentiality will hold?

So as a California Democrat, I have to agree with our state officals that this question should not be asked in the 2020 Census.

Immigration is a big tangle of interacting difficult problems made worse by bungling politicians over decades. Almost every suggestion you hear that sounds simple is counterproductive.

One of these days, I will write a long blog post about what I think could be done to start making things better, but not this week.

Is it justified to deny green cards to immigrants who have received government benefits?

There are different classes of immigrants, and there should be different rules for each class, because they are in very different circumstances.

1) Illegal immigrants, i.e. people who have entered without passing the immigration control at a port of entry. These are deportable, and so far as I know, have never been eligible for federal benefits. (Their young children may have qualified for WIC and other food assistance programs.) They may have qualified for state, local and/or private benefits.

2) Refugees / asylum seekers. These will in most cases need aid, and in my opinion should be given whatever help they need to settle in and become productive residents, workers and taxpayers. To deny them aid, or deny them permanent resident status if they get aid is counterproductive.

3) People that come here to marry US citizens – they should become eligible to aid as they will become permanent residents, almost immediately.

Immigration is a big tangle of interacting difficult problems made worse by bungling politicians over decades. Almost every suggestion you hear that sounds simple is counterproductive.

One of these days, I will write a long blog post about what I think could be done to start making things better, but not this week.