Silver Dollars

My father-in-law is a man of many stories. One of his most memorable was told to me as we drove together through the desert near Roswell, New Mexico. He had been stationed at Walker AFB just outside Roswell back in the 1950s. Walker AFB was the biggest SAC base in the country, was home of the famous atomic-bomb-dropping 509th, and later became home to a squadron of ICBMs during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It turns out that the people of Roswell weren’t getting along very well with the Air Force people back in Harry’s day. You military people probably know the story ― the military guys were a drain on the economy, disturbers of the peace, bad for the town. The base commissary and exchange was unfair competition for local merchants. Young, irresponsible airmen disrupted the normality of life, corrupted the girls, ran out honest folk, etc. I guess at one point people even marched in the streets protesting the Air Force presence in their town.

One week, the base commander at Walker (in the 50s, as I gather, base commanders were basically God) decided to show the town a thing or two. So he paid all of his airmen their entire paycheck in silver dollars, encouraging them to spend their money as usual.

At the end of the week, the base commander personally went from shop to shop up and down the main street of town, asking shopkeepers how many silver dollars they had in their tills. Of course, you can guess what he found. The airmen at Walker, like most airmen at most airbases, spent lots of their money in town. Some of it was at the bars and liquor stores, yes. But also the grocery stores, hardware store, dry cleaners…just about everywhere the other residents of Roswell spent their money. Far from being a drain on the economy of Roswell, the Air Force base was an almost indispensable part of it.

Is what is going on today across the country a macrocosm of this little event? (Read one of the many stories here.) I personally hope that it is; TCS columnist Lee Harris has a slightly more pessimistic view here. I hope and pray that this attention-grabbing stunt, which has been treated with some disdain even by those in the Hispanic community, is only that: a stunt. The Walker base commander made his point with little or no disruption, and I think that the immigrants’ point can be made effectively with a one day show-of-force as well.

Yes, there is an “immigration problem” in this country. No, kicking out all the illegals isn’t the answer, and neither is legalizing all of them. Yes, the problem needs solutions. No, the solutions aren’t as easy as a fifteen foot wall and machine gun nests and mass deportations.

Not to over-simplify, but at the root of all of this are two related issues. First, there are several parts of the world in which making a sustainable living is simply impossible. There are places on this planet where the inhabitants are faced with the choice to move or starve. It’s not always the case that people are climbing fences and swimming rivers to get to the US, it’s that sometimes people are floating across the ocean in boats and stowing away in railroad cars to get away from their home, because they can’t live in their homes anymore. And that’s sad.

The second, related, problem is that for too long the US has made it too easy to get here and work here illegally. People, like pressurized water in an espresso machine, take the path of least resistance. Lax enforcement of untenable laws has done the job of enabling millions of people to live and work here at great social and economic cost to the legal residents of this country.

And not to over-simplify, but to me the problem has a threefold solution. First, on an individual level, human decency and Christian charity compels us to help the poor, the weak, the fatherless, and the widow. I think that must extend to the poor in other countries, especially considering Jesus’ injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves. If their homes are more livable, many of them won’t have to make the hard choice to come here.

Secondly, on a national level, the problem of illegal entry can’t be controlled at the border. I think it needs to be controlled at the place of employment. Higher fines and stricter enforcement of existing employment laws must be part of the answer ― if the demand for illegal labor goes down, the supply must inevitably decline as well.

Hand-in-hand with that must be a “guest worker” program that actually works. It needs to be simple enough to be easier than the illegal alternative. It should probably use some sort of fee or special income tax to pay for itself. Basically, the program needs to be structured in such a way that anyone who wants to (who’s not a felon, drug dealer, or a terrorist) can enter this country decently and in order to work, pay taxes, send his money home, and not die of dehydration on his way through the desert.

It seems like some people are taking an unwisely “liberal” view of this problem, the same view people take on Iran, Social Security, and so many other world problems: if we ignore it, maybe it’ll go away (or at least not bother us). Just give them all amnesty and forget about it. Some are taking a heard-heartedly “conservative” view, a view that didn’t work for the US before either of the world wars and a view that won’t work today: throw up the wall, man the barricades, look to ourselves and let the rest of the world go to hell. As usual, somewhere in the middle is the answer, and answer that takes seriously our duty as both responsible citizens of this country, responsible members of a global economy, and forgiven sinners in a God-redeemed human race. Pray that this country find that answer, soon.

I don’t have all the answers. I might not even have any of the answers. But I’ll be surprised if, at the end of this controversial day, I don’t have a silver dollar or two in my cash register.

1 comment:

CephasGT said...

Well said and well written. The intro was a nice touch, put a different spin on a topic that's becoming exhausted these days, and kept my interest.
I believe that you are correct to say that the solutions to the problems we face with immigration are somewhere between amnesty and deportation, but with politics today as polarized as they have ever been, with fewer people than ever willing to compromise on anything and absolutely no one thinking outside the box, is such a solution really possible?