A View of Our Border: an Objective Look at Illegal Immigration

Eddie is a Brooklyn longshoreman who along his wife Beatrice, have raised her deceased brother’s daughter Catherine, and has feelings for Catherine more than that of an uncle.  One night, Beatrice‘s two cousins who have just gotten smuggled in from Italy arrive at their house, and an sympathetic Eddie allows them to stay.  The two young men are: Marco, a married man who leaves his wife and three young children behind, hoping to make money to support his family back in Rome, and his brother Rodolpho, a single man whom Catherine eventually falls for.  Consumed with his obsession with Catherine and jealousy of Rodolpho, Eddie reports the two illegals to the US immigration authority.   Rodolpho and Catherine decide to get married so Rodolpho can stay in the country, while Marco alone faces the fate and shame of deportation.  His rage and devastation ultimately lead to an unspeakable tragedy.

I first came into Arthur Miller’s world when I was still in elementary school.  His “Death of a Salesman” was one of the first American plays that received its premier in China just several years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and it was an instant hit.  When I watched it thirty years later, its theme and the characters’ eternal struggles prove to be as timely as they ever were.  “A View from the Bridge,” his later work about this tragic longshoreman has been adapted into a movie and numerous stage productions, and is currently getting a revival in the storied Lyceum theatre on Broadway in New York.

A View from the Bridge poster


Eddie can’t conceal his contempt for Rodolpho and warns Catherine that he is only displaying his affection to get her to marry him in order to obtain his legal residency.  A confused and torn Catherine offers to accompany Rodolpho back to Italy, partially as a test and partially to leave an increasingly volatile Eddie, and Rodolpho refuses: “Do you think I am so desperate? My brother is desperate, not me. You think I would carry on my back the rest of my life a woman I didn’t love just to be an American? It’s so wonderful? You think we have no tall buildings in Italy? Electric lights? No wide streets? No flags? No automobiles? Only work we don’t have. I want to be an American so I can work, that is the only wonder here –work! How can you insult me, Catherine?”

It was eerie hearing such an impassioned plea in the backyard of Mr. Donald Trump, a multibillionaire who has made his fortune in real estate in New York and around the world, and who has vowed to build a wall to stop illegal immigrants from entering the US.  Historically, politicians, policy makers, think tanks and the general public have long held diametrically opposed views on the net financial effect of illegal immigration, and they each cite different studies to support their arguments.  Though universities, institutions and economists have done numerous researches on the subject, in my opinion, none was conducted in a comprehensive and agenda-free fashion, using data-driven, dynamic, simulation models.  If a convincing economic cost-benefit analysis is lacking, the debate on its human cost is an even more controversial issue.  When Mr. Trump declared his candidacy for President of the United States on June 16, 2015, he pointed out: “…The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems…When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”  Even though he was clearly referring to illegal, not legal, immigrants from Mexico, he was immediately labelled as a “racist” and a “bigot.” A firestorm ensued, and NBC, Macy’s and other corporate giants were quick to sever business ties with him, costing him hundreds of millions of dollars.  Yet, Mr. Trump refused to recant.  Public sentiment turned towards his favor on July 1, 2015, when Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico with a criminal background allegedly used a stolen firearm from a federal agent’s car to fatally wound Kate Steinle, a total stranger who, with her father, just happened to be visiting a popular tourist area in San Francisco, one of the so-called sanctuary cities where local police does not report illegal immigrants to the federal authority.  Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez was arrested and is going to be tried for murder, and some lawmakers drafted “Kate’s law” in honor of the victim to propose increasing “penalties applicable to aliens who unlawfully reenter the United States after being removed.”

Trump photo

Sensing the tide has turned, Mr. Trump continues to make illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign.  His doubling down on this issue has run afoul of open border advocates and even candidates from his own party, won him supporters from all different stripes, and catapulted him to the top of state and national polls.  His rising popularity is not a coincidence.  Americans, especially the older generations, fear our country is on the decline.  They feel the illegal immigrants broke the law and instead of getting deported, take jobs away from Americans, don’t pay taxes, and enjoy public benefits.  They resent the politically correct media for sympathizing with these law-breaking freeloaders and publishing tear jerker stories of their “plight” on the front pages of national newspapers, and are fed up with the politicians without the backbone to stand up to them and fix the country’s problem.  They applaud Mr. Trump for speaking his mind, and respect and admire him for not capitulating even after his position cost him business deals.

border crossing sign

I understand how these people feel, as I myself are sick of subsidizing illegal immigrants with my hard-earned tax dollars.  However, let’s analyze the background of these illegals.  Most of them are people with very little education and skills fleeing war, poverty, and corruption back home.  They are so desperate that they are willing to leave their families and friends behind, risking their lives coming to America.  It is a sign that America still represents hope: if they work hard, they have a shot at having a better life.

Their yearning is a familiar one.  I came to the US from China as an international student twenty-three years ago.  I was toiling away at a dead-end job making about $10 a month, which was the government-mandated wage for a college graduate.  After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, I didn’t want to live in a country whose government deployed soldiers and tanks to crush a pro-democracy movement and slaughter unarmed students and citizens.  I did not qualify for any family or employment-based visa, and the only way was applying as a student.  I studied hard for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), two standardized tests required for admission to accredited MBA programs in the US., and my parents exhausted their lifetime savings and borrowed money from relatives to come up with my first semester’s tuition.  I still remember the early days when I worked 50 hours a week making minimum wage, and carried a full academic load.  On the one day when I had neither work nor school, I had to finish all the chores and make meals for the next week.  I was poor, my wardrobe screamed “fresh off the boat,” yet it was a happiest time.  I enjoyed everything American: food, freedom, and unwavering optimism of my future.

Admittedly, I, like a lot of skeptics, discounted Mr. Trump’s candidacy and his seriousness in the very beginning.  With his meteoric rise in a packed GOP crowd, I started to marvel at his innate ability to speak directly to voters, without the filter of the hostile mainstream media.  His political skills and instincts are natural and uncanny, and his rivals and pundits underestimate him at their own peril.  I think his moves should be required readings for all the Marketing, Communications, and Political Science majors, and wish him the best of luck on the campaign trail in the next ten months.  Strategically, I consider him brilliant making illegal immigration a national topic, as I firmly understand the stance of those who are against it.  Yes, we are a nation of law.  Yes, these people committed a federal crime when entering our country illegally or overstaying their visas.  And yes, what they have done is unfair to the people playing by the rules and waiting for their turns patiently, some for more than a decade.  The reality though is that most of these illegal immigrants unfortunately don’t, and probably won’t qualify to apply to enter legally – they lack immediate and direct family ties, they don’t have permanent, in-demand skills, and they can’t come up with half a million to a million dollars to invest in a business.  If you are poor, uneducated and hopeless, you must make a decision: to live in constant fear of violence and injustice, knowing you will probably never be able to feed your family; or risk your life and start a new one on the other side of the fence.  How surprising can their collective choice be?

As a student-turned immigrant, I want to caution those who fervently oppose illegal immigration to be careful of what they wish for.  People have long come to America for political freedom and economic prosperity.  When people start to make their migration destination elsewhere, it may be because America is no longer the “shining city on the hill.”  Mr. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, claimed that if elected, he would make conditions so bad that illegal immigrants would “self-deport.”  Well, he had a point there.  A colleague of mine recounted the one day he went to a Home Depot store in Los Angeles during the height of the recession in 2009, and the traditional, proverbial Hispanic day laborers were nowhere to be found.  Instead, they were all white Americans.  Likewise, the current Chinese students studying in the US are younger, more affluent than my generation, and most of them return to China upon completion of their studies because they believe there are a lot more opportunities back home nowadays, than when I graduated in the mid-1990s.  Human migration has its own course independent of any politician’s campaign promise.  As long as USA is still the source of innovation, engine of economic growth, and the land of the free, people will make their way here, legally or illegal, in a freight container, on a stingy boat, or by foot under the hot desert sun.  There will be no wall high enough, no ocean wide enough, no law in the book tough enough, to deter determined people from striving to have a better life.

climbing the border wall