Let’s Rethink Immigration:
 Managing the “Coke Bottle”

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Reading Time: 14 minutes

Let’s begin our investigation of the Immigration component of the Republic by acknowledging the daunting complexity of the issue.

We Americans have a tendency to look for—or hope for—big, simple answers to our big questions. And when we can’t find them we demand them anyway. We want our leaders to fix things. We don’t like situations with too many moving parts. So whenever we face a dauntingly complex problem or issue, we often fall for the temptation to reduce it to a two-sided battle of emotional slogans.

The noted scientist and intellectual philosopher Albert Einstein liked to say,

“Everything should be made as simple as possible,
but not simpler.”

Let’s make it as simple as possible, but not simpler. I’ll state my premise out front: we haven’t solved the immigration problem because we never defined it intelligently.

We’ve misunderstood it, misdiagnosed it, and mis-framed it as an emotionally charged stalemate between two incompatible mindsets. Regardless of which side gets its way, we won’t have solved it. Until we reframe our understanding of the problem and begin to apply some systems thinking, we’ll keep repeating the same old slogans and fighting the same old battles.

Let’s make things Einstein-simple. Let’s define only two categories of people who might stand on American soil at any moment: 1) citizens, and 2) visitors. If we set aside the various emotionally charged labels, we can recognize immigration as just one part of a bigger system. Let’s call that bigger system population management. Solving the population management issue will solve the immigration issue.

The category of visitors has various sub-categories: short-stay guests; people visiting families and friends who live here; people attending conferences or special events; day shoppers; airline crews making turn-arounds; people here to do business with Americans; foreign students; and lots of others.

Then we get to the collection of people who want to live here for a long time or indefinitely. That breaks down as refugees and people seeking asylum; people who want to work here for some period, and possibly send money back home; people who want to live here without changing citizenship; and people who aspire to become US citizens.

And finally, we have the problem cases—people with various stories who didn’t get permission to come here or stay. That includes people who arrived on approved visas but overstayed their deadlines—possibly the largest majority— and people who made their way across unsecured borders and dissolved into the general population.

Pro-immigrant activists call this last group “undocumented migrants.” Anti-immigrant activists call them “illegal aliens.” As a society, we can’t seem to decide how we feel about them.

Do We Still Want the Tired and Poor? Facts and Figments

America has welcomed foreigners for all of its history.

For the past several decades we’ve minted an average of about 700,000 new citizens a year—almost 2,000 a day.

As of this writing, naturalized citizens number about 22 million, or roughly 7 percent of a total population of about 325 million.

About 13 million people have green cards, which give them permanent resident status. About 9 million of those qualify for eventual citizenship. About 65,000 serve in the armed forces, although they can’t vote.

Government figures estimate the number of people in the country without permission—“undocumented residents”—at about 11 million, or roughly 4 percent of the total population. Most of them have partly assimilated.

Decades of neglecting the southern border, plus lax law enforcement by the federal government, have allowed a steady accumulation of undocumented people, most with uncertain or ambiguous status.

Myths About Migrants

Myth: the menacing threat-image of millions of alien fugitives roaming the country and hiding in the woods, promoted by anti-immigrant activists, misstates the situation.

Reality: experts estimate that a large majority of undocumented people have already assimilated to various degrees, working at jobs, paying taxes, paying rent, driving cars, going to schools, and raising families. Not surprisingly, most new arrivals begin to assimilate as soon as they get here, for the obvious reasons of self-interest.

Leaders of the sanctuary cities assert that the federal government has tolerated, and implicitly condoned, this below-the-radar “gray citizenship” status for many years. In many cities, governments and community groups openly acknowledge their presence and consider them semi-citizens with nearly a full set of rights. Some advocates refer to them as “PAMs,” or Partly Assimilated Migrants. They reject the characterization of undocumented but highly assimilated people as common criminals.

Myth: some anti-immigration advocates contend that the US can’t absorb more immigrants than the current stream.

Reality: that narrative, largely inflamed by the traffic jam at the southern border, and compounded by the ignorance of the American public, conflicts entirely with the facts on the ground. America has a relatively low population density—the number of people divided by the area of habitable land. Drive through vast stretches of the beautiful countryside in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and the Dakotas and you’ll see nothing but wildlife and farm animals for miles.

In fact, many small towns and local communities in the US have begun to see declining populations and painful worker shortages, as birth rates drop and young people move away to the cities—domestic migration, as some analysts call it.

Enterprising individuals can’t start new businesses or grow existing ones without workers. Farmers who depend on foreign workers worry about threats of ICE round-ups and deportations, which could put them out of business. We’ll see more and more small communities becoming ghost towns.

Myth: some political figures have described Latin American immigrants, both legal and illegal, as a highly criminalized population. One US president campaigned for his office by describing them as “rapists, murderers, gang members, and drug smugglers.”

Reality: the federal government’s own statistics indicate that immigrants commit proportionately fewer crimes than US citizens. Researchers surmise the simple reason that they have more to lose by getting caught, so they tend to keep their heads down and their noses clean.

Myth: several news commentators have claimed, without evidence, that most immigrants in the pipeline—those having applied for legal status—don’t show up for their scheduled court hearings. One such talking hair-do surmised that “Only three percent of them show up for their hearings.”

Reality: the federal government pegs the appearance rate at over 75 percent for most applicants and over 90 percent for asylum seekers. Some analysts estimate that processing errors such as mistakes in assigning trial dates; incorrect addresses on notifications; and erroneous instructions might account for five percent or more of the no-show rates.

The “Coke Bottle” Effect

In the face of so much confusion, misinformation and demagoguery, let’s approach the immigration issue from a completely new angle. To do that we need to start with a clean sheet of paper—and a very interesting chart known to experts as a population pyramid. It shows, graphically, the relative numbers of people living in a country, grouped by age range—typically in 5-year bands.

First, let’s look at a chart for a typical developing country, like Nigeria, as in Figure 11-1. It shows the arrangement of people in the various age bands as percentages of the total population.

Figure 11-1. Population Pyramid for Nigeria.

Note the very high number of infants, on the bottom row, and note how rapidly the numbers drop off going up the age scale. This indicates very high birth rates, low survival rates for children, and a very short life expectancy for most of the 190 million people living there.

Note that the age band of birth-to-age-5 for this country includes 8.6 percent of males and 8.2 percent of females. Almost 30 percent of this country’s people fall below age 10. Over half fall below the 20-year mark, or the median age, as statisticians call it.

For a poor country with a weak economic structure and low productivity, this pyramid pattern spells doom—or at least hardship for many years to come. With 40 percent of the people too young to work and dependent on the rapidly dwindling numbers of workers in the prime productive years, no one eats well. Even worse, this population will likely continue to grow rapidly because of the high birth rates, making the economic challenge worse, not better.

This country has two obvious policy challenges: 1) reducing the birth rate; and 2) improving the survival rates of people in their productive years. Nigeria needs far fewer dependents and lots more workers—as well as a modern economy.

The population pyramid can offer us a lot of insight as we decipher the story concealed in those percentages. Space limitations prevent a more revealing exploration, but we can apply a similar reasoning process to the chart for the US.

Figure 11-2 shows the pyramid for the United States, which telegraphs a stunningly different story. This unique shape, nicknamed by demographers as the “Coke bottle” chart, has a very different meaning for the future of the American Republic, in contrast to that of a third-world state like Nigeria.

Figure 11-2. Population Pyramid for the US.

Note the remarkable drop-off in the numbers of people at the bottom of the chart, which hardly resembles a pyramid. The slight bulge just above the center represents the well-known post-war baby boom, caused by a surge in birth rates as the country returned to stability and prosperity after WW2. A small secondary bulge comes along about 20 years later.

After the baby boom, birth rates took a radical dive beginning in the 1960s, with the arrival of The Pill. Other factors, such as increasing educational levels and higher career aspirations amongst young women, have also driven down fertility rates.

Statisticians tell us that, for any country’s population to grow, the average lifetime birth rate per female must exceed a factor of about 2.1, referred to as the replacement rate. That means that each woman has to replace herself and one man, plus a little extra to offset early mortality rates. For every woman who does not reproduce, some other woman—or combination of women—will have to deliver an extra 2.1 babies to make up the shortfall.

As we can see from the chart, American couples in the primary childbearing years—20 to 40—haven’t replaced themselves. As birth rates have declined, America has passed the point of “ZPG,” or zero population growth, and the total population has begun to shrink. Recent to this writing, demographers estimate the US fertility rate at about 1.77.

The bottom line: if we don’t increase our birth rates or change our immigration system, we’ll see a steadily growing shortage of workers—and taxpayers—for several decades at least.

We’ll have fewer people in the primary productive age range at the same time that the boomers and post-boomers move into retirement and expect the younger generations to keep them comfortable. At some point, this shortage will become acute and politically significant. As of this writing, we have about 2.8 full time workers for every person receiving Social Security payments. Government analysts expect that ratio to drop to 2.2 by 2035.

How do these discoveries relate to the immigration issue? We’ll soon see.

But first, let’s not feel too sorry for the American society, because a number of other countries have an even tougher demographic problem on their hands. Consider the case of China, for example, as shown in Figure 11-3.

Figure 11-3. Population Pyramid for China.

The top of the Chinese pyramid shows the typical pattern of a population that grew rapidly in the distant past, but then something put on the brakes. In the 1980s, the Chinese government, worried about a population that had shot past the 1 billion mark, imposed the strict one-child policy, which mandated that couples couldn’t have more than one child without special permission. Those who violated the restriction faced public shaming, economic sanctions, and loss of social privileges.

The policy worked well—perhaps too well. Experts estimate that the restriction probably prevented as many as 400 million births during the 35 years it remained in force. The government dropped the policy in 2015. But by then many young Chinese had become accustomed to a one-child lifestyle. They liked the economic freedom of a two-income household and easy access to the pleasures of the rapidly developing consumer economy.

China’s problem now: a similar one to the US’s problem, in spades. They have plenty of people—perhaps too many—but they have the wrong age mix. They have a huge elderly population with a long life expectancy, riding on the backs of a shrinking population of workers and taxpayers. China has also joined the club of ZPG nations. Its planners will have to figure out some creative solutions.

Japan and Russia also face similar demographic challenges. Russia, with an alarming drop in birth rates, ZPG status, and population curves even more distorted than those of the US and China, probably faces the biggest challenge. Taiwan, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, currently has the lowest fertility rate, at 1.13 children per woman.

A number of other countries, particularly in Europe, have recently moved into or toward ZPG territory and their leaders have cast around for strategies to refill their Coke bottles. Ironically, a number of European countries, including the ZPG candidates, have adopted anti-immigrant policies in the throes of a recently contagious neo-nationalistic fever.

What do these charts tell us about the immigration issue now facing our Republic? They tell us that, if we want to maintain economic stability, we’ll need at least 20 million new citizens—mostly young ones—over the next decade or so. Otherwise, we’ll have to start shooting the old ones.

Even with computers and robots taking over lots of work processes, the workforce will shrink and the need for imported workers will become a critical part of our economy. In fact, we might even have trouble importing enough new citizens to fill the bottom of the American Coke bottle.

So here we have two very contradictory ways of thinking about immigration. One view, a highly emotionalized one, sees immigrants as threatening to our society. Some political advocates have even called for building a huge wall across the 2,400 miles of the southern border to keep them out.

Another view, more attentive to the evidence, holds that America can, and should, actively invite more new citizens, so long as we can assimilate them effectively.

If we look to the future, beyond the current “border crisis”—a politically manufactured crisis, some would say—most of the evidence and common-sense logic point to the more progressive option. We can replace the current insane immigration process with a comprehensive, logically designed, and effectively operated system.

Let’s Reframe “In-migration:” Laws, Logistics, and Assimilation

Creating 20 million new citizens over the next 10 years, or 2 million per year, would require us to triple the usual rate of naturalization. Clearly, the federal government’s administrative system for immigration and naturalization couldn’t possibly handle that load. We’ll have to rethink the whole process from end to end and design a viable system that can handle the challenge. Building an effective visitor management system will require a massive commitment, something on the scale of the Apollo moon program.

But First: Three Big Pills to Swallow

Even with a more rational system in place, however, we won’t have a real solution to the immigration problem until we come to peace with three critical truths, which we can do.

All three of those realities will require changes, not only in our policies and laws, but also in our mindset. Let’s start thinking about them in a serious way:

1. We’ll have to normalize the status of millions of undocumented people in the US who have already assimilated, leaving a smaller and more manageable number of true candidates for deportation.

2. We’ll have to radically reduce the number of migrants who choose to sneak across borders rather than go to one of the official points of entry. Arresting and imprisoning illegal entrants and separating kids from their parents doesn’t seem to have changed their motivations. Instead, we have to make the legal option more attractive than the illegal one.

3. We’ll have to reduce and simplify the onerous red tape and waiting periods imposed on people eligible for residency and citizenship. We’ll need to help people become Americans, not make it difficult for them. We could clear a huge percentage of the cases backlogged in the immigration courts by authorizing well-qualified Case Management Officers to make determinations, instead of requiring every immigrant to appear before one of the scarce and overloaded judges.

Let’s consider each of these realities—these psychological pills—on its own merits.

Big Pill #1: Let’s Normalize the Status of Assimilated Migrants

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan led a campaign to bring undocumented immigrants who had assimilated into communities out of the shadows and line them up for citizenship. He declared,

“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

The Immigration Reform and Control Act, piloted through the Congress by Wyoming’s Republican Senator Alan Simpson, made all immigrants who’d arrived before 1982 eligible for citizenship. The bill won approval in both houses and Reagan signed it into law in 1986.

The term “amnesty” had taken on a very negative significance during the debates, so the sponsors chose to tout it as a process of “legalization.” In fact, they promoted the overall bill as a crackdown on illegal immigration and a cleaning up of the messy immigration non-system. That law-and-order narrative soothed the conservative factions who looked with suspicion at any effort to dilute the country’s traditionally white population with foreigners. Amnesty came along as the hidden prize in the Cracker Jacks box.

Political activists still argue about the law’s benefits, and some critics still view it as a failure, but many of its supporters consider the benefits of the amnesty process its best selling point. According to Senator Simpson, “It’s not perfect, but 2.9 million people came forward. If you can bring one person out of an exploited relationship, that’s good enough for me.”

Of the 2.9 million people who acquired permanent resident status under the Reagan-Simpson program, 1.1 million went on to become naturalized citizens. The American society didn’t collapse, and the Republic moved on.

Now, three decades down the road, the situation looks strangely familiar. The federal government’s continued neglect of the southern border and haphazard application of the immigration laws has allowed the undocumented population to grow again, this time to much larger numbers.

No surprise: a comprehensive amnesty program must once again become the centerpiece of the reformation. Considering that the term still carries negative emotional loading for many people involved in the reform, let’s give it a new handle. Let’s call it normalization.

We can choose to take a realistic approach and forgive ancient misdeeds. Once we come to peace with the idea of pragmatic forgiveness, we can move on to pragmatic solutions.

Big Pill #2: Let’s Make Legal Entry the Preferred Choice

To reduce the “dash and dare” incentives, we first need to scale up the processing system for legal entry with a large number of Case Management Officers and Immigration Status Adjudicators who have the authority to grant eligibility status directly, without overloading the courts.

Then we can strive to change the motivations of many people who might consider crossing illegally, by adopting a procedure called “return with prejudice.”

Under this procedure, CBP agents will take illegal crossers they’ve apprehended to the nearest point of entry, where processing personnel will photograph and fingerprint them and record their identities into the National Visitor Identification System (NVIDS).

Now comes the part that some readers might find hard to live with: CBP agents then simply take the illegal crossers to the entry point and send them back across the border.

“Wait a minute,” some will protest. “They violated our laws by coming in illegally, and we just send them back, with no punishment?”

But let’s think about it in a more practical way. CBP agents face a dilemma. With the old catch-and-release policy, people who entered illegally could stay in-country and get a shot at immigrant status—a long shot, maybe, but still a shot. That policy would probably encourage, rather than discourage illegal crossings.

On the other hand, the catch-and-keep policy, as we’ve seen, overloads CBP detention resources and causes appalling humanitarian consequences. That approach has done little to discourage illegal crossings.

The return-with-prejudice policy would save enormous amounts of money and staff time, compared to detention. I for one would consider the moral trade-off a slam-dunk.

But wait: the illegal crossers would indeed have to pay for their offenses—with their futures. When apprehended, they’ll learn that, if they ever hope to enter legally thereafter, they’ll have to pay a substantial retroactive fine, plus a security fee as assurance that they’ll obey the conditions of their entry. The visitor database system has a long memory.

We would work to make the return-with-prejudice policy commonly known throughout the aspiring migrant population. Word usually gets around fast in that kind of a situation. With a joint program of extensive publicity, in cooperation with Mexican and other Latin American governments, we could sell the benefits of legal entry.

Big Pill #3: Let’s Make Citizenship Quicker and Easier

Should a person who aspires to become an American citizen—a law-abiding, diligent person with the best of intentions—have to wait five years, or even ten years, to get there? Should an able-bodied person who wants to make a living in America have to wait and hope for years to get a special type of visa or a work permit?

Somewhere in our ancient past, I presume, political leaders decided to make the process of becoming a citizen, or even a permanent resident, a difficult climb. Now, if we really want to fill in the bottom of the American Coke bottle, and we need to mint new citizens three times faster than our typical rate, we need to rethink the barriers.

Our current policies probably overplay the element of risk—the likelihood that a person might become, as the early framers put it, “a ward of the state.” Maybe we’ve misplaced the emphasis. Maybe we should emphasize assimilation rather than insurance.

Going back to our system model, let’s get serious about the fourth subsystem, Assimilation and Naturalization. If we can build pathways and channels into the many support systems we already have, can we ensure that almost every able-bodied and well-meaning person we let in will try—and probably succeed—to make a go of it?

Let’s remind ourselves that not all of the people born in America have succeeded to the fullest. We still have homeless people, people whose lives have collapsed, and people who’ve gotten on the wrong side of the law. An immigrant population will surely have a certain percentage of them also, but probably no more than the native population.

So, let’s adopt a saner set of rules for work permission, residency, and eligibility for citizenship. We can map out a streamlined process of movement from temporary resident status to permanent residency, and naturalization if desired.

I see no reason why we can’t progress a qualified person from the status of visitor to the status of full-fledged citizen in less than three years.

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