Situation not Greek to you and me

On Sunday, while my tour bus made its way through the streets of Athens, Greece, I noticed that the people on the sidewalks didn’t look particularly Greek. Suddenly, we turned a corner to see the police apprehending a group of young males. Our guide was forced to explain. It seems that we were in a neighborhood of illegal immigrants. These young men and many more like them have invaded Greece looking for jobs, streaming in from Albania, Russia and other hard-luck countries. Researchers at the Panteion University of Athens have even documented patterns of home-country specialization: Bangladeshi and Pakistanis in industry, Polish in construction, and Bulgarians and Indians in agriculture.

You read that right — Bangladeshi and Pakistani illegal immigration into Greece.
Members of my American traveling party reciprocated by confiding to our tour guide that America, too, has an illegal alien problem. We asked about the police and whether they couldn’t just “round up the illegals” and deport them. He explained that this doesn’t work. The foreign workers just come back. Again, we sheepishly acknowledged our shared experience. The Greek then said with some enthusiasm that his country is working on a “green card system.” No American seemed ready or willing to tell him that ID cards likely won’t fix the problem any better than mass deportation.

The immigration problem in Greece has some of the same economic causes and consequences as in the United States. Foreign workers are hired enthusiastically by Greek employers to handle jobs that few Greek citizens seek. So economic need creates demand for these workers.

But their presence creates a new set of economic problems. Greece has generous health benefits for the residents of Greece. As in America, the non-citizens are now using these benefits, and this creates an economic burden for taxpayers. Sound familiar?

All this made me feel a little better about America’s immigration situation as we head toward Senate consideration of immigration policies. Some critics of previous congressional failures to pass comprehensive reforms act as if we’re the only nation on earth that has “out of control” borders. Clearly we’re not alone. In this day and age, any country with a strong economy is going to have a border problem. There is no way to patrol every mile of one’s borders, even in a smaller nation like Greece. And in this Photoshop and color-copier age, some determined immigrants will get forged documents that aid their deceptions even when border and employer checks are attempted.

But it’s not just the technical side of border and labor enforcement that stands in the way of successful policymaking on immigration. There is not, in my opinion, enough consensus on the part of Americans to pursue any particular set of reforms. Even if most Americans anointed immigration the nation’s most important problem in public opinion polls (something that’s not going to happen), there wouldn’t be enough agreement about what strategy to follow in order to fix the problem. But before we get to solutions, immigration must ward off a host of other competitive issues to even get the time it deserves from policymakers.

Any good Greek knows that picking a proper eggplant requires that you get a ripe one.

Anything that’s not yet ripe won’t do if you have to prepare a mousaka for tonight’s dinner.

The same goes for issues. You can’t make a proper reform until an issue is ripe. Immigration isn’t there yet. Back before the last election, I was urging Republicans to strike a deal on immigration, just to get over their image of being a do-nothing Congress. But now the situation has changed. The issue is less compelling for most Americans than it was a year ago. And now it’s the Democrats’ Congress, so let them take the slings and arrows that come with thumping this not-ready-for-prime-time issue.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.