Immigration Lessons from McDonald’s

Some weeks ago, I spent a few days in downtown Salt Lake City. This bastion of Mormonism is probably not the first place one would think of when considering the plight of the homeless, but nonetheless they have their share.

Across the street from my hotel was a McDonald’s. Venturing to the fast food establishment one evening, I saw something I had never seen in a McDonald’s before. Standing by the door, keeping watch over the distribution of various Mc-Foodstuffs, was a rather elderly Hispanic-looking gentleman. Upon his head, he wore a cap with the McDonald’s logo and the word “Security.”

In the time I was there, no one showed up to rob the place. No loud or boisterous teens came in to have fun at the expense of other patrons. People just went about their business ordering food and drink on the cheap. McSecurity did not seem to serve any job other than standing and waiting.

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However, on another morning I returned to the McDonald’s to take advantage of a great deal on Sausage and Egg McMuffins. This morning, the elderly Hispanic security guard had been replaced by a younger, much larger, African American security guard. While the guard from the previous night seemed like a half-hearted attempt at security, this guard was security.

This guard did not merely stand and watch. Several times while I waited for the McMuffins, he reached behind the counter and pressed a button which unlocked the bathroom door for one of the paying customers. While not operating the bathroom button, he kept an eye on those whose disheveled appearance signaled they might have spent the previous night on the street.

Seeing this situation made me feel sorry for everyone involved. I felt sorry for the owner of this McDonald’s who thought security was needed. I felt sorry for the security men, who had to decide who was and who was not worthy of bathroom privileges (and woe to the security man who makes a mistake captured on video and is both fired and named the next “worst person ever” in the United States). I felt sorry for the paying customers and the homeless people who are all scrutinized and judged by the security men. And I felt sorry for the homeless that they were not only homeless, but also unwanted in the McDonald’s.

But I understand why the security guards are there.

The homeless want to come in to the McDonald’s to use the bathroom, and perhaps just get in from the cold, because the McDonald’s is a nice place. But the McDonald’s is a nice place specifically because it doesn’t allow the homeless to hang out there.

If the McDonald’s adopted the policy that the homeless are welcome to come in and make themselves at home, the likelihood is that many of the paying customers would stop coming. Homeless people, sad to say, are often scary. They may smell less than pleasant. They may have mental issues. And their presence would likely be intimidating to would-be patrons. The McDonald’s would certainly lose business and might end up closing.

In short, letting the homeless hang out in the McDonald’s would be bad for the restaurant and wouldn’t even be good for the homeless.

This situation strikes me as a microcosm of the immigration situation in the United States.

Many well-meaning people, including the U.S. bishops, seem to accept that all or almost all limitations on immigration are wrong. While people of many political persuasions have decried the misguided policy of separating immigrant families—a practice mandated by the courts, protesters and even Democratic politicians have gone so far as to say that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office of the federal government should be abolished.

The U.S. bishops have never announced direct support for open borders. In fact, they routinely affirm the right of nations to enforce immigration laws. But this right seems more theoretical than practical. It is difficult, if not impossible, to point to a single practical limitation on immigration which the U.S. bishops support.

What Ross Douthat says about the Left’s view of open borders seems to apply equally well to the U.S. bishops: “Liberalism’s current relationship to open borders is asymptotic: Not for it, but for every step toward it.”

Various polls over the last decade have concluded that approximately 150 million adults in the world would like to move to the United States. If you add in children—say one child for every three adults—that would make about 200 million people in the world who might move to the United States if they were free to do so.

The United States accepts a million or so immigrants each year (more than any other country by raw numbers). But what if this increased to 10 million per year? Even at that level, which would likely be unprecedented in human history, it would take 20 years to let in all the people who want to move here. People could not reasonably be expected to wait 20 years, so even a tenfold increase might slow but most likely not end illegal immigration.

If immigration enforcement is wrong, then the only way to stop enforcement is open borders. If everyone who wants to come is free to do so, then all enforcement issues go away. No more ICE, no more deportations, no more sanctuary cities, no more guards, and no more guns.

There would remain only the slight problem of what to do with those 200 million new arrivals. We might suppose that they wouldn’t all come at once. Perhaps there would only be 50 million new arrivals in the first year. But what would we do with those 50 million people? They would all need housing, and jobs, and transportation, and schools, and hospitals, and other social services.

The new immigrants wouldn’t be uniformly distributed. Similar groups from similar countries would likely clump into areas around existing enclaves. There might be many localities with very few new immigrants and others with multiple millions. At least initially, it would not be possible to have sufficient housing, so tent cities would spring up. These would need sanitation and electricity and other necessities. It would take time even to set up the barest necessities for life, and people might stay in these tent cities for years.

It wouldn’t be only social services that would be overwhelmed. Tens of millions of new immigrants couldn’t possibly be absorbed into American society any time soon. Many wouldn’t speak English, but with so many immigrants coming in waves, they would have no reason to learn. They could stay in ethnic and linguistic enclaves without engaging much with the wider society. This would mean communities, and the country as a whole, would have less social cohesion and less social trust.

The above scenario seems likely. On the other hand, no modern country has ever tried immigration on such a scale, so it’s hard to say exactly what the outcome would be. But as Adam Ozimek, an economist for Moody’s Analytics, writes about open borders, “Would these changes be positive or negative? We don’t know, but given that the U.S. is already very rich compared to the rest of the world the risks are to the downside.”

There is also the more philosophical question of what a nation is. Surely it has something to do with shared understandings, shared culture, shared values, and shared history. There is a sense that a country is a “we,” and in some sense we care for our own because we recognize them as our own. As Gilbert and Peter Meilaender write in First Things, “We distribute food stamps and Social Security checks to members of our own national community, but not to the countless others around the world who might benefit from them. We provide schools to educate our own children, but not those of neighboring countries. We build our own interstate highways, deliver our own mail, clean our own rivers and streams. All these collective endeavors presuppose the existence of a ‘we,’ a community of fellow citizens sharing a common life.” With limited and orderly immigration, those who are “they” can become part of “we” over time through assimilation—what used to be called “the melting pot.” But could 50 or 100 or 200 million immigrants be assimilated?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” (#2241) That is not only a moral policy but also a wise policy—countries should do what they can to help foreigners while not losing sight of the needs of their own citizens.

Immigration has on the whole been very good for the United States. Most immigrants are able and ambitious—if they weren’t they wouldn’t try to make new lives in a new country. If anything, far from hurting the United States, immigration may be taking the “best and brightest” away from other countries.

But abolishing ICE or lifting all restrictions on immigration is not the answer. Stopping all deportations is not the answer. Removing all immigration enforcement at the border and within our borders is not the answer. Those things would functionally create an open border, and an open border is not the answer. At least, it’s not the answer if the question is, how can the United States stay both prosperous and welcoming?

The national dialog about immigration in the United States suffers from a terrible lack of honesty. There needs to be a frank discussion about the costs associated with legal and illegal immigration. To this end, federal and state agencies should ensure that accurate figures are collected on the impact of migration to discourage baseless claims. Furthermore, an honest debate is not possible if everyone who would like to see orderly and lawful immigration is treated as a racist and xenophobe.

Catholics, and especially the U.S. bishops, could contribute to an honest dialog on immigration. The bishops have stated time after time that they favor “comprehensive reform.” Perhaps the bishops can tell us what that phrase means in practical terms. If it means accepting more immigrants, but not all potential immigrants, then perhaps the bishops can tell us precisely what limits and enforcement actions they consider to be justified. But if by reform they mean accepting all immigrants with no limit, then they should be willing to say so explicitly.

People in the rest of the world desire to immigrate to the United States because the United States is rich and prosperous. It is reasonably well-run and harmonious, despite the inevitable ups and downs.

It may be that border controls are part of what makes the United States rich and prosperous. This is not to say that those excluded are morally worse or less deserving. It is not to say that immigrants would be less hard-working or less law-abiding or less ambitious than current citizens. It’s just to say that if we let everyone in, then, just like at McDonald’s, it might no longer be worth getting into.

(Photo credit: South Texas Laredo Border Patrol vehicle at border; Donna Burton / Department of Homeland Security)


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