The Conversation

Illegal Immigration and Illegal Dumping

The Los Angeles Times reports this morning about a "plague of garbage" in the center of town. More than the usual urban blight is at play. The problem stems from poor attitudes about littering and public sanitation among the itinerant residents of the area, many of whom are immigrants, the Times points out:

Much of the focus is on the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Westlake and Pico-Union just west of downtown.

The tiniest refuse--candy wrappers, grocery bags, fliers--spreads across gutters like confetti. Chairs, rugs and other larger pieces block the alleys and sidewalks in a smelly obstacle course that sometimes reaches 10 feet high.

Saturated with overcrowded apartments and tenants who pack their belongings and move with unusual frequency, the low-income area is notorious among trash collectors because of how tough it is to keep clean.

The Times story is reminiscent of an account several years ago by Victor Davis Hanson of how illegal immigration had created a seemingly insoluble garbage problem in California's rural Central Valley:

It is a schizophrenic existence, living at illegal immigration’s intersection. Each week I pick up trash, dirty diapers, even sofas and old beds dumped in our orchard by illegal aliens—only to call a Mexican-American sheriff who empathizes when I show him the evidence of Spanish names and addresses on bills and letters scattered among the trash. So far I have caught more than 15 illegal dumpers, all Mexican, in the act.

Discussion of this problem runs many hazards, including stereotyping all immigrants, or illegal immigrants. A typical weekend evening on the campus of UCLA in Westwood might involve the children of well-off suburbanites trashing a fraternity house beyond recognition, leaving the mess to be cleaned up dutifully by someone else, likely an immigrant. And dumping is hardly confined to central LA: my Santa Monica alleyway is often filled with couches, antique typewriters--whatever folks could not be bothered to dispose of properly.

But it is neither racist nor xenophobic to point out that there is a connection between illegal immigration and the growing problem of waste management. There are two factors at play. One is simply cultural: people who live in, or come from, statist societies seem to have more lax attitudes towards public litter. Anyone who has had to dodge dog poop in Paris or sidestepped steaming piles on shiny sidewalks in Buenos Aires can attest to the problem that is created when people expect their government to clean up after them and their pets.

The other factor is disregard for the law. People who have broken the law to enter or stay in a country can reasonably be expected to be less likely to obey other laws--especially when Los Angeles, the original "sanctuary city," has openly declared its intention to defy federal attempts to enforce otherwise valid immigration laws. Nothing--not even trash collection five days a week, which is what Los Angeles has been forced to adopt--can make up for a semi-official culture of casual disregard for the simplest rules.

It might be said that the problem in central LA makes a good case for bringing people "out of the shadows" by offering them legal status. That is the idea, at least, behind granting illegal immigrants the opportunity to apply for drivers' licenses: best to absorb them as far as possible into the system of laws that everyone must obey if society is to be as orderly as possible. It is not clear, however, that amnesty would solve the problem.

The problem with pending immigration reform legislation, which would offer legal status to millions before securing the border, is that it would ratify past law-breaking. We have also done little to assimilate new arrivals into a culture of individual liberty and responsibility, because we have neglected it ourselves. The garbage problem in California is a warning: illegal immigration is a problem that amnesty alone cannot fix.

This post has been updated.


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