How is Immigration like a Dam?

I have been thinking about immigration for some time.  I have a hard time with the attitude that many people have that seems to assume that everyone who lives outside the United States is somehow unworthy or less deserving of a comfortable life than we US citizens are.  Aren’t we all God’s children?  Doesn’t a family in Mexico or Panama or Namibia deserve to have a job and a comfortable life as much as my family does?  Anyway, this morning I thought of what I think is a pretty good analogy to explain my views about immigration.  Please bear with me as I build my analogy and hopefully it will help to explain the issues and why the current solutions being offered by our political candidates won’t work.

In Ohio where I live, we have lots of flood control dams. They were built after the great Dayton flood of 1913 to prevent flooding of the Great Miami River in Dayton and surrounding communities. There are three important parts of any dam- the dam itself, the reservoir behind the dam, and the spillway. The dam is constructed across a narrow part of a river valley to block and control the flow of water. The reservoir is the area behind the dam- and it has a certain limited capacity. In the Dayton area, the areas behind the dams were made into parks and reservoirs, so that in times of low water, people could enjoy visiting the park or farming on fertile bottomland, but when the water gets high, only trees and farmland get flooded, preserving the towns below the dam. The last important part of a dam is the spillway. This is a gate in the dam that allows a controlled amount of water to pass through the dam. In normal times, the spillway is opened and the river is allowed to flow through unimpeded. But during times of high water, the spillway can be closed so that the water is stored behind the dam instead of flooding communities downstream. After the rains have passed, the spillway can be opened again, allowing the water to flow from the reservoir and into the river.

How is immigration like a dam?

Gravity and the shape of the land forms rivers and streams. Likewise, social, geographical, and economic forces create a river of immigrants who would like to live in the United States. These forces are extremely powerful, like a flooding river, and like the water in a river, you cannot completely stop immigration, you can only control when and where it happens.

Our borders are like a dam. They are designed to prevent the flow of unwanted people from outside our country. Like a dam, they have a spillway. This is our immigration system. It is designed to control how many and what type of people are allowed past the dam of our borders and into the country. Unfortunately, our spillway is not functioning properly. It is currently set too small, so the pressure has built up behind the dam and the water is spilling over and around it – or across our borders. This is illegal immigration. Our current politicians are offering the wrong solutions. The republican candidates are all advocating increasing the height of the dam by building walls and fences at the border. When you raise the height of a dam without changing the spillway, all you do is increase the pressure of the water behind the dam and fill the reservoir with more water. They also want to deport illegal immigrants that are already in the country. That is like pumping water that has already gone over the dam back into the reservoir behind it. That will simply increase the pressure even more. Once the water reaches the new level of the dam, it will begin to leak over and around again. The democrats basically want to ignore the problem. However, once a dam has begun to leak, the pressure of the water begins to undermine the structure of the dam, eventually leading to a catastrophic failure.  So neither party is currently willing to address the real problem – our broken immigration laws.

So what is the solution? We need to fix the spillway. If the spillway is not opened large enough to handle the flow of the river, there will be problems. Currently, immigration into the US is controlled by the Immigration and Nationality Act, which sets an overall quota of 675,000 immigrants per year allowed into the US. (See

Those 675,000 visas are allocated in the following way:

  • 480,000 are set aside for family members of current US citizens
  • 140,000 are set aside for highly skilled workers who generally must have a specific job offer in hand
  • 70,000 for refugees or people seeking asylum from “A well-founded fear of persecution”
  • 50,000 for the diversity visa program (intended to encourage migrants from countries with low rates of immigration – mainly Africa and Eastern Europe)

One interesting thing to note is that the above numbers do not match up. The total number of visas per year is 675,000, but if you total the special categories of visas, the number adds up to 740,000 – an excess of 65,000. This is due to there being a minimum number of family-based visas and an unlimited number of visas for immediate relatives – spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of US citizens.

Do you see the problem with the above quotas? Where is the quota for people without relatives in the US who have average skills but want to live a better life? That quota is apparently not just zero – it is 65,000 below zero. So, our reservoir has several streams and one big, Amazon-sized river flowing into it, but our spillway is only set to allow the flow from the streams back out. No wonder water is flowing over the top of the dam!

Englewood DamHow big is the reservoir? In 2012, the waiting list for family and employment-based visas from the top 6 countries was 2,758,449. ( So there are at least 4 times as many people waiting to get into the country as there are visas available to them, and this doesn’t even count the people with no relatives in the US or no special job skills.

How do we fix the spillway?

We need to change our current immigration system to allow for people who want to come here for any legal reason to do so. I would suggest we add a large pool of visas that require no special relationships or conditions. This will help relieve the backlog while maintaining a manageable rate of immigration.

How do we pay for and manage such a large increase in immigrants?

Certainly we will need to hire people to manage the increased number of immigrants, and it will take time and money to check them out and make sure they are not a danger to our citizens. How will we pay for this? – We let the immigrants pay. Many illegal immigrants already pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who help them cross the border. If we instituted an immigration fee we could use that income to pay for the costs of managing the influx of people. The actual cost per person would need to be calculated, but surely a fee of $2,500 or so should be enough to pay for the time and effort involved in security checks and paperwork for each immigrant.

What about the millions of illegal immigrants already in our country?

As mentioned above, you can’t fix a flood by pumping the water back upstream. For those people already in the country, we need to provide a way for them to legally contribute to society. Again, because we need to pay for it, I would propose a fine. They are already risking incarceration or deportation by living here, so the majority would be happy to pay a fine if it let them change their status to legal. The fine would pay for more security checks – anyone found to have committed serious crimes or judged to be dangerous would be deported.

What about all those drug dealers and criminals?

The truth is that most illegal aliens are just people trying to make a better life for themselves. Statistically, they are no more likely to be criminals than US citizens. ( But for the small number of illegal immigrants who are criminals, of course they need to be deported and punished for their crimes. I would suggest that we do both. We arrange for them to be incarcerated in their country of origin. Our own prisons are already overcrowded and expensive, so if a criminal comes to us from another country, why not send them home to prison? We could hold a trial in the US, and if the person is convicted, we pay their home country to incarcerate them for a specified period of time. I expect that it costs far less to incarcerate someone in Mexico, for example, than in the US. So we would be saving money even while paying the bill for their jail cell. Once they have served their time, they would be released into their home country, having lost eligibility to ever immigrate to the US.

Won’t all these new immigrants take all of our jobs?

Actually, we need immigrants to fill the jobs we have. It is estimated that 3,400,000 people per year will be retiring between now and 2020. ( In addition, due to economic growth, 2,100,000 new jobs are created each year. That means that we have a need to fill 5,500,000 jobs per year. There were 3,900,000 births in the US in 2013, so there is a gap of 1,600,000 jobs that will remain unfilled. This doesn’t even count the new jobs that will be created by an extra 1,000,000 people added to the economy. Given the current slow economic growth, it is understandable that many people believe that adding more people to the economy will increase unemployment or lower wages. Research has shown the opposite to be the case, however. If jobs were so hard to come by, people would not choose to immigrate – they would go somewhere they could get a job.

Won’t all these new immigrants cost lots of money for Welfare and other government benefits?

Most government benefits are only available to permanent residents who have been in the US for at least 5 years (The same amount of time required to become a naturalized citizen.) ( Some benefits, such as food stamps, require 10 years of working in the US before a non-citizen can be eligible.

What about voting?

Only US citizens are eligible to vote, and an immigrant must live in the US for at least 5 years before they can become a citizen.


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