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Uncle Sam's Club

Chad Prather is a motivational speaker and a self-professed "armchair philosopher" who gained internet fame after his Unapologetically Southern YouTube video went viral. Since then, Prather has published a host of other videos, including this one where he weighs in on the immigration debate.

It's hard to do justice to a complex issue in three minutes, but Prather doesn't even try. To say Prather grossly oversimplifies the issue would be an understatement.

First, Prather attempts to justify the term "illegal alien" to refer to undocumented immigrants, creating a false dichotomy between those who want to "become a permanent citizen" and those who "live here illegally things illegally". But the reality is not that simple. The best estimates (which are more than a decade old, so take them for what they are worth) suggest that more than 40% of the 11 million undocumented workers currently in the United States entered the country legally and stayed after their visas expired. Although more recent numbers are hard to come by, Donald Trump's crackdown on border crossings makes it likely that visa overstays now outnumber illegal entries.

Another group of immigrants, the "dreamers"—people born outside the U.S. but brought here as children by parents who didn't fill out the paperwork—have no path to citizenship under current immigration laws, despite the fact that most of them grew up here and feel more at home in American culture than they would in the countries they don't remember being born in. Under Prather's definition, they would be considered "illegal aliens" and shouldn't be given a chance to legally become the Americans they already are in practice.

Asylum seekers too would be considered "illegal aliens" by Prather's definition—despite the reality that they cannot return to their native countries without facing prison or death. Would Prather send them back simply because they were unable to gather and fill out all the necessary paperwork before escaping an oppressive regime?

Immigration is a complex issue, and it can't be simplified to an either/or dichotomy.

It also can't be simplified by analogy to Sam's Club, though Prather uses the bulk of the video trying to do exactly that.

You can get a television, you can get a massage table, you can get a diamond engagement ring, and if you like steak you can buy the whole cow right now. You can get your truck tires and your contact lenses changed at the same time, and then go buy a 10,000 count pack of hot dog weinies and a 50-gallon drum of pickle relish so you can drive over, see, and cook out for 2500 of your closest neighbors. It is literally a consumeristic land of plenty. You can even walk up and down the aisles and sample food for free. They just give it to you, I mean, all day long. But guess what Mr. All Day Free Sample Buffet Man, you can't go into Sam's Club and enjoy your gluttonous privileges unless you have a membership card. They will literally stop you at the door and ask you for your membership card. If you don't have one they'll direct you over to the counter where you can fill out the paperwork, prove you meet the membership requirements, pay a small membership fee, and they will take the ugliest picture of you ever, looking like a prison mugshot in Honduras, hand you a  membership card, and say "Welcome to Sam's Club, enjoy the benefits."

No analogy is perfect, but this one fails on many levels.

Prather suggests that the U.S. is similar to the discount chain in that there are procedures for becoming "members". But becoming a Sam's Club member is as simple as filling out one form and paying a small annual fee. Becoming a U.S. citizen involves finding a sponsor, applying, waiting for a decision, dealing with bureaucratic red tape, paying legal fees, gathering documentation, and being interviewed by government officials—and that's just for the initial visa.

To become a naturalized citizen requires years of waiting, meeting a set of residence and language requirements, keeping that green card up to date, and passing a citizenship test. While none of these requirements are particularly onerous for reasonably intelligent skilled workers determined to become U.S. citizens, it's a lot more effort than paying a Sam's Club renewal fee.

And all of this matters because we have a worker shortage in the United States. It's not Donald Trump's fault. Although Trump's immigration policies are exacerbating the problem, it's a problem we have faced for a number of years. It's hard to find Americans willing to work certain jobs, and it's hard to legally bring enough qualified immigrants into the country to fill those jobs.

And this raises another problem with Prather's analogy. For the most part, undocumented workers are not here to enjoy "free samples", receiving benefits without contributing anything in return. In fact, many of them have been targeted by U.S. employers with subtle or not-so-subtle invitations such as last year's rejected Super Bowl ad from 84 Lumber. As long as American employers are willing to hire immigrants who haven't gone through the green card process, the workers will continue to arrive. These workers don't expect a life of luxury. For many of them, coming to the U.S. without a work visa to work in the sun all day is an improvement over their opportunities at home.

The simple solution would be to streamline the immigration process, so anyone willing to work could stay here as long as they have a job. If we made it as easy for employers to find and keep good workers as it is for suburbanites to get a Sam's Club membership, we would see a much higher percentage of legal border crossings.

And if it were as easy to renew a green card as it is to renew Sam's membership, we could instantly cut the number of undocumented workers by half.

We've got an immigration problem in this country, but it's not the fault of immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. It's the fault of a federal government that has failed time after time after time to reform the process. Fix the broken immigration system, and we'll have fewer people trying to subvert it.

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