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According to a Census Bureau announcement during the 1950s, I was growing up in the poorest city in the United States. That was Laredo, Texas, a city that borders the Rio Grande. Even though I was only a kid, that announcement struck me hard. Here I was, actually living in the poorest city in the entire country!
The announcement didn’t really surprise me. While there were plenty of middle-class families in Laredo (for example, my dad was an attorney who had come to Laredo after World War II and married one of the local Mexican-American girls) and a few wealthy oil-related families, it wasn’t hard to find the poor. They were in areas of town called barrios. It wasn’t hard to see that the people who lived in those parts of town were indeed poor. Their houses weren’t very fancy, and some of them actually lived in wooden shacks. They drove jalopies. Needless to say, many of the students with whom I attended elementary, junior high, and high school didn’t come to school wearing the latest fashions.
But as poor as Laredo was, its poverty was nothing compared with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
The two cities — Laredo and Nuevo Laredo — were really just one great big metropolitan area, separated by the Rio Grande, much as St. Louis and East St. Louis are separated by the Mississippi River. Laredo’s downtown was connected to Nuevo Laredo’s downtown by an international bridge.
As soon as someone crossed the bridge into Mexico, he would immediately notice how much more poverty there was in Nuevo Laredo. If he went beyond the downtown area into some of the residential areas, he would see people living in cardboard shacks.
No one, as far as I can recall, ever asked why that was so. Why were people on one side of the Rio Grande significantly poorer than people on the other side? After all, the two towns had once been one town, under Mexican rule. That was before the Texas Revolution and before the United States had absorbed the northern half of Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. A century later, people had come to accept the disparities of wealth and standards of living between the two cities as one of those things that just naturally happen in life.
Since my father was active in Democratic Party politics, he invited me to accompany him and a La-redo contingent to a campaign barbecue at Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in Johnson City, Texas, during the 1960 presidential campaign, where I actually met and shook hands with Johnson himself. Johnson asked me what I was doing to help Kennedy and him win the election, and I told him that I was campaigning hard for them in Laredo.
After Johnson won the presidential election in 1964, he declared a war on poverty, a declaration that deeply impressed me, given that I knew that I was living in the poorest city in the United States. I figured that Johnson’s war on poverty might mean that Laredo could finally rid itself of poverty. Johnson might have been impressed with my political efforts in his behalf in Laredo because notwithstanding my young age, he appointed me to be the representative in Laredo for Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautify America Campaign. Since there were parts of Laredo that weren’t so beautiful, owing to so much poverty, I knew I had my work cut out for me.
It didn’t take long for Laredoans to discover how Johnson intended to wage his war on poverty. My dad told me that Johnson telephoned Laredo’s mayor, with whom he was good friends, and said, “Joe, the federal spigots are open. Just tell me how much money you need and federal funds will flow into Laredo.”
Thus, at a very early age I was imbued with the notion that the way to fight poverty is to have the federal government play an active role in combatting it, especially by sending federal money into impoverished areas. Johnson’s strategy for fighting poverty was based on the economic philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt, the president most responsible for making the federal government’s primary duty taking care of people and providing for their needs, especially with federal money. In fact, thanks to a federal grant during Roosevelt’s New Deal, my maternal grandfather, Mathias de Llano, who was a Laredo businessman, had been responsible for the construction of Laredo’s first public-housing project, Colonia Guadalupe, something that was impressed on me at a early age by my mother.
After my return to Laredo in 1975 to practice law, I volunteered to serve as the ACLU’s local unpaid representative, in addition to my regular law practice with my father. I also accepted an invitation to serve on the board of trustees for the Laredo Legal Aid Society, a government body that provided free legal assistance to the poor.
By that time there was no doubt in my mind that the way to fight poverty was with an active federal government and lots of federal funds. I really couldn’t understand how anyone could object to government programs that helped the poor — from public housing, to food stamps, to public works, to education grants, to legal aid, and much more. To me, support for such programs demonstrated the concern that proponents of the welfare state had for the poor.
And then something happened.
One day I was sitting inside the federal detention center that was located a couple of miles outside the city limits of Laredo, where federal officials incarcerated illegal aliens. I had asked the local federal judge to appoint me to defend illegal aliens at no charge, so I was there to interview a couple of my clients.
The detention center always struck me as a weird place because it reminded me of a German concentration camp. There were high chain-link fences with rolled barbed wire on top and high guard towers at the corners. Inside were barracks in which the inmates lived and slept. There were, I’d say, a couple hundred illegal aliens incarcerated there, maybe more.
As I was sitting there waiting for my clients, it suddenly dawned on me: Here were the poorest people in the United States. As poor as some Laredoans were, their poverty was nothing compared with that of the men inside that detention center, who had virtually no wealth at all.
Of course, since I had grown up on the border, that wasn’t my first brush with illegal aliens. In fact, I was raised on a farm that adjoined the Rio Grande and was situated a couple of miles outside Laredo. My dad farmed as a hobby. He hired illegal aliens to help him, which, at that time, was not illegal to do. So, I grew up with illegal aliens. They lived on our farm. My two brothers and I worked with them in the fields — irrigating, bailing hay, feeding the cows, and whatever else needed to be done. Illegal aliens were the hardest-working people I have ever seen. And they were our buddies. They played football with my two brothers and me at the end of the work day. My brothers and I often had meals with them out on the porch.
Loving the poor?
One thing that always stuck out about these guys was how poor they were. They had left their families and risked their lives, freedom, and well-being to come to Laredo to work for what seemed to me to be rather meager wages. They worked hard and sent most of their money home to support their parents, wives, and children, that is, unless they got busted and deported by U.S. immigration officials, who had the legal authority to come onto our farm without a warrant any time they wanted. One of my fondest memories involves hiding with our workers in our barn one day when el rinche came onto our property looking for illegal aliens.
As I was sitting there in that detention center, it hit me: How can people who profess to love the poor with welfare-state programs do this to these people? It didn’t make any sense to me. After all, I thought, doesn’t a genuine concern for the poor transcend citizenship and national boundaries?
My revelation troubled me deeply. I started asking questions of my leftist friends, including one who was serving with me on the Legal Aid board of trustees. I asked, Why are we treating the illegal aliens like that? Why are we punishing them for simply trying to sustain and improve their lives through labor? Why should they be in jail when they have done nothing morally wrong?
The answer I received was always the same: The law is the law. They have broken the law and need to be punished.
That didn’t satisfy me. After all, segregation had been the law too. That didn’t make it right, not in a moral sense.
I kept thinking and reflecting, which led me in a direction that created much discomfort for me. I began having doubts about the welfare state itself. After all, I reasoned, it was premised on the notion that people had a legitimate concern for the poor. Yet the proponents of the welfare state were defending a system that treated the poorest of the poor in what I believed was a horrible and despicable manner.
I began searching, both within and without. One day I was in the political-science section of the La-redo public library looking for something to read. I came across four different-colored books entitled Essays on Liberty, volumes 1-4. I opened them up and discovered that they had been published back in the 1950s by an organization named The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Since I had never heard of that organization, especially when I was majoring in economics in college, I naturally assumed that it had gone out of business long before.
I took all four books home. They changed my life. They consisted of introductory essays to libertarianism that shattered the worldview that I had had since childhood regarding government and poverty. As I read and reread them, the scales fell from my eyes. I found and began reading other libertarian works by contributors in those four books, and I came to the realization that everything I had believed since childhood about the welfare state was wrong.
This article was originally published in the August 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.