Border Tragedy

Paper crimes and real deaths


Eighteen people died, crammed with approximately 120 others in the back of a truck trailer, in Texas yesterday.

Why would so many people cram themselves into an unventilated trailer, leaving themselves at the mercy of complete strangers, who, for reasons not clear as I write, eventually abandoned them at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas?

Because they wanted to be here, in America. Because they wanted to do what most people reading this can do as a matter of course: Get a job. Find a place to live, and pay for it. Raise a family. But they could not, because of immigration laws, find an above-board way to find the jobs and opportunities they seek—a way that didn't involve doing business with shady people who, as in any black market, have little incentive to obey the law. If you are already violating a statute, it suddenly makes a lot more sense to violate moral standards (and other statutes, of course) if doing so can help you avoid punishment for violating the statutes.

Illegal immigration—with eight million already here and about a quarter million joining them each year—is seen by some as a threat to our supposedly precious current ethnic balance; by others as an expensive drain on public resources. Still, like most attempts to frantically construct legal bulwarks against things that don't in any way violate most people's basic civilized moral sense (being able to move and work), government efforts to stem this flow have failed spectacularly.

Despite 1986's Immigration Control and Reform Act and 1996's Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, despite ever-increasing spending on Immigration and Naturalization Service (eightfold growth from 1986-98) and Border Patrol enforcement (sixfold growth in that same period), there has been no appreciable stemming of people who want to migrate across our southern border. The desire for access to jobs, to capital accumulation for families back home, to chances at bettering temporarily bad circumstances, trumps even the most solemn efforts of the U.S. government.

Those worried that these immigrants will stick around forever and bury America in brown-skinned babies should take note of the findings of immigration scholar Douglas Massey. Studying the decades preceding the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act—a period when immigrants were able to move more or less freely across the Mexican-American border— Massey found that approximately 80 percent of Mexican immigrants did not stay permanently in the U.S. It's much easier to decide not to settle permanently when you know you can return freely if you choose to. Thus immigration laws create perverse incentives for Mexicans to stay in the United States permanently, a result that in turn frightens immigration opponents—who then demand more immigration laws. Government, if it is nothing else, is an efficient make-work program for more government.

And as always, government officials taxing us to deal with the "crisis" of immigration don't admit that most of the problems and costs imposed by illegal immigrants are the result of other government policies, ranging from forced, tax-financed education to "free" medical care, and could be eliminated through the further diminution of the welfare state.

In a grotesque sign of the moral bankruptcy of standard immigration law, the driver who left 140 people trapped in an unventilated container and caused 18 deaths is being charged not with murder, not with manslaughter, but with "transporting and harboring aliens and conspiracy to transport and harbor aliens."

Mere paper crimes created by governments and their borders are sacrosanct—while human beings' freedom to offer themselves out for hire to willing employees is forbidden. Wanting to work or live in America ought not be a crime. Neither should it be a free ride. With those principles in mind, the so-called immigration crisis will disappear, and tragedies like yesterday's won't happen again. Mexicans and Americans can do a lot to help each other. But not when the relationship must, because of the force of hopeless laws, begin in the back of a jam-packed, boiling trailer.