Go Ahead, Leave the Door Open

Time fans bogus immigration fears


Three years after 9/11, Time magazine informs us in this week's cover story, illegal immigrants are still coming into our country. And 190,000 of them, it darkly hints, are from mysterious lands other than Mexico—perhaps even lands where terrorist enemies are known to dwell, such as "Egypt, Iran and Iraq."

While its story leads with that national security hook—indeed, it's hard to believe it could have gotten such prominent 9/11 anniversary season placement without it—Time quickly drops that idea, probably since no terrorist threat has been convincingly linked to people physically crossing the Mexican border illegally. The great bulk of the long piece laments that ranchers, towns, and hospitals near the Mexican border are overwhelmed with illegal traffic (true), and detailing the apparently dreadful fact that these people actually tend to get jobs here in the United States, despite laws barring such shenanigans. Time doesn't even hint that that first problem would disappear pretty promptly as soon as we recognized that the second problem shouldn't really be considered a problem. That is, if we merely allowed people to legally come here and work if some American wanted to employ them, they would doubtless start coming here via more sensible conveyance—say, buying a bus ticket—rather than rushing en masse on foot in the dead of night through towns like Bisbee, cutting people's cattle fences, defecating in their fields, and hauling their dehydrated, car-wrecked selves into American emergency rooms and welshing on the bill.

As with the Drug War, most of the truly heinous results of our immigration laws, and the flouting of them, are because of the attempt to ban something that by its inherent nature isn't a bad thing at all: migrating to find work. If would-be workers didn't have to enter the country under fear of legal punishment, the lives of the American border dwellers whose fates the Time story tells so compellingly would be a lot more free of immigrant-related troubles.

As I noted in a previous article about America's futile and generally pointless war against people who want to come here to work,

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.

Similarly, the problems of the people of Bisbee, Arizona, that Time demands more federal government action to solve begin with federal policy against people who want to come here from Mexico to work.

One needn't be a resolute fan of federal solutions, though, to be leery of less restricted immigration. Even some libertarians have launched arguments, some principled and some practical, against immigration. The most prominent principled one, courtesy of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, is based, roughly, on the notion that the government should in this regard be able to act as closely as possible to a private property owner, and thus have free rein to choose whom to let enter and for what purpose.

Of course, in an immigration law context, as the Time story makes clear, the government would in doing so prevent others from making employment deals of their choice with people of their choice. That's something private property owners generally don't have the right to do with regard to third parties.

The more practical argument is that a welfare state, and state-funded medical care and education, makes unrestricted immigration—alas! (or maybe not alas) —untenable. Just being realistic. Why the reaction to this—accurate enough, in the long term—incompatibility should be an attempt to prohibit what would otherwise be a perfectly unobjectionable action (moving and working), rather than an attempt to eliminate the illegitimate system of wealth redistribution, is left as an exercise for the reader. Just maybe, this argument is a legitimizing fallback mechanism for an argument ultimately based more on Samuel Huntington-style concern for "cultural integrity" and "national identity," the protection of which is not among the granted powers in the Constitution, as near as I can tell.

While purely illegal immigrants continue to cause consternation in the House of Luce, according to a recent Knight-Ridder article, increased post-9/11 border security for the trying-to-be-law-abiding foreign visitor is simultaneously causing all sorts of expensive problems for American businesses and universities—which are losing bright students to overseas institutions because of visa-related problems. "Applications by foreign students to attend American graduate schools this fall plunged 32 percent," Knight-Ridder's Tim Johnson reports:

Complaints about denials of visas for foreign business travelers are rife. In the survey conducted last spring among 734 member companies for the National Foreign Trade Council and seven other business groups, 7 out of 10 companies said some of their foreign employees couldn't come to the United States for meetings. Half said they couldn't bring some customers to the United States for product inspections or training.

Enforcing existing immigration law is already impossible, as Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson recently acknowledged. He told The Washington Times that

it is "not realistic" to think that law-enforcement authorities can arrest or deport the millions of illegal aliens now in the United States. [Hutchinson] does not think the American public has the "will…to uproot" those aliens… Hutchinson also said taxpayers "might be afraid" to learn how much it would take in manpower and resources to control the nation's borders and described as "probably accurate" a statement that no law-enforcement officials are looking for the vast majority of the 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens thought to be in the country.

President Bush's announced plan to assimilate many existing illegal immigrants through work permits never turned into legislation; we've had another year of mostly business-as-usual immigration policy. But what this Time article posits as the crisis in American immigration doesn't have to be a crisis at all. All the government has to do is recognize that if someone wants to work here to better themselves, and someone else wants to hire them to do so, that's not a federal issue. That's America.