I first broke immigration law one month after my 22nd birthday. Czechoslovakia had a rule, left over from the recently expired Communist regime, that foreigners were required to change around $15 per day at the state-run tourist office. Not only did I fail to meet the daily legal minimum, mostly due to poverty, but I changed whatever greenbacks I could with some strictly verboten Egyptian dudes, because they gave a 40 percent better return (when not robbing you, that is). So I was an immigration scofflaw and a violator of my host country's domestic laws, and that's without even considering the kinds of materials I was having mailed to me from Amsterdam.
The way I figured it, then as now, is if the laws governing my place of residence were dumb and/or prevented me from carrying out my peaceful day-to-day transactions, there was no reason to pull a muscle straining to comply.
It wasn't long thereafter that I hired my first $100-a-month illegal aliens. It all sounds so terrible that way, until you consider that the first such hire was me, along with my American co-conspirators and a couple of Yugoslav war refugees. One hundred dollars was lousy in any language, but still higher than the prevailing minimum wage. And it wasn't like we were going to find an ethnically homogeneous pool of local Czechs and Slovaks willing and able to work marathon hours launching an English-language newspaper in just four months. Like start-up businesses everywhere, we had a strong desire to become fully legal in order to avoid uncertainty and potentially costly hassles, but that goal just wasn't as urgent initially as getting product into customers' hands.
These memories come to mind whenever a friend or foe poses one of the most potent questions in America's ongoing family feud over immigration: "What part about illegal do you not understand?" Leaving aside the fact that most of these interlocutors have, at some point in their lives, knowingly (and illegally!) written a wrong date on a check, imbibed an illegal drug, or undervalued an item in a suitcase, there is something undeniably resonant about the criticism that illegal aliens openly flout U.S. law when they cross the border or overstay their visas, and then compound their original crime by either working off the books or obtaining fake Social Security cards. The whole arrangement can feel like an affront to the rule of law, a fact that immigration enthusiasts like me forget or downplay at our peril.
But as most small-government types are otherwise more than happy to tell you when it comes to stuff like the tax code and the regulatory state, nothing converts ordinary human beings into "criminals" faster than laws that shouldn't have been written in the first place. And there are few areas in American life where the laws are as byzantine, crazy-quilt, and Kafkaesque as those related to entering the United States from abroad. See our bureaucratic maze of a chart on pages 32-33, showing how legal immigration is a head-scratching, lawyer-demanding gauntlet that can take as long as two decades to complete.
If you glean one fact from the illustration, make it this: In an economically expansionary era in which 20 million jobs have been created in 15 years, unemployment hasn't once cracked 7 percent, and even the supposedly recessionary economy we're suffering through right now grew 1.9 percent in the second quarter of 2008, unskilled foreign workers are expected to fight over just 10,000 green cards a year. Restaurants and construction companies around the country have an exponentially higher demand for low-skilled workers, and laborers in Mexico have an insatiable desire for more money, but poorly conceived U.S. law prevents supply from meeting demand. That's one part of illegal I don't understand.
Another part, also reflected in the chart, is the notion that the federal government is the entity best suited to deciding what the precise ebb and flow of foreign-born labor should be at any given moment. You would think that prior catastrophes in the federal control of wages would be evidence enough that central labor planning doesn't work, but there's also the conspicuous contemporary example of Europe.
When European Union countries dropped almost all restrictions on labor movement in the 1990s, and then expanded membership to poorer Central European countries in the 2000s, the result wasn't the widely predicted cutthroat competition for ever-scarcer jobs in rich countries. Unemployment rates tumbled across all member states, especially the poorer ones. Finland, Ireland, Spain, and the United Kingdom have all seen unemployment cut by more than half during the last two decades. The 15 countries that belonged to the E.U. in 1995 have gone from a collective unemployment rate of 10 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Note: Europe and America measure unemployment differently.)
A heavily bureaucratized labor market system, in which businesses are supposed to line up with specific foreign employees years before the paperwork is finalized, also clashes with the dynamic reality of entrepreneurial improvisation. Immigrants, particularly young adults, are famous for starting on a whim businesses that would not have existed without them, whether a newspaper in Prague or a taco truck in Los Angeles.
But even if job creation leaves you unmoved, there is another side effect of immigration restriction that should give pause even to the most fervent border closers: Cracking down on illegal immigration almost always ends up constricting the freedom of legal residents as well.
I observed this dynamic up close in California during the late 1990s, while going through the laborious process of getting my French-born wife a green card. Because of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the immigration panic that swept through the state in the early part of that decade, new federal laws ostensibly designed to thwart terrorism essentially gave every border guard the power to stamp "no entry" into my wife's passport if he so chose, without the possibility of appeal. So we sweated through every border crossing for three years while reading countless tales of legal-resident Canadian spouses of Americans being barred for five years, and Japanese business travelers being harassed by overzealous, underscrutinized immigration cops.
Two articles in this issue illustrate how today's anti-illegal immigration measure is tomorrow's anti-legal resident law. Senior Editor Kerry Howley's profile of anti-immigration crusader Russell Pearce ("The One-Man Wall," page 34) details how Arizona's toughest-in-the-country sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers has required all employees, citizens or not, to be vetted through a federal database rife with errors. Legal residents are leaving the Phoenix area rather than living in fear of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigrant-hunting deputies.
And in "Who Killed Real ID?" (page 24), Associate Editor David Weigel explains how immigration fears stoked by the September 11 massacres nearly led to something that civil libertarians have fought against for decades: a national ID card. This story, thankfully, has a happy ending, as a ragtag coalition of Americans from across the political and geographic spectrums rediscovered their orneriness and sent the ill-begotten Real ID Act packing.
The successful anti-Real ID activists all exuded a quintessential American virtue that has been in surprisingly short supply these past seven years: confidence. When we forget that openness is our strength, opportunity is our drawing power, and skepticism of government intervention is our bulwark against tyranny, those are precisely the moments the country becomes a little less free. It's no surprise that the activists most eager to restrict immigrants are the ones most convinced that the United States is going to hell in a handbasket. They are wrong about that, and they are wrong about the law.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason.