Is It the Illegality—or the Immigration?

You only have to scratch the debate to see the degree to which legal technicalities are orthogonal to the main issue.


 "What part of ILLEGAL don't you understand?" has become the rallying cry—the rallying cliché, even—of immigration hawks across the land. Its point is to underscore what hawks incessantly insist: that they are not opposed to immigration per se. It's the law-breaking that yanks their chain.

But that veneer is wearing thin. Take a video produced by the nation's largest immigration advocacy group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). "With 14 million Americans out of work, attention is finally turning to the millions of illegal workers in the country," says a man standing amid block letters that spell the world ILLEGAL. "It's about time. But what about these workers?" he asks, indicating the LEGAL. "Legal foreign workers: more than 1 million legal immigrants and temporary foreign workers our government admits every year. They take good jobs in places like Ohio—no matter how many people are out of work, or how 'ILL' our economy gets. We need to slow legal immigration until Ohio is working again."

You might chalk that up to opportunism in tough economic times. Just one problem: It's FAIR's long-standing policy. A 2000 report by the Anti-Defamation League noted then that FAIR's stated aims were to "end illegal immigration" and "to set legal immigration at the lowest feasible levels." Twelve years later, FAIR still describes its goals as promoting "immigration levels consistent with the national interest" and educating "the American people on the impacts of sustained high-volume immigration." Not illegal immigration, you'll note – any immigration.

Last week, FAIR took out after Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Republican Sen. Scott Brown for seeking to grant "an additional 10,500 work visas to Irish nationals in time for St. Patrick's Day." This is bad, FAIR claims, because it would "increase immigration—and competition for scarce jobs." Besides, "the bill lacks a requirement that employers seek legal U.S. workers before they can hire an E-3 visa holder."

True, FAIR doesn't speak for every person who feels strongly about immigration, legal or otherwise—any more than the Brady Campaign speaks for everyone who supports gun control. But it would hardly swing much weight if it spoke for just three unemployed slackers sipping beer in a garage in Perth Amboy.

Besides, you only have to scratch the debate over illegal immigration a little to see the degree to which legal technicalities are orthogonal to the main issue. Take the bill this year in Virginia's General Assembly requiring a citizenship check of everyone taken into custody. Why citizenship? Plenty of resident aliens are present in the country lawfully. See also the widespread campaign to have English declared the official language—a proposal that has nothing to do with legal entry and everything to do with feeling there are too many Latinos around, and people shouldn't need to press 1 for English because…well, just because.

The notion that immigrants, legal or otherwise, are taking "our" jobs relies on the assumption that one person has more claim on an open position than another. This isn't so. The only person with a claim on the job is the one cutting the paycheck, and he should be able to hire whomever he wants.

On the other hand, if FAIR is right that the job situation for Ohioans could be improved by keeping immigrants out, then why draw the line at foreign nationals? Why not require employers to hire only people who have lived in Ohio for at least five years? Or who were born there? For that matter, imagine all the work Ohioans would have if only the state would put up an electric fence along the border.

If the aim simply is to maximize employment, then Ohio could do even more. It could outlaw technological innovation. Even President Obama thinks ATMs are a job-killing "structural issue." Imagine how many more jobs could be "created or saved" if we did away with backhoes and sewing machines.

The hypotheticals highlight the foolishness of protectionism, which is what motivates anti-immigrant fervor when that fervor is not motivated by ethnic hostility. Many conservatives, who know better than to fall prey to the protectionist fallacy regarding manufactured goods, for some reason embrace it regarding labor. If they were right, then the state with the lowest immigrant population, a mere 1.3 percent of all residents, should be an economic powerhouse. That state – West Virginia – is certainly not.

Conservatives' support for labor protectionism leads them to support other big-government horribles as well—such as requiring every U.S. resident to carry papers proving legal presence, should the police happen to pull you over. There is even a proposal to make all U.S. residents carry biometric ID cards.

This stands in sharp contrast to America's earlier days. The U.S. had essentially open borders until 1882. Consider it proof that liberals are wrong if they think change is identical with progress.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared.