Saturday, April 01, 2006

Illegal Immigration


Jonah Goldberg at National Review now has a piece taking up the analogy between black-market labor and black-market drugs.
What should the U.S. do about its illegal-immigrant problem? The U.S. House has proposed making illegal immigrants felons, while a Senate committee has rejected that approach and instead favors an amnesty (whatever the proponents call it) combined with more resources for border enforcement. Americans in overwhelming numbers oppose the wave of illegal immigration of the last thirty years in the abstract, although what they would like to do about it is not clear. On the other hand protesters, many themselves probably either illegal or the children of illegals, have been marching in unexpected numbers in unexpected anger, with some Mexican flags appearing among them. As Victor Davis Hanson notes, there is something comically absurd about protesters waving the flag of the country they or their parents escaped, and those flags are not likely to endear them to the broader population. Upon reflection the problem takes on a different cast from the angry way it is usually discussed.

First, the population of illegals is huge. Estimates currently hover around 11 million. The U.S. prison population is roughly two million, and so to turn them into criminals would require such a dramatic expansion of law-enforcement and prison warehousing capacity that this method of enforcement quickly becomes preposterous. It is true that some illegals will be scared of arrest and will return home, but this effect should not be overestimated. People routinely court imprisonment all over the world to engage in many kinds of black-market transactions, and black-market labor is surely no different. Criminalizing illegals is an empty gesture, like passing tough new penalties against “drug kingpins” three months before an election; it is all sound and fury, designed to distract rather than succeed. A fence across the U.S. border would probably be somewhat more effective for awhile, but ultimately would be at least partly defeated; immense expenses would have to occur to achieve only minimal success.

If the labor sellers are not to be deterred, what about the labor buyers, i.e. the employers and wealthy suburbanites who buy the services of the illegals, thus giving them such a compelling incentive to come over in the first place? Politically, this is a much easier task; the sight of a lot of businessmen marching in the street or spending a lot of campaign money to preserve their right to hire illegal labor probably does not inspire much fear on Capitol Hill. But it is here that the illegal problem, and its entanglement with the nature of American society, becomes clear. Put simply, there is no way to enforce meaningful penalties against employers without us becoming a police state. Any criminal or financial penalties significant enough to deter employers would require an immense enforcement apparatus: federal agents sweeping in on workplaces and homes to take advantage of the new access to financial records they would have to have in order to punish the employer and not just the worker. It would be a massive cessation of power to the state from which we would never recover. The inability to solve this problem through punishment is something a lot of smarter public officials know, and that they support this approach anyway is something the great H.L. Mencken would have savored.

Once upon a time there was no such thing as “illegal immigration.” Throughout much of our history the only immigration constraints were on the size of ships bringing them in. In the late 1800s several racist measures were passed against the Japanese and Chinese, but other than that the only way you could be kept out was if you were likely to become “a public charge.” It wasn’t until 1924 that the first meaningful immigration restrictions were imposed, and three years after that the Border Patrol was established. But through all of this time Mexicans came and went freely to work, trade and marry. Only in the 1930s, amidst the Depression and the nascent federal welfare state (Social Security took effect in 1935), did meaningful efforts to keep the brown hordes back commence. (The efforts have failed, like most efforts to stand between willing buyers and sellers, ever since.)

And I think the confluence of anti-Mexican sentiment and the birth of the modern welfare state is no coincidence. Now it is much easier to be a “public charge” than in the 1800s, because we are all entitled to benefit from immense public expenditures on schools, health care, pensions and so on. While the cultural angles – the concern of older or more fearful Americans about being swept away in a tide of Spanish, e.g. – should not be underestimated, the primary impetus for hostility to illegal immigration is the welfare state. In its absence, Mexicans (and others further south) would probably be allowed to come and go as they please, as they once did.

And this suggests the only ultimate solution, at least for Mexicans. (Illegals from other countries who overstay their visas are perhaps a different story, although transportation costs for them to return home are also cheaper than they have ever been.) Let them work legally. They thus are removed from the shadows. Most of them probably don’t wish to live here, only to earn enough money to make their families comfortable. Many, maybe most would work for awhile, go home for awhile, and come back as necessary. That is what they do now, only far less frequently and at far greater personal risk and cost. They would retire at home where they are culturally comfortable, and the sense of assault that Americans in the border states feel would wane accordingly. Allowed to come and go at will, illegals would gain more bargaining power with their employers (thus modestly lessening downward pressure on the wages of the Americans with whom they compete), and their energies could be more easily turned not just to hard labor for someone else but toward their own entrepreneurial creativity.

Black markets are never driven out, only driven underground. The black market for labor is no different. The sooner we learn this the better off we will all be.


Blogger JasonSpalding said...

How ironic is it that those in government make the argument that illegal immigrants are just willing to do the jobs Americans don't want to do when the one job the government seems to be trying hard to avoid doing is dealing with illegal immigration.

12:29 AM  
Blogger Libertarian Jason said...

Excellent post, Evan. Well said.

4:17 PM  

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