Thursday, June 28, 2007

Now What?

President Bush’s proposed immigration changes have been resoundingly defeated. It is apparently dead - not Monty Python dead, not Rasputin dead, but dead dead. This failure tells us that on this issue there is just no sustainable center – those who want to legalize don’t want to make it harder to come here, to bring family, etc., and those who want enforcement don’t want to legalize to get it. Where does that leave us? A few principles to remember will be helpful.

Some immigrants cost us. Low-skilled immigrants cost the rest of us far more in taxes than they pay in taxes. This is not in itself an indictment; lots of citizens could be so characterized. But that someone can come here from, say, Mexico and cause my taxes to be higher, therefore lowering my control over my own life, is ethically unacceptable.

Some, probably most, immigrants benefit us. One would have to be willfully obtuse to deny the way immigrants have revived many central cities, have played a huge role in our technological advance, and have provided badly needed services – medical service in rural areas, e.g. – for native-born Americans. Their creativity and their ambition make us greater, and our willingness to absorb them as full equals is our single greatest contemporary competitive strength relative to other nations.

Black markets can’t be policed. Immigrants will continue to come, no matter how high the fence is. They may take more dangerous routes and hence die in larger numbers, but they will continue to come because the disparity between what they make there and what they make here is so overwhelming. I don’t expect the policing of this market to be any more effective than the policing of any other.

Immigration is thus a very difficult problem. While still politically untenable, I think the only solution is likely to come from acknowledgment of the fourth principle worth remembering:

The welfare state first. No less an admirer of freedom than Milton Friedman often said that open borders plus an open-to-all welfare state is a recipe for disaster. It will draw people for the benefits (and the benefits will be paid whether that is what drew them or not), lowering the possibilities for the rest of us. People do have a moral right to contract with anyone they desire, but they don’t have a right, as noted above, to impose tax obligations on me by their immigration decision. There can be no ethical solution to the immigration problem that doesn’t recognize this fundamental truth, which is of course common to the welfare state in its entirety.


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