Thursday, February 28, 2008

Huddled Masses, Swamped Lifeboat

Few individuals confound the honest American individualist more than immigration. Here is part of “The Difference Between an Illegal Immigrant and Me,” from Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute:

Many of the Mexican children with whom I grew up might have told a tale similar to mine. The only difference would have been that for them, the origin of their migration to California happened to be not one of the states of the United States of America, commonly known as America, but one of the states of the United Mexican States, commonly known as Mexico. Was this difference important? If so, why? Do the lines that government officials draw on maps sever the heart of humanity?

To return to my story, however, the undeserved misfortunate that many of my childhood comrades suffered sprang from the simple, morally irrelevant fact that the government officials who ruled the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and others included in the thirty-one states of the Mexican union had not entered into the same agreement that the government officials who ruled Oklahoma, Texas, California, and others included in the (then) forty-eight states of the United States of America had made with regard to state border crossings.

From time to time, people of my acquaintance were rounded up and deported, as if they were criminals. What was their crime? Picking cotton? If so, then I was guilty, too, because when I was growing up, many of the ranchers had yet to switch from Okies and Mexicans to mechanical pickers, and by the time I was eleven or twelve years old, I could fill a 12-foot sack and, having weighed my pickings, haul it up the ladder like a man to empty its contents into the cotton trailer.

So far as I was ever aware, the deportations pleased nobody: neither the unlucky individuals wrenched from their homes and places of employment; nor the ranchers and other business owners who readily hired these hardworking people; nor the rest of us, whose relations with the Mexicans were generally cooperative and cordial. La Migra—the immigration officers—was like a natural disaster. These obnoxious state functionaries descended on the community like a plague or a swarm of locusts, benefiting no one, yet collecting salaries at public expense for their mischief.

Dr. Higgs performs a valuable service, as he so often does, in returning us to first principles: people have a right to contract freely with other people, and the details of the map do not change that fact. I think he oversimplifies a little, in that the Rio Grande is a considerably more important line of demarcation from the point of view of human freedom than the line between California and Arizona. Mass migration may, because of the presence of a bloated welfare state, mean that the migrants’ decision increases my tax burden and lessens my control over my own life. Can an immigrant have the right to do that? Surely not, in the abstract. And yet new research suggests that immigrants in California commit crimes and considerably lower rates than the native-born. The study is not perfect, in that it cannot distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, but it does report the same results even among first-generation Mexican immigrants and their third-generation descendants.

Are we really surprised by this? People are not drawn to the life-upending experience of immigration by a desire to commit crime. They may, as in some European countries (where the welfare state is lavish and job creation scarce) do so to obtain welfare benefits, but I would be surprised if these costs outweighed the gains to the illegal immigrants’ drive and creativity. The mind easily conjures up images of barrios full of criminals and out-of-wedlock births, but there is nothing purely racial about that: that is an issue of culture, reinforced by whatever fads happen to prevail among the chattering classes.

And yet, and yet…there is the basic fact that America is the country they come to, and we have an imperative in making sure it doesn’t become the countries they left. This, I think, is what more than anything gives the honest individualist pause when he ponders immigration, and what to do about it.


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