Thursday, December 29, 2005

The heart of a pro-immigration argument

Over at RedState, immigration rears its ugly head frequently as an issue that divides conservatives. The media reports are true: it really is a topic that could sew discord in the GOP in '06 and '08. The inimitable Paul Cella wrote a piece recently, that, among other points, argued that populist actions such as those undertaken by the Minutemen (in this case from Virginia, their primary target was contractors who hire illegals as day-laborers) are part of a long and admirable American tradition:
It is not easy for the day laborers under the new scrutiny. (“The day is ruined. They’re going to scare off the employers,” one says: “When they come, we don’t eat.”) They can hardly be blamed for the studied negligence of the authorities, nor for the avarice of the employers, which together issue in a betrayal of the sovereign will of the republic and the exploitation of the laborers themselves. We have been over this debate a thousand times. I grow weary of engaging in it. Instead I will merely note that this treachery no longer goes unanswered; that the sinews of self-government are not yet wholly enervated; that government which betrays its charge forsakes claim to authority; and that it is not exactly unprecedented in the history of what Churchill so fondly called the Great Republic for decisions to be made outside or even against the inertia of our formal government — which is always merely formal, for among the truths that “we hold” is the one about governments being “instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” and the other about “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive” of those ends to which we have set ourselves, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it."
Stirring stuff. And while I don't agree in broad terms with Cella's restrictionist take on the immigration debate, his piece got yet another spirited discussion going in the comments section of RedState. One commenter disagreed with my prescription for cutting down on the number of illegals (namely the idea that increasing legal immigration admissions would lessen the incentives for people to immigrate to the US in violation of the law):
Taking in an extra million per year legally will not stop the flow of illegals, and then we'll just wind up with an extra three million immigrants per year instead of two million.
This really cuts to the chase. What exactly is the intellectual justification for the "more legal" leads to "less illegal" position on immigration?

Well, under current US immigration law, the vast majority of foreign, would-be sellers of unskilled labor to the US don't have any choice but to sneak in to the country unless they happen to have relatives here, because we allow only tiny numbers of such people to immigrate legally. If that quota were to increase substantially -- say by at least a half million --immigrating legally to the USA would become a realistic prospect.

Now, obviously there are more than a mere half million people south of the Rio Grande would like to come and work legally in the USA, so getting one's immigration visa would require waiting in line, perhaps for years. But waiting in line would be worth it, because the benefits of coming here legally (as opposed to illegally) are substantial.

Think about it: most illegal immigrants in the United States lead difficult lives. They are subject to abuse by employers. Their housing options are severely constricted. It is difficult or impossible for them to get health insurance. They have an exceedingly difficult time visiting their homelands (because of the difficulty of getting back into the States). Instead of arriving in the US safely and cheaply, they typically face the "privilege" of paying $3k or $4k for a potentially deadly trek through the Arizona desert.

Perhaps most critically, their employment options are extremely narrow. Sure, nearly all illegal immigrants can find work in the black economy, but it's impossible to move up the latter of success in America without a green card. Take a look at the help wanted pages or nearly all employers these days are blunt about the requirement for working papers. The myth that the Wall Street journal crowd (i.e., the Fortune 500) is hoovering up the labor of illegal aliens is just that, a myth. The vast majority of illegals in this country work in low-paid jobs for tiny firms who offer no benefits and minimal chances for advancement.

Now, given the choice of A) immigrating right now illegally to "enjoy" the life of an illegal; or, B) waiting in the queue until the one's number is called to enter the US with a valid immigration visa, which would you prefer?

Clearly the benefits of living in the United States legally (as opposed to being here in violation of immigration law) are substantial. Immigrants are rational actors just like all of us. Right now, they respond to the pernicious set of incentives our faulty policies have created by immigrating to the US in violation of our laws. Fortunately, we have it in our power to change this.

Now, I think an expansion of immigration quotas ought to be accompanied by strong enforcement measures and explicitly assimilationist policies across the board. I'd like us to take a serious look at English-only legislation, and I don't think people who are here illegally are entitled to tax payer-funded beneifts. I would prefer that any amnesty (a policy I also favor) be accompanied by the resumption of a robust deportation policy (targeting those who arrive after the amnesty) lest we send out the wrong signals. I think huge increases in the budget for border agents, smart border technologies, holding pens, etc. are necessary.

But again, I think spending all the money in the world on the "stick" isn't going to get the job done -- and will therefore be an expensive boondogle -- without the "carrot" of increased quotas for people who want to immigrate to the United States legally, work hard, obey the laws, assimilate, and help build a strong America.

And because I believe a robust level of immigration is a desireable good in and of itself, I see nothing but upside from this approach: healthy population growth, a stronger economy, a more secure America with more secure borders, and radically lower numbers of illegal aliens.


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