TCS Daily

A Case for Immigration

By Arnold Kling - September 26, 2005 12:00 AM

"The Census Bureau reported last week that since 1989 about 70 percent of the increase in people below the government's official poverty line occurred among Hispanics. Over the same period, Hispanics accounted for more than half of the increase in people without health insurance. It seems incontestable that the uncontrolled immigration of poor Latinos increases poverty in the United States, even if many immigrants successfully assimilate (as they do). Yet, illegal immigration is rampant."
-- Robert J. Samuelson

Why aren't the immigration laws enforced? In this essay, I will argue that immigration laws are, like many other legamorons, enforced selectively by design. Selective enforcement serves the interests of politicians, and it has the tacit approval of the average citizen. However, one can argue that it subverts the goal of living under the rule of law rather than the rule of men.


I think that selective enforcement of immigration laws is not the best approach. However, in the second half of this essay, I will argue in favor of immigration.


A Theory of Selective Enforcement


Some laws exist largely for the purpose of selective enforcement. Take the laws against speeding, for instance. You can drive 70 miles an hour in a 55 MPH zone all you want, unless the state needs to meet a revenue quota, in which case the police will set a speed trap.


Another use for the speeding laws is to provide a well-defined basis for prosecuting drivers who do something wrong that is less well defined. For example, suppose that a policeman sees an aggressive, reckless driver. Rather than attempt to convict the driver of the ill-defined offense of being reckless and aggressive, the prosecutors may elect to charge the driver with the well-defined offense of exceeding the speed limit.


Is it unusual for the state to use a well-defined offense to go after someone whose real misbehavior is something that is harder to pin down? I don't think so. For example, it may be difficult to convict someone of being a drug dealer, but easier to convict that person of the more well-defined offense of illegal possession. Or consider that Al Capone was ultimately imprisoned not for violent crime, but for tax evasion.


Many people other than Al Capone are guilty of tax evasion and are not prosecuted. Many people other than drug dealers are guilty of possession and are not prosecuted.


One way to interpret the immigration laws is that they stay on the books because they make it easy to deport troublemakers. The behavior that is punished is not immigration per se, but causing harm in some other way that gets the attention of the authorities.


For example, suppose that we wanted to deport a suspected terrorist cell member who is not a citizen. Proving that he is in fact a terrorist may be quite difficult. However, if he happens to be in the country without proper documents, then booting him out of the country for not having the right paperwork is fairly straightforward.


We Are All Illegal


For politicians, selective enforcement is a very useful tool. Having lots of laws on the books that are not obeyed means that we are at the mercy of the political class, because all of us are doing something illegal. We might be speeders, marijuana users, accounting standards violators, sexual harassers, etc. Any time a politician wants to, he can come after us.


Legamorons give politicians the option of going after political targets while leaving most constituents alone. If you were a crusading attorney general from New York, you could choose to prosecute people entirely on the basis of their unpopularity. When we are all illegal, any of us could be attacked by a crusading attorney general at any time. Only those of us who keep quiet are safe.


Selective enforcement means the rule of men, not the rule of laws. It means that your protection against politically-motivated legal action is only as good as your PR firm.


So, I am not persuaded by the argument that says, "Clearly, the illegal immigrants are undesirable. By definition, they are breaking the law!" The reality is that all of us are lawbreakers of one sort or another, caught in the web of legamorons.


Adding to the Bill of Rights


Imagine a Constitutional Amendment that banned legamorons. Imagine an amendment which said that no person may be convicted of a crime when the state looks the other way in many other cases. That is, if the state knowingly fails to prosecute a significant number of people who could easily be charged with the same crime, then the Supreme Court would say that the statute violates this new Amendment. On the other hand, if the state does not prosecute armed robbery suspects because it has trouble catching them, that does not violate the Amendment. The law against armed robbery is not a legamoron as long as the police do not look away while armed robbery takes place.


Adding a ban on legamorons to the Bill of Rights would wreak havoc on our current legal system. On the other hand, perhaps we should be worried about the legal system wreaking havoc on us.


The Immigration Issue


I do not mean to make the point that we are all illegal so that I can duck the issue of illegal immigration. Let me proceed to tackle that subject.


Basically, I would like to encourage people from other countries to come here as tourists, students, guest workers, and -- if they are highly motivated -- immigrants. By highly motivated, I mean people who desire our system of government and who live in countries where they have no hope of enjoying freedom and democracy.


In order to make such a policy meaningful, we must make some attempt to control our borders. It may not be perfect, just as our attempts to prevent armed robbery may not be perfect.


I do not believe that there is a tight connection between a porous border and terrorism. There are many illegal immigrants who are not terrorists. I also fear that there are many terrorist threats that do not arise from illegal immigrants. I am not saying that a porous border is desirable. It makes sense to put some amount of effort into controlling our border, but I would speculate that the cost of perfectly sealing our borders is high enough to exceed the benefits.


If I had a limited amount of law enforcement resources to work with, I would not put all of them to work at the border. Instead, I would place the highest priority on identifying, monitoring, and infiltrating militant groups, both here and abroad.


I admit that my security priorities may seem rather offbeat. For example, I am crestfallen every time I go to the airport and see all of the TSA security personnel. To me, it seems like an enormous waste. Instead of equal-opportunity searching of everyone who threatens to board an airplane, I would like to see the authorities focus on identifying and tracking everyone who threatens violence to achieve political or religious goals. I would do so even if it turns out that such a policy leads to more scrutiny of mosques than the houses of worship belonging to other religions.


On the issue of poverty and immigration, which Robert J. Samuelson raised, I would ask, "Where would you prefer that people be poor?" That is, do we want to insist that poor Hispanics should remain in their native countries, because we want to make our own national statistics on health insurance coverage and poverty look better?


One can argue that we do not want poor immigrants coming to this country and competing with established citizens for jobs. However, in our globalized world, our established citizens are going to feel competition from foreigners, whether those foreigners immigrate or not.


In theory, immigrants could drain resources from established citizens. For example, they could require more in government services than they pay in taxes. However, I am not sure that this is true in practice, and in fact it may be the opposite.


The reality is that immigrants to this country make enormous economic strides. The Milken Institute Review reports that:


"According to a new Census survey, the 30 million second-generation Americans seem well on their way to achieving the American dream. Gen-2 workers have a median income of $38,000, compared with $27,000 for the foreign-born and $35,000 for the total workforce...

Perhaps most remarkable is the educational attainment of adult Gen-2s. Fully 57 percent have some schooling beyond 12th grade, compared to 42 percent of Gen-1s and 54 percent of the whole population. Moreover, only 14 percent are high-school dropouts, compared with one-third of first-generation adults. This contrast is even more dramatic for Hispanics: only 22 percent are dropouts, compared to 54 percent of new Hispanic immigrants."


An Emigration Proposal


I would like to return to the issue of motivation. One reason that I am pro-immigrant is that I think that many immigrants -- and certainly the immigrants I most want to encourage -- are highly appreciative of the American system. Coming from countries where government controls more of the economy and where public officials are more corrupt, they are often grateful for the opportunities that our economy provides.


In contrast, as the school year begins, my daughter in high school is being inundated with the typical anti-American propaganda of the Left. She is bombarded with lessons claiming that America "controls" too much of the world's wealth, that we are racist and uncaring, that we spoil the environment, etc.


So here is what I propose. Let all of the teachers, professors, journalists, celebrities and others who espouse disgust with America be encouraged to emigrate. And let immigrants take their places.


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