TCS Daily

Immigration's Fifteen Minutes: Why Now?

By Jon Henke - May 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Following President Bush's immigration speech, my wife asked a very good question.

"Why is this suddenly such a big issue right now?"

I had no good answer. In 2001 or 2002, I might've said, "well, 9/11, you know". But it's been almost 5 years since 9/11. One might point to the upcoming '06 Congressional elections, but the anti-illegal immigration furor seems to be a fairly grassroots movement. There's been no apparent change in the nature or degree of illegal immigration that would explain the recent political hysteria. The United States has generally operated with -- if not wide-open -- at least non-militarized borders for hundreds of years and the Republic has not fallen to the invading Chinese, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Jews or Mexicans. In fact, though widely feared for a time, each incoming group gradually assimilated and contributed to what we now call America.

So why this? Why now?

As John Tierney writes in The New York Times, the "fixation on 'securing the border' is a political -- and psychological -- problem, not a rational response to a genuine national threat." If it were genuinely a response to a national security threat, the focus would not be on the Mexican border.

In fact, there are far better routes than the Mexican border for terrorists to enter the US. The Canadian border -- much safer than the brutal southern desert -- has about one-tenth the security of the Mexican border, even though at least two al Qaeda terrorists (Mohammed Atta and Ahmed Ressam) have used it to enter the United States in preparation for actual attacks.

What's more, as Peter Beinart pointed out in the Washington Post, there are "many more potential jihadists in Canada" -- which has a comparatively larger Middle Eastern population than Mexico -- and Canadian authorities "estimate that roughly 50 terrorist groups operate in the country." In fact, we recently "dismantled a human-smuggling ring that was running illegal immigrants into the United States through Canada", including, inter alia, dozens of people from Pakistan, where much of al Qaeda is currently thought to be operating.

Dangerous place, that Canadian border. Meanwhile, we've focused almost exclusively on the people crossing the Mexican border, the overwhelming majority of whom are threatening nothing more than to wash our dishes and build our homes.

Fundamentally, this is, as Jeffrey Miron points out, a very simple supply-and-demand issue. In both the War on the Border and the War on Drugs, "demand is substantial" while "existing policy seeks mainly to reduce supply." Miron continues:

"The key lesson is nevertheless the same: demand creates a supply. Policy appears to be ineffective at raising the costs of supplying drugs, immigration and many other things. So policy should focus on reducing demand, or moderating the negative consequences of that demand, rather than on costly and mainly ineffective efforts to curtail supply."

But an immigration policy targeting demand ("criminalizing self-interest") is problematic, too, as Lee Harris pointed out in TCSDaily:

"[Consider] the history of legislative attempts to regulate trade and commerce ... There are some things that law can do; but it can never be able to make people act against their economic self-interest. And every time that the law has been used for this purpose, not only does it fail — it does much worse, it backfires.
[H]ow much bigger would our already big government have to get in order to achieve that ability to micro-manage all the independent businesses that use illegal immigrants as laborers? And who would pay for this new army of bureaucrats, but the American people themselves?" (Emphases added.)

So why this, why now? Why has an army of restrictionists spontaneously arisen demanding more government when the previous immigration paradigm was, perhaps flawed, but not exactly destroying the country?

Maybe it's simply angst about threats to our "way of life". The influx and dispersion into almost every community of people who appear somehow different, whose language is unfamiliar and whose national and ideological loyalties are in question is...unsettling. Conservative America feels threatened, has reached a boiling point, and has allowed itself to admit it.

While we may not want a family of thirty moving in right next door, or are irritated by bilingual signage, there is very little historical or empirical precedent to recommend the nativist cultural arguments. Other groups have gradually assimilated and contributed to American culture and the evidence is that Latino immigrants are doing so, as well. In fact, it's very likely our restrictionist immigration policies that inhibit assimilation. If our immigration policy makes it clear to potential immigrants that, with a few lucky exceptions, they're only welcome to work, stay out of sight and then go home, why should they assimilate? The barrio-ization of the illegal immigrant community would then be (and could already be) a product of our own policies.

The economic arguments are understandable from the standpoint of some laborers, but many studies indicate that the wage effect is relatively minor even for low-income workers and a net positive for the overall economy. As economists Tyler Cowen and Daniel Rothschild point out, even "Borjas -- the favorite economist of immigration restrictionists -- admits that the net gain to the U.S. from immigration is about $7 billion annually." So why not make those illegals legal and add to that $7b net gain? The recent Open Letter on Immigration from a bipartisan group of economists outlines the expert consensus on the economics of immigration and is a valuable factual corrective to the pseudo-economic arguments of many restrictionists.

That leaves the security issue, which -- considering how consistently the restrictionists are applying it to the Canadian and Coastal borders -- mostly appears to be a red herring. There are reasons to worry about terrorists crossing our borders, but the restrictionists appear more interested in stopping and returning the peaceful illegal immigrants than with focusing on actual national security threats. (There are, it's fair to note, some exceptions, such as National Review's John Derbyshire who advocates building a wall... along the Canadian border).

The idea that we need to "control the border" simply because it's important to enforce the law by exerting control of the border is both a tautology and an invitation to tyranny. As Reason magazine's Tim Cavanaugh writes, this kind of border control may "make some incremental difference in the number of people sneaking across the border, at great cost in dollars and less clear cost in militarization of civil policy."

So why this, why now? Apparently, we've reached a tipping point of sorts; a perfect storm of post-9/11 security concern, cultural angst, and labor protectionism. Unfortunately, the restrictionists appear to be far more interested in simply doing something than in effectively resolving those concerns. There are, in the end, solutions far more consistent with US values, national security and the free-market wariness of government.

The writer Thomas Knapp recently pointed out that no "reasonable amount of money, manpower or concertina wire is going to stop economically motivated mass immigration," but it will send those motivated immigrants through holes, windows and deserts by the millions, creating "the entry points for criminals and terrorists" who can easily hide among the peaceful millions -- or pay to be smuggled in through the black market created by our restrictionist immigration policy.

Knapp describes a policy of "show up at a designated entry station and if you're not a known criminal or terrorist, we'll point you to the taxicabs lined up on the American side and send you on your way", and that seems to me far better than another federal "War on..." to solve issues of supply and demand.

Jon Henke is a blogger at QandO.


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