TCS Daily


Build It and They'll Still Come

By Nathan Smith - October 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Congratulations to Pat Buchanan! Last Friday the House and Senate passed a bill of which the tireless firebrand of American nativism must be proud. If President Bush signs the Secure Fence Act of 2006, as expected, 700 miles of double-layered fencing will be built along the southern border, mostly in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, a forceful attempt to re-partition "Amexica" into America and Mexico.

The bill was cunningly timed. Last spring, amidst nationwide protests against a fiercely anti-immigrant measure by the House of Representatives, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Satisfied, immigrants went back to work, and their voter registration drive lost momentum, which it might be too late now to regain. Congress was also shrewd enough to insult Mexico after Mexicans had elected a US-friendly conservative as president for the next six years. Had Congress passed the fence bill before the Mexican presidential election, we would likely have helped hand the election to Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico's champion of the chavista left.

Meanwhile, for immigration advocates like me, it could be worse. Last May, Peggy Noonan wrote, in a call for tighter borders, that "no one believes in the wisdom of government, but they do believe it has a certain brute power." Of all the unwise, brutal measures advocated by immigration restrictionists, a border fence is the only one that is not an existential threat to our heritage of freedom. Tamper-proof biometric ID cards are right out of a futuristic dystopian novel. And while most Americans prefer to go after illegal immigrants' employers, thanks to the laws of supply and demand, the effect of this policy would be to drive immigrant workers a bit further into the legal underground, thus lowering their wages, boosting the pay-offs for employers willing to accept the increased risk of hiring them, and inducing a creeping criminalization of entrepreneurship in America. And I am at a loss to identify the morally relevant differences between mass deportation (which is sometimes whispered about) and things that usually happen in places like Yugoslavia and Sudan. A border fence is the Berlin Wall, but it's not a police state, or the gulag, or ethnic cleansing.

Though illegal immigrants, including visa over-stayers, come from all over the world, most of them are from Mexico, having crossed the US-Mexico frontier, which is arguably the only place on earth where the First World shares a long land border with the Third World. The "problem" -- which is really an advantage -- of mass immigration from Mexico, could not happen in an island country like Britain. Britain can therefore be a free country, while at the same time having much less illegal immigration than the US does. Building a border fence is an attempt to make US geography more like Britain's.

This move is unfortunate because to date, the accidents of geography have been a far wiser and more human legislator than Congress has. Mexican migration has helped to keep down US inflation, and contributed to the strong housing market of the past few years, while creating a stream of remittances, boosting the Mexican economy. It has also led to improved relations between the US and Mexico.

Despite the border fence, civil disobedience to America's immigration laws will continue. Past militarization of the border has failed even to slow it down. As Princeton scholar Douglas Massey has argued:

"The attempt to stop the flow of Mexican labor into the United States through unilateral enforcement has not only failed miserably, it has backfired. It has not deterred would-be immigrants from entering the United States nor has it reduced the size of the annual inflow. What it HAS done is channel migratory flows away from traditional crossing points to remote zones where the physical risks are great but the likelihood of getting caught is small....

"Our policies also served to transform what had been a seasonal movement of male workers into a settled population of families. Increasing the costs and risks of undocumented entry did not deter undocumented migrants from coming; perversely, it only discouraged them from going home once they were here. Having faced the gauntlet at the border, undocumented migrants were loathe to do so again and hunkered down for the long term. As a result of our militarization of the border, therefore, undocumented trips have lengthened and rates of return migration have plummeted...

"In sum, the American attempt to stop the flow of Mexican workers within a rapidly integrating North American economy has reduced the rate of apprehension at the border, raised the rate of death among migrants, produced longer trip lengths, lowered rates of return migration, increased the pace of undocumented population growth, and transformed what had been a circular flow of workers affecting three states into a settled population of families scattered throughout 50 states, all at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars.

"These are statements of fact, not opinion, as data from the Mexican Migration Project reveal." (Testimony to Senate Judiciary Committee, October 2005.)

There are two basic reasons that enforcement of immigration laws fails. First, the expected income gain from migrating is greater than the cost of getting around border enforcement. If a Mexican earns $10,000 per annum in Mexico, and expects to earn $35,000 per annum in the US, the net present value of migrating (with a discount rate of 5%) is $500,000. This is much more than the price of a ladder, or a boat trip through the Gulf of Mexico. Enforcement measures to date have affected how Mexicans come here, not whether they come, and this pattern is likely to continue.

The second reason is that undocumented immigration, like alcohol consumption during the Prohibition Era, is illegal but not morally wrong. When laws lack a basis in justice, efforts to enforce them do not enjoy the general cooperation of the public. Normal people will not harbor murderers or purchase stolen goods, but they have no qualms (or only slight qualms) about hiring an undocumented worker to clean the house, mow the lawn, or gather the harvest. And normal people on the other side of the border, who see a better life waiting for them in El Norte, will have no qualms about breaking laws to which they never gave their consent in the first place.

Democracy is a good system of government because the people who live under laws get to have a say in making them. In this sense, immigration restrictions are the limiting case of undemocratic law: the set of people who get to make them is the exact inverse of the set of people who may find themselves on the receiving end of them.

But immigration restrictions are at odds with democracy in an even more profound way. One person, one vote is the political expression of the Jeffersonian idea that "all men are created equal." This famous phrase never meant that the government should actively ensure equality of condition, or even equality of opportunity. But it did mean that the government should not use its coercive powers to uphold the privileges of a certain social class. And it envisioned a society in which a person's station in life would depend on merit, not birth.

Nathan Smith is a TCS Daily contributing writer.

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