Immigration is one of those evergreen American political issues that never totally goes away and occasionally grows to such levels of intensity that it dominates the political landscape. Right now, the issue is in full bloom, with Arizona’s new Draconian immigration law and the new ad from Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tim James in which he declares, “We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.”
Arizona’s law has some notable detractors, like President Obama on the left, and Jeb Bush on the right (although John McCain continued his new brand of despicable political cowardice by supporting it). Down in Alabama, Tim James seems like a long-shot to win the Republican nomination (although no new polls have come out since the “Language” ad). But this is by no means a fringe issue, or one that is likely to go away. Indeed, it’s possible that immigration inspires more fervent feelings than any other political issue, at least in border states.
In all the heated discussion of the issue, though, one important question doesn’t get raised nearly enough: Why are there any restrictions on immigration to the United States?
The debate over immigration often includes bromides about immigrants “getting in line”—legal immigrants are praised for getting in line and illegal immigrants are criticized for not waiting in line. But why are there lines at all? Why not just grant citizenship to anyone who wants to be a U.S. citizen?
Illegal immigration is certainly a problem that faces the country, but it seems like most of the problems come from the fact that the immigrants are illegal, not from immigration itself. Look, for instance, at the two main issues people seem to have with illegal immigrants, that they take jobs from legal Americans and present a drain on the government’s resources. Immigration certainly does drive down wages and present more competition for jobs (although the extent to which illegal immigration is linked to American unemployment is probably exaggerated by the anti-immigration crowd). In general, though, it is a good thing for the U.S. to be able to increase the overall strength of its workforce by importing qualified workers from other countries; it only becomes a problem if those workers are working for less money because they are undocumented and, thus, untaxed and able to work for below the minimum wage. Of course, undocumented workers are untaxed and are thus able to work for below the prevailing wage of their industry. This makes them very attractive candidates to businesses, which of course want to keep labor costs low.
This, of course, leads to the second issue, that illegal immigrants are a drain on the state. By not paying taxes, and still often sending children to public schools, benefiting from the safety created by public police forces, getting mail from the U.S. Postal Service, etc., illegal immigrants get the benefits of resources they don’t pay their share for. The extent to which they drain public resources extends even beyond government services. Since most illegal immigrants do not receive health benefits from employers, their health care issues are often treated by the Emergency Room, which is of course subsidized by those with health insurance.
Both of these issues, though, arise not from the immigrants themselves, but from the fact that they are illegal. If we simply allowed every immigrant to gain citizenship, then there would be no need for these “off the books” employees. The immigrants themselves would surely accept the opportunity to work for higher wages, legal recognition, and employee benefits. It would, of course, drive up costs to businesses, but only to the level that the law (both wage law and economic law) would dictate.
There are other issues that come with the immigration debate, but these too seem like they could be solved by simply granting citizenship to illegal immigrants. For example, illegal immigration is often associated with crime. One reason for this is that illegal immigration often breeds a subculture of insularity, distrust of the police, and extralegality. They are insular because immigrants often feel they must look after themselves; they distrust the police because they fear deportation; the culture is extralegal because the mere existence of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is “extralegal.” If you remove the stigma of “illegal” from illegal immigration, though, you would remove a lot of the barriers in each of these respects.
Immigration seems like an issue that becomes troublesome because of the legal restrictions on it. In this way, it seems to mirror the issue of drugs. Most of the negative effects of drugs—the violence, the spread of diseases, the culture of criminality—come from the fact that drugs are illegal. Many sensible people have thus argued that the prohibitions on drugs should be lifted. There is one crucial difference between the prohibitions on drugs and the restrictions on immigration: Whether you are for or against legalizing drugs, it’s pretty hard to argue that drugs are a good thing. Even if drugs were legal, the problems they cause would certainly not go away—after all, Hamsterdam wasn’t no picnic. On the other hand, immigration decidedly is a good thing. It adds diversity and culture to the country, and increases the talent pool upon which industries draw. Opening the borders would not be tolerating a potentially noxious presence, as legalizing drugs would be, but welcoming a societal benefit.
There are, though, some who feel that limiting immigration is necessary to keep unsavory characters out of the U.S. Obviously the country does not want an influx of thugs and criminals—we’ve all seen Scarface—but this idea doesn’t really hold up to close inspection. For one, you obviously wouldn’t be letting in people who were wanted for crimes in their native countries—I’m talking about granting citizenship, not asylum, so if an applicant is a suspected criminal, then he’d just be extradited. As for those potential citizens who are not wanted for any particular crime, but who are otherwise dangerous…well, it’s not like we do such a great job of keeping them out anyway: All 19 of the 9/11 hijackers, plus the “twentieth hijacker,” legally entered the U.S. via student visas. Any vetting process currently in place is obviously imperfect. Anyway, the best way to police these people is to maintain an open society in which peaceful immigrants are welcome. Excluding an entire group of the nation’s inhabitants, who see “police and security” as a threat to their presence in the country, only breeds a culture in which nefarious immigrants can slip through.
It would be silly, though, to ignore the underlying implication of those who appeal to “unsavory characters.” In general, these are people who are appealing to the more traditional reasons for immigration limits. They want to make sure that, as Ted Kennedy said upon the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, “the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.” This is, basically, racial fear-mongering. I, for one, find it not so much offensive as hopelessly out of date. The idea of resisting the changes to ethnic demography, which are inevitable in a global world and economy, seems small-minded and provincial.
This is not to say that anyone who opposes immigration is a racist. The idea of letting in anyone who wants to come into the U.S. is admittedly out of the mainstream, not to mention totally unfeasible from a political perspective, so I can understand if it seems odd. The truth is, though, that it may be the best solution available.