Tag Archives: legal versus illegal

Illegal immigrants and runaway slaves

From my friend Seth Vitrano-Wilson, a Christian missionary:

Throughout the history of the United States, there have been people who didn’t have the freedom to go where they wanted to go. They couldn’t work for themselves in the US and earn their own money legally. If the government found them entering an area illegally, they would deport them back to where they came from. A lot of people believed none of them should be allowed to live freely and legally in the US at all, but even those who accepted they could be in the US free and legally made a distinction between those who earned their free presence in the US by following the rules, and those that broke the law by moving locations via a secret network of human traffickers.

Two hundred years ago, these people were called slaves.

Today, we call these people immigrants.

Nearly everyone today would agree that slavery is wrong, that sending a runaway slave back to their master is wrong, and that helping a runaway slave is right. We wouldn’t care if someone gained their freedom to move and work by “legal” or “illegal” means, because the whole premise that you could justly restrict people’s movement and employment via slavery is an affront to justice. We find it reprehensible that people would keep others as slaves simply for their own economic gain, or because of some supposed inherent superiority by birth, or because we fear how “they” will change the character of “our” country.

So why do we think differently about immigration restrictions today? Why is it wrong to restrict people’s freedom to live and work where and how they want if we call it “slavery,” but somehow right if we do the same thing and call it “immigration policy”? Two hundred years ago, runaway slaves were treated as criminals and deported back to their masters—a terrible stain on our nation’s history. Today, we do the same thing to illegal immigrants—breaking up families, ruining lives, impoverishing the impoverished.

If we look to the example of the abolitionists, the underground railroad, and the brave runaway slaves who risked their lives for freedom, we see just how hypocritical and unjust so much of our rhetoric about immigration is today. “Illegal” immigrants are brave defenders of the principles of freedom and justice. “Legal” immigrants are those blessed with masters kind enough to give them a sanctioned path to freedom. Would we ever dare tell a slave hoping for freedom to “get to the back of the line”? What line?? How many slaves could realistically expect to gain their freedom by legal means? And how many poor immigrants-to-be can realistically expect a legal visa under the current draconian restrictions?

Rather than debating about whether we should spend $20 billion versus $100 billion on the border patrol, or whether we need to catch 90% of the runaway slaves (I mean, “illegal immigrants”) crossing the border, we should be opening up the floodgates of freedom. Let people live and work where they will.

Editor’s note: See this much longer post on the lessons for open borders from the abolition of slavery.

Martin Luther King Jr and Open Borders

Since I believe one of the best strategies for the opening of the world’s borders is to cast it as a civil rights issue, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to some of the classical rhetorical pieces of the American Civil Rights Movement and read them in the light of free migration. There is one readily apparent similarity between racial segregation and immigration restrictions. Racial segregation limits the mobility of certain persons on the morally arbitrary basis of the color of their skin, and this is done regardless of whether people on the “other side” of the segregation are willing to interact peacefully. A closed border restricts mobility and voluntary, peaceful interaction on the morally arbitrary basis of which side of the border a person happened to be born on.

The work and rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr seems like the obvious place to begin. In April 1963, King organized marches and sit-ins of public spaces in Birmingham, Alabama, intentionally violating the segregation laws of the time that proscribed blacks from sharing certain public and private spaces with whites. King was arrested and jailed, and from his cell he wrote what became known as his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In the letter King responds to critics who have urged him to pursue his goals of racial equality with patience and through legal channels, rather than violating the laws of the land. There is already a parallel here to the demands of immigration restrictionists that aspiring migrants “wait in line” despite the fact that there is no real “line” for many migrants.

King begins his letter defending himself against charges of being an “outside agitator” stirring up trouble in a place where he isn’t welcome. The following doesn’t really relate to open borders in an obvious way, but it’s a beautiful statement of the kind of cosmopolitanism that underpins the call to open borders.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

He moves on to defend the timing of his nonviolent activism and his decision to act directly rather than wait for political negotiations to bear fruit.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

The connection I’d like to draw here is that aspiring migrants who are scared or otherwise hesitant to migrate through unofficial channels have no political voice with which to negotiate for their rights to enter the land of their choosing. Migrants who are willing to brave the move without legal authorization of the host country gain no political voice by doing so, but by acting directly, seizing their rights in spite of the law, they raise the probability of reform just by virtue of their presence. Without the legal tension created by the presence of illegal immigrants, there would likely never be any movement toward opening borders, regardless of how powerful the arguments for open borders might be. Such arguments would be hopelessly academic.

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

For years now we have heard the words “Wait in line!” It rings in the ear of every migrant with piercing familiarity. This “Wait in line” has almost always meant “Never.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

One of the most powerful paragraphs in the letter. When I read this I thought of the environment of uncertainty in which immigrants in the US live, especially in places like Joe Arpaio’s Arizona, where immigrants and suspected immigrants have suffered popularly lauded degradations like forced marches in pink underwear, meals of moldy bread and rotten fruit, and childbirth given in shackles. While in the rest of America, undocumented immigrants live constantly at tiptoe stance, lest some traffic violation result in their deportation following indefinite detention in a jail cell. And this is all for the equivalent of a cup of coffee at the lunch counter: the right to live and work peacefully among those born within the border.

Meanwhile millions of our brothers and sisters in the undeveloped world smother in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of the affluent societies of the developed world, their tongues twisted and speech stammering, explaining to their children why they can’t move to the places where work is plentiful, water is clean, and wages are high.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

The last line speaks to one of the less savory arguments against open borders: that the global poor suffer their lots because they are less intelligent or lack the work ethic of the citizens of the rich world or some other failing. After more discussion of the differences between just and unjust laws, King sets up one of his chief foils: the white moderate.

[I] must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

It isn’t the racists or the committed nativists and nationalists who are the biggest roadblocks in the way of open borders. We will never win them over and it’s barely worth the effort of trying beyond countering their arguments for the benefit of observers. The great roadblock consists of basically sympathetic people who are nonetheless wary of the apparent radicalism of open borders; or people who simply do not realize the scale of humanitarian benefits on the table; or those who have no problem with immigrants personally, but assume that immigration must be zero-sum, with jobs gained by foreigners equaling jobs lost to natives.

The point of this post is not to twist Dr King’s eloquence to favor open borders. I have no idea if he believed in open borders or if he gave the matter much thought either way. The point is to take the words of this celebrated moral leader and use them to show how the civil rights for which he struggled parallel the rights of international immigration. At root, these rights are expressions of the universal moral equality of human beings. King’s sphere of concern certainly extended beyond African-Americans and far beyond America’s national borders. In a speech against US involvement in the Vietnam War, he made this call to cosmopolitan compassion:

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.


A Voice for Immigrants – Could it be Dan Mitchell?

I’m a big fan of Dan Mitchell. We agree on 95% of political issues (and since I’ve never met anyone who agrees with me 100%, that’s a high mark), he’s got a great sense of humor (both in the sense that he’s funny, and in the sense that he appreciates humor and can laugh at himself), and he’s clearly a man who isn’t afraid to be open about his beliefs, even unpopular ones. But while these are all great qualities in a person, none of them are the thing I like best about him.

The thing I like best about Dan Mitchell is that he’s tireless.

You see, Mitchell has a solid, consistent belief structure, and he’s been advocating for policy based on that structure for a long time. And while every once in a while he gets a win, it can often seem like people fighting for human rights and liberty are taking ten steps back for every one step forward. That kind of record would demoralize most people, but Dan Mitchell has been fighting that fight for years and years, and hasn’t given up yet. That’s why I admire him.

It’s also why I’m writing this. Dan Mitchell’s most recent “Question of the Week” was on the subject of immigration. Immigration reform might be the single policy issue about which I’m the most passionate, and if I could convince a tireless crusader like Dan Mitchell to add the plight of the would-be American Immigrant to his mental checklist of injustices to fight, I think I could go to sleep knowing I’d done many people around the world a huge service. So with that said, while I’d like many people to read this, it’s primarily addressed to Dan Mitchell. I’m going to lay out three reasons why I think he should support a policy of radically increased immigration allowance, or even open borders. In an ideal world I’d convince him – but at worst, hopefully I’ll give him a little extra evidence in favor of that position.

Reason #1: If Immigration Is Mostly Good With Some Bad, It’s Actually Easy To Eliminate Just The Bad

Dan Mitchell is a reasonable person. In his Question of the Week post, he says:

By the way, a senior staffer on Capitol Hill floated to me the idea of a new status that enables illegals to stay in the country, but bars them from citizenship unless they get in line and follow the rules. I’m definitely not familiar with the fault lines on these issues, but perhaps that could be a good compromise.

This is only a very small, single example of a “keyhole solution” – a solution specifically tailored to the problem at hand. To most people, the only three options that come to mind regarding immigration are “allow all of it,” “allow none of it,” or “allow some of it.” But those aren’t the only ways of addressing the issue. It’s very possible to get just the “good parts” of immigration, in the same way that if you like the taste of soda but don’t want the sugar you can have diet soda. Let’s discuss the possibilities of “diet immigration” by discussing what could be considered the “bad parts” of immigration, and how we can eliminate them while still allowing immigration itself.

One of Mitchell’s worries, shared by many free marketers, is political externalities: immigrants may vote for bad policies like increased taxation, wealth redistribution, and the like. But if you can craft an immigration law to any specifications you like (in particular, you have the leeway to keep people out completely and arbitrarily), you could easily craft a law that makes immigration and even permanent residency perfectly legal for anyone, but does not include citizenship. Then there’s no voting issue – the people can come, but they can’t drop a ballot in the box. Continue reading “A Voice for Immigrants – Could it be Dan Mitchell?” »

Heritage Immigration Study Fatally Flawed

This post was originally published on the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is republished with the permission of the author.

There are indications that The Heritage Foundation may soon release an updated version of its 2007 report, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” by Robert Rector. That 2007 report’s flawed methodology produced a grossly exaggerated cost to federal taxpayers of legalizing unauthorized immigrants while undercounting or discounting their positive tax and economic contributions – greatly affecting the 2007 immigration reform debate.

Before releasing its updated report, I urge the Heritage Foundation to avoid the same serious errors that so undermined Mr. Rector’s 2007 study. Here is a list of some of its major errors:

  1. Count individuals, not households.[1]  Heritage counts household use of government benefits, not individual immigrant use. Many unauthorized immigrants are married to U.S. citizens and have U.S. citizen children who live in the same households. Counting the fiscal costs of those native-born U.S. citizens massively overstates the fiscal costs of immigration. 
  2. Employ dynamic scoring rather than static scoring. [2] Heritage’s report relies on static scoring rather than dynamic scoring, making the same mistake in evaluating the impact of increased immigration on welfare costs that the Joint Committee on Taxation makes when scoring the impact of tax cuts. Instead, Heritage should use dynamic scoring techniques to evaluate the fiscal effects of immigration reform. For example, Heritage should assume that wages and gross domestic product are altered considerably because of immigration policy reforms. In contrast to that economic reality, immigrant wages, gross domestic product, and government welfare programs are unrealistically static in Mr. Rector’s study. His study largely ignores the wage increases experienced by immigrants and their descendants over the course of their working lives, how those wages would alter after legalization, and the huge gains in education amongst the second and third generation of Hispanics.[3] Heritage is devoted to dynamic scoring in other policy areas – it should be so devoted to it here too.[4]
  3. Factor in known indirect fiscal effects.[5]  The consensus among economists is that the economic gains from immigration vastly outweigh the costs.[6] In 2007, Mr. Rector incorrectly noted that, “there is little evidence to suggest that low-skill immigrants increase the incomes of non-immigrants.” Immigrants boost the supply and demand sides of the American economy, increasing productivity through labor and capital market complementarities with a net positive impact on American wages.[7] Heritage should adjust its estimates to take account of the positive spill-overs of low-skilled immigration.
  4. Assume that wages for legalized immigrants would increase – dramatically.[8]  Heritage did not assume large wage gains for unauthorized immigrants after legalization.  In the wake of the 1986 Reagan amnesty, wages for legalized immigrants increased – sometimes by as much as 15 percent – because legal workers are more productive and can command higher wages than illegal workers.  Heritage should adopt similar wage increases to estimate the economic effects of immigration reform if it were to happen today.[9] 
  5. Assume realistic levels of welfare use.[10]  Vast numbers of immigrants will return to their home countries before collecting entitlements,[11] the “chilling effect” whereby immigrants are afraid of using welfare reduces their usage of it, and immigrants use less welfare across the board.[12]  100 native-born adults eligible for Medicaid will cost the taxpayers about $98,000 a year.  A comparable number of poor non-citizen immigrants cost approximately $57,000 a year – a 42 percent lower bill than for natives.  For children, citizens cost $67,000 and non-citizens cost $22,700 a year – a whopping 66 percent lower cost.  Heritage should adjust its estimates of future immigrant welfare use downward. [13] 
  6. Use latest legislation as benchmark.[14]  The current immigration plan, if rumors are to be believed, would stretch a path to citizenship out for 13 years.[15]  Most welfare benefits will be inaccessible until then, so Heritage’s report must take that timeline into account.
  7. Remittances do not decrease long term consumption.[16]  Remittances sent home by immigrants will eventually return to the U.S. economy in the form of increased exports or capital account surpluses.  Heritage should recognize this aspect of economic reality rather than assuming remittances are merely a short-term economic cost.  
  8. Factor in immigration enforcement costs.[17]  Heritage did not compare costs of legalization and guest workers to the costs of the policy status quo or increases in enforcement.  The government spends nearly $18,000 per illegal immigrant apprehension while the economic distortions caused by forcing millions of consumers, renters, and workers out of the U.S. would adversely affect income and profitability.[18]
  9. Use transparent methodology.[19]  Heritage’s methodology should replicate that of the National Research Council’s authoritative and highly praised – even by immigration restrictionists – study entitled The New Americans.[20]  That study is the benchmark against which all efforts at generational fiscal accounting – including Heritage’s 2007 report – are measured.  If Heritage deviates from their methods, it should explain its methodology in a clear and accessible way that states why they altered practice.[21]
  10. Don’t count citizen spouses.[22]  Heritage counted U.S.-born spouses of unauthorized immigrants as fiscal costs.  Counting the net immigrant fiscal impact means counting immigrants and perhaps their children at most,[23] not native-born spouses who would be on the entitlement roles regardless of whether they married an immigrant or a native-born American.
  11. Suggest changes to the welfare state.  Heritage has elsewhere called low-skill migrant workers “a net positive and a leading cause of economic growth”[24] and accurately reported that “[t]he consensus of the vast majority of economists is that the broad economic gains from openness to trade and immigration far outweigh the isolated cases of economic loss.”[25]  Instead of arguing against low-skill immigration, Mr. Rector should instead suggest reforms that would, in the words of Cato’s late Chairman Bill Niskanen, “build a wall around the welfare state, not around the country.”[26]

It is imperative that the economic costs and benefits of increased immigration be studied using proper methods and the most recent data.  A previous report by the Heritage Foundation in 2006 entitled, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” by Tim Kane and Kirk Johnson roundly rejected the negative economic assessments of Mr. Rector’s 2007 study.[27]  Not only does Mr. Rector not speak for the broad conservative movement; it appears that economists who have worked for the Heritage Foundation also disagree with Mr. Rector’s conclusions. 

For decades, the Heritage Foundation has been an influential intellectual force in conservative circles.  Its economic analyses have been predicated on consideration of the dynamic effects of policy changes as opposed to static effects.  Unfortunately, Mr. Rector’s past work has not been consistent in this regard, employing the same static scoring conservatives have traditionally distrusted in other policy areas. 

Many conservatives rely on the Heritage Foundation for accurate research about immigration’s impact on the economy.  Before releasing another study assessing the net fiscal impacts of immigration reform, Heritage should correct the errors outlined above to guarantee the most accurate information on this important topic is available.

[1] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 1.

[2] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 14.

[3] Fry and Lopez, “Hispanic Student Enrollment Reach New Highs in 2011,” Pew Hispanic research Center, August 20, 2012.

[4] Beach, “It is Time to Include Dynamic Economic Analysis in the Process of Changing Tax Policy,” Heritage Testimony on the Economy, October 6, 2011. 

[5] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, pp.19-20.

[6] Kane and Johnson, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” Heritage Institute Backgrounder, No. 1913, March 1, 2006, pp. 2-3.

[7] Borjas and Katz, “The Evolution of the Mexican-Born Workforce in the United States,” in Mexican Immigration to the United States¸NBER Book, May 2007, Lewis, “Immigrants-Native Substitutability: The Role of Language Ability,” NBER Working Paper 17609, forthcoming in David Card and Stephen Raphael, eds., Ottaviano and Peri, “Rethinking the Effects of Immigration on Wages,” Journal of the European Economic Association, 2012.  Peri and Sparber, “Task Specialization, Immigration, and Wages,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economic, 2009, Peri and Sparber, “Highly-Educated Immigrants and Native Occupational Choice,” Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration Discussion Paper Series No. 13/08, November, 2008.

[8] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, pp. 19-20.

[9] Amuedo-Dorantes, Bansak, and Raphael, “Gender Differences in the Labor Market: Impact of IRCA,” American Economic Review, 2007, Rivera-Batiz, “Undocumented Workers in the Labor Market: An Analysis of Earnings of Legal and Illegal Mexican Immigrants in the United States,” Journal of Population Economics, 1999, Kossoudji and Cobb-Clark, “IRCA’s Impact on the Occupational Concentration and Mobility of Newly-Legalized Mexican Men,” Journal of Population Economics, 2000, Kossoudji and Cobb-Clark, “Coming Out of the Shadows: Learning about Legal Status and Wages from the Legalized Population,” Journal of Labor Economics, 2002, Baker, “Effects of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act on Crime,” SSRN Working Paper, 2011.

[10] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 8.

[11] Alden, The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, p. 74.

[12] Ku and Bruen, “Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens,” Economic Development Bulletin, Cato Institute, No. 17, March 4, 2013.

[13] See Ku and Bruen, “Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens,” Economic Development Bulletin, Cato Institute, No. 17, March 4, 2013.

[14] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 21.

[15] Bennett, “Senators Agree on Path to Legal Status for Illegal Immigrants,” Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2013.

[16] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 30.

[17] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 20.

[18] Nowrasteh, “The Economic Case against Arizona’s Immigration Laws,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis, No. 709, September 25, 2012.

[19] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, pp. 8-9, 23.

[20] This advice is based on praise of those methods by the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist think-tank in Washington, D.C.: Camarota, “The High Cost of Cheap Labor: Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget,” Center for Immigration Studies, August 2004.

[21] See Smith and Edomnston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1997.

[22] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 9.

[23] Kandel, “Fiscal Impacts of the Foreign-Born Population,” CRS, October, 2011, R42053, p. 8.

[24] Kane and Johnson, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” Heritage Institute Backgrounder, No. 1913, March 1, 2006, p. 3.

[25] Kane and Johnson, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” Heritage Institute Backgrounder, No. 1913, March 1, 2006, p. 3.

[26] Niskanen, “Build a Wall Around the Welfare State, Not Around the Country,” Cato Institute Blog, June 15, 2006.

[27] Kane and Johnson, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” Heritage Institute Backgrounder, No. 1913, March 1, 2006.

An Apology, Not a Fine

During the last week in January, frameworks for American immigration policy changes were unveiled by both President Obama and a group of senators from both parties. Both frameworks propose legalizing the status of millions of undocumented immigrants, which would be wonderful for these individuals. However, both involve the payment of a fine as part of the application for legal status. While legalization with a fine is preferable to the status quo, imposing a fine is inappropriate.  Undocumented immigrants deserve an apology with their legalization, not a fine.

These fines of unspecified amounts are apparently meant to punish immigrants for violating the law by either entering the country without permission or staying beyond the period of time permitted by their visas. Mr. Obama’s framework states that “immigrants living here illegally must be held responsible for their actions by passing national security and criminal background checks, paying taxes and a penalty…” The senators’ framework states that their legalization process would involve undocumented immigrants “… settling their debt to society by paying a fine and back taxes…”

But haven’t undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. been punished enough? Many have had to endure the expense and hardship of sneaking across the U.S. border, paying smugglers large amounts for their services, and exposing themselves to harsh terrain, weather, and criminals. Once in the U.S., they have faced limited employment opportunities, often having to work for low wages under abusive employers who ignore labor laws. They have had to live with the constant fear of apprehension, detention, and deportation of either themselves or family members. Some have been separated from family members who have been detained or deported.

Moreover, prohibiting their entry or ability to stay was immoral in the first place. The Open Borders site offers a number of arguments showing that restricting immigration is unjust.

Another argument against restrictions which is germane to American policy can be added.  While the argument on its own does not make a complete case for an open borders immigration policy, it does create a presumption in favor of such a policy in which the burden is on opponents of the policy to prove that it would not be not morally correct.  The argument is founded on the concept that a large portion, probably a majority, of today’s Americans are the beneficiaries of largely open immigration policies for Europeans and Canadians which existed before restrictionist laws were instituted in the 1920s. Until the federal government took control of immigration in the late 19th century, colonies and then the states had some restrictions on the immigration of some groups, such as paupers. However, Mae Ngai of the University of Chicago states in Impossible Subjects: Illegal Immigrants and the Making of Modern America that “until the late nineteenth century in the United States, immigration was encouraged and virtually unfettered.” Even after the federal government assumed control of immigration in the late 19th century, Ms. Ngai notes that “as a practical matter mass immigration from Europe faced few legal impediments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century… Despite the growing list of excludable categories, the Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived in the United States from 1880 to World War I.” Before the 1920s, immigrants did not face the maze of requirements that exist today, such as having family in the U.S., particular skills, or a job offer, nor were there annual limits on the number of immigrants.

How many Americans today are U.S. citizens because their European or Canadian ancestors were able to easily immigrate before the 1920s? Probably a majority. About 63% of the current U.S. population is non-Hispanic white. It is difficult to precisely determine the percentage of this group whose ancestors came before the 1920s, but some estimates can be made. In 1920, before the restrictive immigration laws, about 95 million out of the about 106 million people in the U.S. were counted as “white,” which one can safely assume were the immigrants or descendants of immigrants who benefitted from the open immigration laws. While about 13 million European, Canadian, and Oceanian immigrants have arrived since then, it is safe to conclude that a large majority of today’s European Americans, perhaps about 90%, are the descendants of the 95 million “white” Americans from 1920. European Americans are still the largest demographic group in the U.S. today, and most of them (myself included) are citizens today due to the much more open pre-1920s immigration systems.

There are other fortunate European Americans who owe their citizenship to ancestors who broke the immigration laws of the 1920s or the restrictionist laws that replaced them. Attesting to the fact that many European immigrants have been illegally in the U.S. since the 1920s, the Immigration Policy Center states that about 200 thousand Europeans illegally present in the U.S. received amnesties from 1925 to 1965. One illegal entrant was the grandfather of Frank Bruni. Mr. Bruni, a columnist for the New York Times, writes that his Italian grandfather entered the U.S. illegally in 1929 and that “… for a long time, like the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants at the center of our current political debate, Mauro Bruni wasn’t supposed to be here. He was trespassing in the country he came to love more fiercely than the one he’d left, the country in which his children and their children would lead highly productive lives, pay many millions of dollars in taxes over time, and get to be a small part of the decision, as voters, about how we were going to treat his spiritual descendants, who traveled here as he did: without explicit invitations or official authorization but with such ferocious energy, such enormous hope.” While not advocating for open immigration, Mr. Bruni adds that “more Americans than admit or even know it have roots like mine and are the flowers of illegal immigration… it must inform our understanding of the people whose tomorrows are in the balance.”

The Immigration Policy Center notes that “many people assume that their family immigrated to the U.S. legally, or did it ‘the right way.’ In most cases, this statement does not reflect the fact that the U.S. immigration system was very different when their families arrived, and that their families might not have been allowed to enter had today’s laws been in effect.” Most of today’s Americans should recognize that their citizenship is due to the good fortune that their forebears entered when America was mostly open to immigrants or that when the gates were later mostly closed their predecessors broke the law to get here. The implication is that the imposition of harsh immigration laws by these Americans on today’s immigrants may be unjust, and, in cases where the ancestor broke the law, hypocritical.  Unless there is strong evidence that an open immigration policy is not morally correct (other arguments show that an open borders policy is indeed the only moral policy), current immigrants should be allowed to move as freely (or more freely) into America as did the ancestors of most European Americans.

Almost twenty years ago, after undocumented immigrants from China arrived on a ship named the Golden Venture that ran aground off Queens, New York, A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times wrote in a column entitled “Give Them a Parade”: “Let them in, those heroes from China, those men and women who sought the beautiful land, let them out of detention as swiftly as possible and then treat them with the courtesy, dignity and respect their brave hearts merit — that is what America should do for its own soul’s sake…we can show we remember who we are — a city that was made in large part by immigrants and refugees — by opening ourselves to their spiritual descendants, the Chinese of the Golden Venture.” A parade for the millions of undocumented in the U.S. today might not be feasible. But legalization without fines would be. So would an apology, for unjustly imposing immense suffering on a group that came to America with the same dreams as immigrants of past centuries.