Saturday, December 08, 2007

Yes, Mikey, It Really Is About Illegal Immigration

Mark Thoma directs us to Michael Kinsley's commentary in Time arguing that "legal vs. illegal immigration isn't the real issue." I take the bait. Here is one of Kinsley's key paragraphs:

Another question: Why are you so upset about this particular form of lawbreaking? After all, there are lots of laws, not all of them enforced with vigor. The suspicion naturally arises that the illegality is not what bothers you. What bothers you is the immigration. There is an easy way to test this. Reducing illegal immigration is hard, but increasing legal immigration would be easy. If your view is that legal immigration is good and illegal immigration is bad, how about increasing legal immigration? How about doubling it? Any takers? So in the end, this is not really a debate about illegal immigration. This is a debate about immigration.
That's not a good test, unless Kinsley is arguing that a politician's desired amount of legal immigration should not depend (negatively) on the number of illegal immigrants who are already here. One does not have to argue that there are no differences between illegal and legal immigrants (for example, in their economic or fiscal impact) to assert that the key distinction of legality is relevant for public policy.

Additionally, why does Kinsley develop his article by excluding the possibility that a politician believes that the number of legally authorized immigrants each year is the appropriate one and wants to reduce total immigration to that target which emerged out of the democratic process? Later in the article, he suggests this is possible:

There is some number of immigrants that is too many. I don't believe we're past that point, but maybe we are. In any event, a democracy has the right to decide that it has reached such a point. There is no obligation to be fair to foreigners.

But let's not kid ourselves that all we care about is obeying the law and all we are asking illegals to do is go home and get in line like everybody else. We know perfectly well that the line is too long, and we are basically telling people to go home and not come back.
But he should have written, "no obligation to be generous to foreigners." This is an important distinction. Telling the ones here illegally "to go home and not come back" is the way to be fair to "foreigners," particularly the ones near the front of that very long line.

He should also have written that we have no obligation to cede our decisions about who enters the country to the "foreigners." Insisting on a distinction between legal and illegal immigration is a way to keep control of that process. Why should we give up that prerogative? To be generous to some and unfair to others? I'm going to need a better reason than that.

And while we are on the topic of obligations, we should clarify what our obligations are to those who are here illegally. We are obligated to protect their basic human rights. We are not obligated beyond that to ease the considerable burdens they face in being here illegally, whether through issuing them drivers' licenses or providing a path to citizenship that recognizes their illegal tenure here. We may choose to do so, but we are certainly not obligated to do so.

And, referring back to the first excerpt, we are not obligated to ensure that immigration laws are "enforced with vigor" against those who have managed to enter illegally if the cost of enforcement is perceived to be too high or the consequences too disruptive. That in no way undermines our authority to enforce them with vigor against those who would seek to enter illegally in the future to prevent them from doing so. That seems to be where most of the Republican candidates are, and on this issue, that's where I am, too.


Unknown said...

Both you and he have valid arguments. You for pointing out that there are more possible explanations than he admits to, and him for pointing out that the debate should move beyond 'enforcing the law' and into 'what ought the law be'. One common argreement among all sides is that the current system doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

I don’t believe we owe an obligation to be generous to anyone, foreign or domestic. That being said, if it is good enough for unfortunate citizens, in the interest of the general welfare, shouldn’t it be in the interests of the general welfare for everyone who is living here? I personally am a free trader. What I don’t understand is how the defenders of free trade can be anti-immigration. Shouldn’t men’s labor, the most fundamental and basic unit of trade, also be free? Milton Friedman is quoted as saying, “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” I say, “What an incredible opportunity.” It is why Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” He knew that social welfare of communism cannot co-exist with open borders. I just finished reading Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Gotz Aly. Very interesting treatment and has parallels to present American policy. The Repubs have missed the boat on this issue and chosen the side of racism and bigotry. If they were claiming they could be better stewards of the present social welfare system, I would say the last twelve years have proven them liars. All they are doing is preserving the present dysfunctional system that came about through the worst of American prejudice and racism. Read the history of immigration in the United States.

Anonymous said...

«I don’t believe we owe an obligation to be generous to anyone, foreign or domestic.»

Well, for one thing christians and muslisms have such an obligation, stated plainly and clearly by their God and Prophets....

«Shouldn’t men’s labor, the most fundamental and basic unit of trade, also be free»

Unfortunately it is a «unit of trade» only to the buyers of such units. To the sellers it is survival. This is a profound difference between labor and for example oil.