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Aliens Jaywalking, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Total Recall

June 28, 2010

In the course of wondering just exactly why so many people hate illegal immigration, Timothy B. Lee basically implies that it doesn’t make sense to call it illegal immigration in the first place, a notion upon which Matt Yglesias fervently leaps in order to denounce the discourse as “dehumanizing” (no alliteration intended).  Fine: we should call it something else — you don’t call murderers “unlawful killers” and you don’t call robbers “illegal property seizers”.  I think the reason we call it illegal immigration in the first place is that, in a lawful sense, you can only do it two ways: with or sans sanction by the feds.  But, again, it’s not illegal and legal killing — it’s murder and self-defense.  I’ve always preferred “undocumented immigration” or “alien” anyway.  But then again I’m not a science-fiction geek.

Anyway, the original question is the better one.  Why exactly are people — i.e. the Right and Mickey Kaus — against undocumented immigration?  Lee provides an interesting analogy, which he concedes is flawed but is still worth considering:

Speeding is illegal. You can get fined for it, and if you do it fast enough and often enough you can lose your license and even go to jail. Moreover, speeding kills.

Yet we don’t have a national debate about “illegal driving.” No one frets that peoples tendency to drive over the speed limit threatens the rule of law. People would think you were crazy if you said: “I don’t have a problem with driving, but it needs to be done legally.” Nobody complains that tolerating people who go 65 in a 55 zone is unfair to other drivers who are driving exactly 55. Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs doesn’t do segments about “illegals” (that is, people who engage in “illegal driving”) and what a menace to society they are.

We’re of course straying into the naïve here, but bear with Señor Lee for a little longer:

Rather, people have the sensible view that it’s not a big deal if people break the law when doing so makes sense in context. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s a long list of laws that people we would otherwise regard as law-abiding flout on a regular basis. Nobody thinks the rule of law is imperiled because people jaywalk or fail to pay their use taxes.

Being in the United States without the proper documentation strikes me as being in this same class of offenses. It’s a classic paperwork violation; by itself it harms no one. Yet for reasons that aren’t clear to me, millions of people who don’t think twice about driving 70 in a 55 zone go absolutely berserk when it’s suggested that maybe we should forgive a smart, hard-working kid whose parents didn’t have the right paperwork 15 years ago.

Of course, some illegal immigrants do things that impose costs on others: the commit crimes, go on welfare, demand free medical care, and so forth. But if that’s the concern, then that’s what we should be cracking down on. More to the point, if that’s what you’re concerned with, you certainly should support creating a path to citizenship for kids like Balderas who’s done everything right and will almost certainly be a law-abiding citizen and a net taxpayer.

Yes and no.  Lee acknowledges that undocumented immigration is at least more perpetual than speeding — if you speed on the way home from work, you’re not actually in danger of harming anybody else with your vehicle once your Prius is in the garage, but if you’re a low-skilled alien with a steady job, you are driving down wages for native competing laborers whether or not you’re at work (not to mention that you took-er-too).  What Lee admittedly doesn’t recognize is twofold: a) what the actual banes of undocumented immigration are and b) why undocumented immigration is so much worse than documented immigration.  The bad things about having lots of aliens here are not limited, as Lee suggests, to the bad things that happen to a lot of Americans anyway.  David Frum on Arizona a coupla months ago:

Mexico’s drug war has reached into Arizona cities. Federal authorities capture an average of 1.5 tons of marijuana per day in Arizona. Drug-related kidnappings, tortures, and murders of illegals by illegals have made Phoenix one of the most violent cities in the United States. Illegals crowd hospital emergency rooms, crash uninsured cars, and transform overbuilt neighborhoods into rooming house slums. Their children have the right, under a 1982 Supreme Court decision, to attend local schools at local expense, crowding the classrooms of native-born children, whose educations are further undermined when substantial numbers of their classmates cannot speak English.

The vast majority of undocumented immigration isn’t undocumented because the paperwork is too complicated.  Aliens are aliens because there are certain reasons for which we don’t allow these aliens to obtain green cards.  If they don’t speak English, then their children — who are now citizens by way of their being born in the United States but may not speak English because their parents don’t — are a drain on the educational system.  If they are low-skilled, then they compete for occupation with and impact the wages of native low-skilled workers, for whom unemployment has almost never been worse than it is now in this country.  And that’s without mentioning the whole Emergency Room sans health insurance thing.  There are, of course, good things about immigration, which Ezra Klein detailed a while back:

Illegal immigrants pay a variety of taxes, including payroll and sales taxes, but return to their home countries before they collect the benefits. They drive down wages for competing workers, which is a cost, but also drive down prices of the goods they produce, which is a benefit. They help some industries which would leave the country remain within American borders (as the line goes, California either imports people who pick strawberries or it imports strawberries). They purchase things. They’re disproportionately young (one way of lessening our entitlements crisis would be a massive increase in immigration). And of course, there are enormous economic benefits to the immigrants themselves, and to the countries that receive the money they send home.

Except for the strawberries example — which I’m not sure flies in the face of 10% unemployment, which is actually over 12% in the aforementioned California — all of these benefits would be more, well, beneficial, if they were due to high-skilled immigrants rather than low-skilled.   High-skilled immigrants would pay more taxes (because they’d be making more money), including income taxes if they were documented immigrants, they’d purchase more things, and if discriminated against in favor of young people, they’d help us immensely with our entitlement problem.  There’s a prevalent line of reasoning in this country that goes like this: “immigration only helps the immigrants themselves and the ultra-rich people that employ them”.  I’m not sure that’s entirely true because of the reasons that I just listed above, but I do know that I’d rather have a big influx of documented, high-skilled immigration than undocumented, low-skill immigration.

Granted, the data is kind of fuzzy on this issue — I’ve seen data that says immigration, documented or otherwise, is good for everybody including immigrants, and I’ve also seen data that says California has the least-educated workforce in the country because of both documented and undocumented immigrants.  That’s why I’m both ambivalent about the issue nationally and willing to grant the people of Arizona a wide berth here — I’m not from there, I have no idea how bad their public problems are (and how much undocumented immigration has to do with that), and it’s very obvious that the feds have basically abdicated responsibility for whatever’s going on down there in favor of feigning affinities for “comprehensive reform”.

What I am sure of is that people aren’t opposed to undocumented immigration just because it is in fact a crime.  I happen to believe that a whole lot of laws are quite arbitrary.  I also consider myself a quasi-crusader against certain local laws that I believe are specifically designed to raise revenue even though the offense is incredibly neglible, i.e. traffic cameras that catch people running red lights when they’re turning right, there is nobody coming from their left, and they didn’t come to a complete stop.  In that case, I’m hurting nobody but myself if I break the law (just FYI: I happen to be against the enforcement of speed limits).  In the case of undocumented immigration, I think Señor Lee is taking it for granted that the presence of aliens in our country doesn’t hurt anybody.  Those opposed to undocumented immigrants aren’t opposed just because some governmental authority says they should be opposed — I believe they’re opposed because said immigration could potentially be damaging to our country’s societal and fiscal health.  Whether or not that’s true, I’m going to take a pass.  But at least the position is defensible.

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