Stopping Those Damn Illegal Immigrants
Illegal immigration is illegal. There are people who are really upset about this.

It’s true, the US should enforce it’s laws. I’m amazed though at how angry people get at the illegal immigration issue. I have friends on Facebook who post any news story that shows illegal immigrants in a bad light. They’ll call them rats and all sorts of dehumanizing language. Any negative story is proof of the rottenness of the entire lot.

I get some of the anger. There’s a law and it’s being broken. Here’s the thing though, illegal immigration is not really illegal. It provides too much of a benefit to be truly illegal.

Illegal immigration is illegal like going 60 MPH in a 55 MPH zone is illegal on a road designed for safe travel at 65 MPH. It’s like steroid use in baseball after the ‘94 strike. It’s illegal and the police can stop you, but there’s little incentive too. The law is violated too much to realistically enforce it completely. More importantly, it not only doesn’t cause much harm, but it actually provides a benefit. Let me outsource this argument to Eric Posner:
But the reality is that the United States has long been well served by a three-tiered system of immigration. The top tier consists of highly desired foreign workers, who are offered green cards, which typically lead to citizenship. The second tier consists of skilled and semi-skilled people who can obtain short-term visas, usually for three years. Some of them prove themselves while here, and end up acquiring a green card as well. Then there is a third tier, typically unskilled people, who can be removed at any time and for any reason, yet are frequently permitted certain privileges, such as a driver’s license. They are also permitted to work—while in practice being denied the protection of employment and labor laws. We call these people "illegal immigrants" but that is a misnomer. Little effort is made to stop them from working or to expel them. And those who proved themselves by staying employed, learning English, and making enough money to afford a moderate fine, were given a path to citizenship in 1986, as may occur again if Congress passes immigration reform this year.

Illegal immigrants do break the law, but they break the law in the sense that everyone breaks the law. Think of traffic laws, which everyone breaks but which are also only enforced selectively—largely against people suspected of committing drug crimes or other misdeeds. The law against illegal entry is (sort of) enforced at the border, but hardly at all against people once they arrive, except if they commit serious crimes, in which case they are sent to jail and then deported.

The system exists because it serves America’s interests. Americans have a voracious appetite for unskilled labor—in the form of nannies, gardeners, restaurant workers, agricultural laborers, construction workers, and factory hands. And foreign countries contain huge pools of unskilled labor. Unskilled Mexican laborers would rather pick strawberries in the United States for a pittance than pick strawberries in Mexico that are exported to the United States, and for which they are paid even less than a pittance. U.S. businesses would rather pay illegal workers a pittance than Americans a pittance and a half.

What is ingenious about our system is that it allows us to take advantage of unskilled labor at low cost; exile those people who cause trouble; and ultimately grant amnesty to those who prove their worth by working steadily, learning English, and obeying criminal law. They will leave on their own when unemployment rises, and come back when labor is in demand. In this way public policy recognizes a sliding scale of legal protections for aliens, offering the strongest protections to those we want the most, and the weakest protections to those we are less sure about.
If you’ve been railing against illegal immigration then this is going to upset you, but it’s true. Even the harshest critics of the federal government’s handling of immigration law reap huge benefits from illegal immigration. If you took a minute to actually add the benefits up, it would embarrass you how much you benefit. It makes calls for mass deportation particularly disappointing.

Contrary to what you may have heard on South Park, I subscribe to the theory that illegal immigrants actually create jobs in the US. For instance, in the agricultural sector
"It’s a simple story," says Edward Taylor, an agricultural economist at U.C. Davis and one of the study’s authors. "By the mid-twentieth century, Americans stopped doing farm work. And we were only able to avoid a farm-labor crisis by bringing in workers from a nearby country that was at an earlier stage of development. Now that era is coming to an end."
If those jobs aren’t held by illegal immigrants in the United States, they’ll be held by legal residents of other countries. The market, if given the opportunity, will hit the price the consumer wants for a given commodity.

This is not to say illegal immigration doesn’t cause problems. Any influx of people will put extra strain on social services and infrastructure. The scale of these problems though is overblown. Rhetoric and anecdotal evidence is too often played up over broad statistics.

Illegal immigrants are blamed for all sorts of things. They’re blamed for disrupting American society, but in reality they assimilate just fine. They are blamed for putting an undue strain on social services, but their tax contributions are often ignored.

The most heated claims are about the amount of violent crime illegal immigrants commit. Violent crime makes people emotional, so often one such incident will skew people's perceptions of the entire situation. Statistics show Hispanics as a whole commit crime at a rate comparable to white Americans. As Hispanic populations grow in the Southwest - a growth fueled by both legal and illegal immigration - crime rates have been dropping. There are certainly violent illegal immigrants, but the overall picture is of a group that commits slightly more crime due largely to the fact that it is poorer, younger, and more male. Critics may point out that these people are committing a crime just by being in the United States and that that means they are more likely to commit other crimes. I think the opposite. To quote from yet another article debunking the illegal immigrant high crime myth:
For one thing, the consequences of being arrested can be enormous for illegal immigrants, which is an obvious deterrent to crime. For another, immigrants, as a group, aren’t typical of the population. The fact that they have picked up and moved to another country suggests that they have more ambition, and perhaps even more skill, than the average person. This could help explain why the United States, a nation of immigrants, is such an economic powerhouse.
It amazes me what we are willing to do to stop this "problem". Look at what states like Alabama and Arizona have done. They are willing to give authorities extra power to detain people simply for not having proper identification. This American Life recently did an episode on Alabama where the state comes off as a straight-up police state.

Given that illegal immigrants must live lives outside of work, they will set up families and build communities. You can call that a crime if you will, but families and communities are what our society stable. So when we get tough on illegal immigration we'll break up those families and disrupt those communities across the country, making people less secure.

On the federal level it's worse. In the midst of the NSA spying scandals we've seen recently, I wish people would have the same concern about government overreach when it comes to immigration. The current immigration reform talk has some good ideas in it, but as with any talk of leniency there always has to be a show of toughness. The law-and-order types want to build a giant wall spanning the 2,000 mile border between America and Mexico. They want tens of thousands of new federal border agents. They want to militarize a peaceful border with one of our allies. Our society has become much safer over the years, both in terms of violent domestic crime and external threats, yet the militarization of the US-Mexico border is in direct contrast.

Look what we’re willing to do to our society to stop something that is a net benefit to our economy. I keep asking myself, what are we trying to stop?
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