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Friday, March 16, 2007

Free or Watched?

Unless we wake up, the future is unfolding in Hazleton, Pa. It isn’t pretty.

Hazleton is home to one of the first local crackdowns on illegal aliens — whom I prefer to think of as migrants without government papers. Last summer, under the leadership of Mayor Lou Barletta, the Illegal Immigration Relief Act essentially made it a crime to hire or rent an apartment to anyone who is in the country without the government’s permission. Under the law defiant landlords can be fined and employers can be denied or lose their business permits. (Permits are not such an innocuous intervention after all, are they?) A related ordinance requires tenants to register with the city.

This is where the anti-immigrant attitude leads. It’s a matter of logic. Immigration control and freedom cannot coexist. Free or watched? Which shall it be?

In defending his ordinance, Mayor Barletta of course paints horrifying pictures of what illegal immigrants have been doing to his city. But when it came time to speak under oath, he had far less to say. The occasion was the trial going on this week in federal court in which the constitutionality of his ordinance is being challenged by the ACLU and others. Our city is crumbling under the strain of illegal immigration, Barletta said. But, the Associated Press reported, he acknowledged he had no idea how many illegal immigrants are in his city — whose population swelled from 23,000 in 2000 to at least 30,000 now — nor the financial impact they’ve had on police, fire, mass transit, garbage collection and other city services.

While the mayor couldn’t support his panicky claims about undocumented migrants destroying his town, the AP reports: Under questioning by ACLU lawyer Witold ‘Vic’ Walczak, Barletta acknowledged that Hispanics have helped reverse the city’s economic fortunes, boosting property values and starting dozens of businesses. But he said that was the result of legal immigration, not illegal.

Yet people with papers are not essentially different from people without papers. What makes them different is their legal status. Last week this column critically addressed some of the arguments made against immigration. Without exception, the negative apparent consequences are actually the result of government intervention. As for the crime Mayor Barletta complains about, if a city government is unable to keep people safe, maybe they need to take stock and make some changes. Scapegoating undocumented migrants generally is unseemly.

Just the Beginning

For now, let’s contemplate what a serious anti-immigration policy would require. Barletta’s law would be just the beginning. There is only one way to end illegal immigration: legalize it. Short of that, people will continue to come here illegally to make better lives for themselves and their families. We know they will risk everything to achieve that admirable goal. No government measure will stop them. The United States has too much coast line and too much border to make control practicable. Beefing up patrols and building a wall here or there will only force migrants to use their ingenuity to make the appropriate adjustments. But they will continue to come. (It will also increase transport profit opportunities for the most disreputable types.)

Thus the immigration controllers will be driven to do what Mayor Barletta has done — only multiplied many times at the national level. They’ll call for all kinds of databases, IDs, permits, and more. Eventually nothing will happen without people — citizens and nons — having to show their papers. After the cashier at McDonald’s asks, Do you want fries with that? he’ll say, Can I see your ID? It’ll be the law.

But of course that won’t work either, because IDs can be counterfeited. Cheap advanced technology will see to that. It’s simply a game of leapfrog. Where there is demand, there will be supply. The only choice is between an open system of migration run by accountable people or one run by thugs.

With border control futile, there will be raids at workplaces and elsewhere– even more than occur today. Why stop at raiding factories? Maybe you are harboring an illegal alien in your home? Will neighbors be offered rewards for reporting to the authorities any suspicious persons seen in your backyard?

What then of freedom of association and freedom of contract? How about free enterprise? Do we really want to give up what’s left of them?

Free or watched? People blithely call for securing our borders without thinking through the consequences for everyone’s freedom. It might be a good time to start. Or is it already too late?

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.