On the Rio Grande, Commerce Survives by the Honor System

And how borders hinder freedom of choice.

The Rio Grande river flows along the southern perimeter of Big Bend National Park. Despite its natural beauty, Big Bend is an inhospitable place where you’re exposed to the elements at their most harsh – the mountainous desert sees brutally hot days and shockingly cold nights, oscillating regularly between the two extremes. It’s also inhospitable for those that don’t legally belong in the US.

An inland border patrol station sits between the park and the closest town, Alpine. Border Patrol agents search cars as they come up north from Big Bend towards the rest of Texas. We devote impressive money and manpower to the fight against illegal immigration, but meanwhile, in Big Bend, one can find a modest example of free enterprise defying borders.

An Enterprising Border Ghost

Immigrants, even illegal ones, contribute to the economy in a big way.

In the southern corner of the park lies an abandoned health resort that has decayed over time, though the geothermal hot springs remain in use. It sits along a narrow, rocky section of the Rio Grande, mere feet away from Mexico. It’s easy to walk across the river and stand on the border, as I found out on a recent trip to the area.

Along the winding trail that leads to the hot springs, there are crafts for sale made by Mexican artisans and a small jar to collect the money. Nobody attends the booth in the daytime, as it would be illegal for someone to cross the river and enter the country without going through proper channels (in fact, it’s unlikely that these artisans have passports). The jar collects money via the honor system, expecting patrons to contribute based on the price tags affixed to the artisan goods.

But in the night, the money disappears, presumably due to Mexican businessmen and women crossing the river and collecting their earnings undetected. This isn’t just a one-time phenomenon – it’s a fixture of the hot springs and income for families.

The National Park Service warns, via their website, that it’s illegal to purchase these goods. But why should it be? These Mexican artisans have found a way to improve the lives of others and benefit economically while doing so. They create value for others and are compensated for it.

Illegal immigrants fork over $11.6 billion in taxes.

In fact, plentiful studies point to this dynamic playing out on a much larger scale all over our country: immigrants, even illegal ones, contribute to the economy in a big way. Unauthorized immigrants comprise of little more than five percent of the U.S. labor force, but immigrants (in general) contribute a large share of total economic output. In fact, based on proportion, their share is slightly larger, given that immigrants are disproportionately working age.

Illegal immigrants also, contrary to popular belief, pay taxes. According to a 2016 report, illegal immigrants fork over $11.6 billion in taxes. States like California that house the majority of illegal immigrants see proportional contributions to state coffers. California currently has about three million undocumented immigrants, but receives $3.1 billion in tax money from them. This balances out, to a degree, the disproportionate strain on social services in states with immigrant-heavy communities.

Invisible Boundaries

Currently, Texas’s Governor Abbott is considering whether to sign S.B. 4 into law, a bill that will give police wide discretion to ask for papers and potentially deport people even during something as routine as a traffic stop. This would likely mean a vast spike in deportations, worsened police-community relations, and a potential increase in use of police force as confrontations become more serious.

Humans have been cooperating in voluntary value exchanges for centuries.

Spurred by current Republican rhetoric, there seems to be a new tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, especially directed towards those who have come here illegally.

It’s worth a reminder: borders are merely invisible lines that were decided upon many years ago. They change over time as various regimes negotiate their purview and societies attempt to figure out what binds them together in common identity. I won’t make the radical argument that we should abolish them altogether, but I will make the argument that free exchange of goods and services improves the lives of both recipients and creators.

Humans have been cooperating in voluntary value exchanges for centuries. Why should we allow fear and nationalism to curb the very exchanges that have brought us value and joy?

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