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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink its Borders and Immigration Law

In recent years there have been numerous highly publicized federal raids against companies that had violated the law by employing illegal aliens. The hapless people were deported and the companies slapped with stiff penalties. Generally, the reaction has been, “Well, it’s about time the government got tough!”

For the most part, the strident voices of the anti-immigration crowd have drowned out and intimidated those who do not believe that illegal immigration is a threat to the nation. There are, however, some people willing to stand up for the right of people to move across international borders freely. One of them is Philippe Legrain, whose book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them was reviewed in the May 2007 issue of The Freeman. Another is Kevin Johnson, a law professor at the University of California – Davis. His book Opening the Floodgates makes an impassioned case for an open-borders policy.

Although the book has some serious flaws, it makes a worthwhile contribution to the debate over this key issue.

Johnson writes, “To the extent that the idea of open borders is even mentioned in public discussions, it is immediately brushed off as hopelessly impractical and not worthy of in-depth analysis and consideration as a possible policy option.” He wants to change that by showing the numerous, frequently tragic consequences of our current, highly restrictive immigration policy and emphasizing the benefits of scrapping it in favor of openness.

The most visible harm resulting from the status quo is that many people die every year in the effort to move to the United States. It’s strange that Americans who used to be appalled when East German border guards killed people trying to leave are mostly indifferent when Haitians drown or Mexicans die of heat and dehydration trying to leave those countries. Johnson shows that the death toll from our immigration laws is very high, but largely ignored.

Another harm is that illegal immigrants are outside the protection of the legal system. Unscrupulous employers can and do cheat them. Sometimes the immigrants are hardly more than slaves. Anti-immigrationists retort that those unfortunate people have only themselves to blame for having had the temerity to disobey our laws. Johnson finds this morally chilling. It is.

Johnson aptly compares our efforts to stop immigration to Prohibition. The latter didn’t prevent people from drinking alcoholic beverages but instead led to unsafe products sold by criminal syndicates, violence, and a gigantic waste of resources. Our prohibition of immigration has similar consequences. The parallels are strong and Americans ought to ponder them.

What about the impact immigrants have on our culture? Writers like Samuel Huntington wring their hands over the “damage” that dark-skinned and non-English-speaking immigrants (legal and illegal) inflict on “America’s” culture. Johnson says: Relax. Similar attacks were made in the past against the Irish, Italians, Chinese, and other groups. But more to the point, there is no reason to believe that any harm comes to us when different peoples settle here. Besides, he says, recent immigrants seem to be “assimilating” just fine.

I think Johnson would have made a stronger case if he had, apropos of that last point, challenged the notion that “assimilation” is really important. What does it matter if a group lives in the United States and chooses to keep to itself, speaking some language other than English, adhering to traditional customs, and ignoring American political institutions? The Amish are a very much unassimilated people, but there is no reason to complain about them. Live and let live—as long as an individual abides by that rule, there is no moral ground for interfering with him.

That point is something of a quibble, but there are more serious problems with the book.

First, Johnson’s grasp of economics is weak. For example, he takes seriously the notion of “the multiplier effect,” long ago shredded for its errors. And he repeatedly extols labor unions as if they have the power to transform low-paid jobs into “decently” paid jobs. The impact of unions is greatly exaggerated, and they have little or no impact at the bottom of the labor scale.

More important, Johnson thinks it would be good policy to allow free immigration, but then attempt through taxation to “even things out.” If we had open borders, he says that “business” would gain but low-paid workers would lose because of added competition in the labor market. Therefore he advocates taxation to compel the supposed winners to pay the supposed losers.

That’s where he really loses me. Increasing freedom to migrate should not be offset by decreasing freedom elsewhere.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.