Arizona and immigration

I think Arizona’s new law on illegal immigration is a bad idea.  But it is directed at a real problem, and I don’t have a good answer to that problem.

Arizona has a population of about 6.6 million people.  An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 illegal immigrants live within the state, about 7 percent of its population. Probably illegal immigrants comprise an even higher percentage of the work force.  The unemployment rate in Arizona is above 9 percent. Subtract the illegal immigrant population, and some of those jobs open up to citizens and legal residents. If you say citizens wouldn’t do those jobs, you mean they wouldn’t do them for the pay that the illegal immigrants get. Wages would rise for necessary jobs if that was the only way to get people to do them.

I don’t think you can stop illegal immigration by means of border patrols nor by means of spot checks of Hispanic-looking individuals. If you really wanted to stop illegal immigration, the only way to do it would be to have a national ID system, linked to a national data base with biometric information based on retinal scans or other unique individual characteristics, to require employers to keep records of the IDs of all their employees and to punish employers who fail to comply. No, I don’t like this.

An alternative is open borders.  Without barriers to immigration, there are no problems with illegals. No, I don’t think this is feasible.

The third option is what we have now – to restrict immigration, but to wink at violations of these restrictions.  The result is a large internal population of people who are outside the protection of the law – people with no recourse if they are exploited or cheated by employers or abused by government. I like this even less than the other two.

Click on this to read the executive summary of the new Arizona law.
Click on this to read the relevant provisions of the federal law to which the Arizona law refers.

Opponents of the law point to the provisions about checking on people when there is “reasonable suspicion” that they may be in the country illegally.  “Reasonable suspicion” is not defined, and it is hard to see what it could mean other than having a brown skin, a Spanish surname or a Hispanic accent.  This concern is not alleviated by a provision barring racial profiling except when permitted by the U.S. and Arizona constitutions; that goes without saying, and is tantamount to saying racial profiling is permitted except when found to be unconstitutional.

By international standards, the law is not harsh. Federal law requires resident aliens to carry their immigration documents on them at all times, as do laws of many other countries, including Mexico.  But what if it were seriously enforced? Is it feasible to deport hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have been tolerated for years, and think of the United States as their home.  Not all are Mexican or even Hispanic, but many are. What if such a law were implemented on a nationwide scale? What would be the impact having all these people suddenly deported to their home countries, and their remittances subtracted for their home economies?

You could have some form of amnesty for the illegal immigrants and say we’re going to strictly enforce the immigration laws from now on. But we’ve done this in the past.  There is no feasible way to distinguish between old formerly-illegal immigrants and new still-illegal immigrants. Having repeated amnesties amounts to having open borders.

Why, then, not have open borders? Why makes me special that I have certain privileges just because I was born in the United States, which are denied somebody equally or more deserving than me who happened to be born in Mexico?  This has long been advocated by hard-core free-enterprisers, who say the role of government should be limited to safeguarding public safety and property rights, and nothing should interfere with the free movement of people or commodities. Hard-core civil libertarians in effect say the same thing; they don’t advocate open borders in so many words, but they oppose enforcement of immigration laws and denial of governmental benefits to undocumented aliens, so it is the same in practice.

I hope that someday the world will be one, but we do not live in such a world. I think it is a fine thing that there are no barriers to the movement of people, ideas or goods throughout the European Union, but the union was achieved through negotiation, not by France or West Germany or some other country unilaterally removing tariffs and immigration restrictions.

I don’t think the Arizona law is a solution to any problem.I don’t think there will be any wholesale deportation of illegal immigrants.  I think that when the controversy dies down, life in Arizona will be the same as before, except life will be more unpleasant for the state’s 30 percent Hispanic population and there will be more bad feeling between Hispanics and Anglos.

The other aspect of the Arizona law is its emotional and symbolic significance.  Regardless of its actual content, it gives people who resent Hispanics and immigrants an opportunity to vent their feelings, and it gives Hispanics, immigrants and their supporters an issue to rally around. I am in the second group.  It is not just that I have a selfish interest in wanting a large working-age population to pay Social Security taxes.  I think immigrants contribute a lot to this nation’s vitality and creativity, and I think we Americans are generally better than Europeans in making newcomers feel welcome.

Afterthoughts (5/4/10)

I once had a good friend descended from an illegal immigrant.  Her grandfather was a Jewish man living in Russia; after World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, he got his boyhood friend, then living in Rochester, N.Y., to agree to claim him as his brother, and moved to the United States on that basis.  His son had a distinguished career as an engineer, and his granddaughter as a journalist.

While I think feelings about the Arizona immigration bill are to some extent a proxy for feelings about Hispanics and immigrants in general, I do not think this is the whole story.  Some of the strongest opposition to illegal immigration comes from legal immigrants. They have endured delays, waited their turn and dealt with the Immigration and Naturalization Service bureaucracy, and resent people who have done none of these things being allowed to jump the line.

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