Sunday, May 9, 2010

Arizona cracks down

Arizona’s passage of a law making illegal immigration status a state crime (as opposed to a federal one) and requiring police to check the immigration status of arrestees has set off a storm of protest, with demonstrations and calls to boycott the state and make it a pariah.

I’ve written about immigration before, and broadly speaking I’m in favor of it: in a world where capital can move freely around the globe in search of better investment opportunities, it seems only fair to let workers take their labor where they can get the best return on it. And accusations that immigrants take jobs from natives are overblown; they wouldn’t come if there were no demand for their labor.

However, mass immigration raises two legitimate concerns besides the economic issue: assimilation and the rule of law. These are what give rise to a lot of the opposition to illegal immigration, and worries about them can't be reduced to mere xenophobia.

In the United States, fears about lack of assimilation are somewhat exaggerated; American culture is powerfully assimilative and assimilation tends to happen of its own accord within a generation or two. The concern here should be merely to avoid measures that can retard assimilation, such as bilingual education programs (however well-intentioned ) that fail to help students make the transition to education in English.

For me the serious issue is the rule of law. The idea that the law is greater than any person, no matter how powerful, is the rock on which the open society rests. There is no greater check on autocracy and governmental misconduct than widespread respect for the laws that govern a society.

But this respect is not a given. It rests on two bases: democratic accountability and consistent enforcement. Our laws must be subject to revision in response to an informed electorate, and they must mean something once they are written.

In this light the Arizona law is a reaction to the pervasive sense that our government has simply not bothered to enforce the laws governing immigration. When large numbers of people residing in this country are not legally entitled to do so, and yet are able to live and work here with impunity, you can be forgiven for thinking that the government doesn’t care about the law.

So I don’t think the Arizona law is mere xenophobia. I think it’s a protest against perceived government indifference to widespread flouting of the law. That makes people angry. And calling them Nazis and trying to make Arizona out to be a new apartheid-era South Africa is only going to make them angrier. The hysterical tone of some of the opposition to the law does not aid clarity of thinking.

However. Understandable as it may be, the Arizona law is not the way to resolve the issues surrounding illegal immigration. It’s not that the government doesn’t care about our immigration laws; it’s that strict enforcement of them would be so expensive and intrusive that the population wouldn’t stand for it. I think we’re about to see this in action in Arizona. So maybe it’s time to take a hard look at the whole legal framework governing immigration.

I’ve argued before that the rule of law is weakened whenever laws are made for which the costs of enforcement outweigh the benefits gained. In such cases enforcement tends to be intermittent and arbitrary, and people lose respect both for the people who make our laws and for those who are expected to enforce them. In those cases, it’s time to reconsider the laws.

While difficulty of enforcement alone is no reason to ditch a law, difficulty of enforcement added to dubious benefits indicates a law that we might be better off without. If immigration has economic benefits, which I think it does, then treating it as a threat is a mistake. Of course, as with everything else, there are management issues and security issues, but those can be dealt with while accepting that immigration to the United States should be open to anyone who wishes to come here and contribute to our society.

So I favor comprehensive immigration reform. Not a blanket amnesty, which would be unfair to those who have tried to follow the rules, but the institution of a process for regularization, a path to legality. It should involve some costs and some commitments on the part of the applicants, but it should offer the benefit of legal residence at the end of it.

It is simply impossible to seal the borders and expel all the people who are currently here illegally; it just isn’t going to happen. And it’s foolish to pretend that it is. The dynamics of the world economy have simply overtaken an obsolete legal regime, and it’s time to update it.

So make the illegals jump through some hoops; make them come out of the bushes and pay a fine and take an oath or whatever; but give them a chance to become legal. In the long run, that’s the best way to affirm the rule of law and assure assimilation. And then we won’t need laws like the one Arizona just passed.

Sam Reaves

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