Facing Reality in the Immigration Debate

The underlying cause of illegal immigration is the wealth gap between the economically developed and underdeveloped worlds. So long as the gap remains considerable, people will strive to come to America, even if it entails violating immigration laws.
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Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in the recent Supreme Court decision to strike provisions of Arizona's strict immigration law has drawn significant attention. "To say, as the Court does, that Arizona contradicts federal law by enforcing immigration law that the president declines to enforce boggles the mind," Scalia declared, before referring to the "evil effects of illegal immigration." Various commentators criticized Scalia's dissent for being political in nature, as he examined a matter that was not before the Court, namely President Obama's announcement that his administration would not deport certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

However, Scalia's remarks raise two questions that warrant more attention. First, why does the federal government not apprehend and deport virtually all undocumented foreigners? Second, is illegal immigration really an "evil"?

Critics have argued, not without some justification, that President Obama was courting the support of Hispanic voters when he announced that the federal government would not deport upwards of 800,000 undocumented persons who came to America before the age of 16, are younger than 30, and have clean criminal records, among other conditions. The political dimension of this decision in an election year cannot be overlooked, especially given that President Obama had previously stated that he lacked the authority to take this step: "With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that's just not the case, because there are laws on the books." Despite his change of position on this particular issue -- in the aftermath of Congress' refusal to pass the Dream Act -- President Obama has actually taken a tougher stance on immigration than his Republican opponents have claimed. Over 1.1 million foreigners were deported during his tenure, the most by any president since the 1950s, although around 11.5 million undocumented persons remain in America.

Other factors help explain why, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the federal government has not deported essentially all undocumented immigrants, the most obvious one being that it cannot. America's vast and relatively porous borders are difficult to monitor. Deference to America's principles of civil liberties should also preclude overly aggressive immigration law enforcement. Short of turning America into a police state, it would be impossible to ferret all undocumented immigrants and expulse them. (The Supreme Court has yet to rule upon whether the "show me your papers" provisions of the Arizona law are enforced discriminatorily, but even these provisions are unlikely to ultimately satisfy partisans of blanket deportation.)

Another key factor has received insufficient attention: the extent to which the present-day American economy needs undocumented immigrants. Certain sectors, such as agriculture and construction, rely heavily on undocumented laborers, who perform low-wage jobs that few or no Americans want. Pragmatic politicians in both political parties are aware of this reality, which may explain why many apparently share reservations about a wholesale dragnet approach to immigration law enforcement.

Arizona's harsh immigration law seems to have dissuaded many undocumented workers from taking construction jobs, thereby leading to downtime at construction sites and lower productivity in the industry. In Alabama, which enacted a similar law, certain crops have been left rotting in the fields due to the departure of undocumented laborers apprehending a crackdown. Overall, multiple economists estimate that illegal immigrants are, by and large, beneficial to the U.S. economy and that their absence could even hinder growth. The low wages earned by undocumented workers do not have a significant negative impact on overall wages, as few Americans except high school dropouts compete with them for employment. Lower wages also mean lower prices for agricultural produce, building construction, and restaurant meals, for instance.

Insofar as the U.S. economy could not function without undocumented immigrants, it is because the vast majority come to America to work hard and lift their families out of poverty. While much of the public associates illegal immigration with criminality, that is largely a misconception. The crime rate of undocumented immigrants is not negligible but is far lower than most people realize. Except in a minority of cases, the only offense that undocumented immigrants will commit in their lifetimes is being undocumented. The cities with the largest increases in immigration between 1990 and 2000 experienced the largest decreases in homicide and robbery. Immigrants in California, for example, are less likely than U.S.-born Californians to commit crimes. Second and especially third-generation citizens are more likely to engage in criminal activity than first-generation immigrants; ironically suggesting that acculturation to certain aspects of American society might foster criminal conduct. Various police officials have criticized Arizona's new immigration law, such as Jack Harris, Phoenix's former police chief, because it detracts from crime fighting. "It takes officers away from doing what our main core mission is, and that is to make our community safe, and instead tells us to become immigration officers and enforce routine immigration laws," Harris said.

Unsubstantiated or exaggerated fears about undocumented immigrants, especially Hispanics, are reminiscent of xenophobic reactions to immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Irish, Italian, Catholic, Jewish, and Asian immigrants were notably perceived as menaces to American culture and prosperity, if not as criminal elements. The notorious Chinese Exclusion Act was also enacted in 1882 and not repealed before 1943.

Even though a rational examination of unlawful immigration in modern day America should warrant a nuanced view of the question, certain influential figures have promoted the misconception that the bulk of undocumented persons are shady characters or criminals. Rush Limbaugh illustratively claimed that Mexican undocumented immigrants are "a renegade, potential criminal element" that is "unwilling to work." By the same token, Justice Scalia contended in his dissent that "the very human realities" in Arizona are that "[i]ts citizens feel themselves under siege by large numbers of illegal immigrants who invade their property, strain their social services, and even place their lives in jeopardy."

That is not to say that one should make an apology of illegal immigration. America is a land of immigrants but millions of people come to its shores while abiding by immigration laws. To some extent, illegal immigration fosters disrespect for the rule of law. Pragmatism may justify discretion in the enforcement of immigration laws, yet pragmatism also justifies their existence. America, like other developed countries, evidently cannot simply abandon all immigration laws because it could hardly accommodate the dozens of millions of people who seek to emigrate away from impoverished nations.

The underlying cause of illegal immigration is the wealth gap between the economically developed and under-developed worlds. So long as the gap remains considerable, people of modest means will strive to come to America, Europe, and other parts of the developed world in hope of finding better living conditions, even if it entails violating immigration laws. There is no reason to believe that this situation will come to an end in the foreseeable future.

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