Wednesday, April 05, 2006


I am not going to pretend that I can solve the immigration problem in 1000 words or less. (Not that I am always able to contain myself to 1000 words or less.) It is far too complex.

However, there are factors in this that I think need to be considered.

National vs State Borders

We in Colorado have an immigration problem -- or so I hear. Every year, hoards of people move to this state from California. They come here and buy up our property -- causing property values to climb. They also compete for our jobs. In fact, the way things are structured at the moment, anybody in another state who sees a job advertised in the local paper can come to this state and take that job. There are absolutely no barriers.

One would think that, in light of this, we in Colorado would really be suffering. The argument seems to be that it would be in our interest to put up barriers to prevent people from all over the country coming to this state. This way we can keep all of our jobs and all of the land to ourselves.

Of course, I am pleased that Colorado did not have these limitations a few years ago. I am an immigrant to this state myself, having originally come from Montana. But, now that I am here, I suppose it is time to close off the border and let nobody in from any other state. That will, no doubt, make our state prosperous and help to make sure that I get to keep my job. At last, I would not have to fear losing it to some young kid in some other state.

If we read the arguments against immigration, it seems to suggest that closing off Colorado's borders would be a good plan. However, at the same time, it seems just as reasonable to suggest that Colorado gains some of its economic strength from the fact that it does not restrict immigration from any other state. The freedom to move around the country, allowing people to go where the jobs are and jobs to go to where the people are, gives us a level of economic flexibility that has served us well for a couple of hundred years.

I am not arguing in favor of throwing the borders open and letting people come in and out of the country at will. I am mostly writing to address some of the arguments and concerns people use against immigration. If those arguments were valid, then Colorado would profit by closing its borders from people from other states. Colorado would not profit from closing its borders, so there is something wrong with at least a few of the concerns against immigration.

Throwing Poor to the Wolves

One of the arguments that I read in favor of immigration reform referred to a study that said that illegal immigrants lower the wage rate for unskilled workers by 8%. Therefore, it is argued, we should keep competing unskilled laborers out of the country.

This argument certainly will have political appeal. Yet, from a moral perspective, it has problems. What you are saying is that we should take this population of people making wages that are already low and divide them up into Group A and Group B. In order to increase the wages of Group A by 8 percent, we are going to throw Group B into even deeper poverty.

It would be hard to justify this type of policy on any moral grounds. Making wealthy people a little bit poorer in order to provide the poor with a better standard of living is one thing. Making poor people even poorer in order to make a different group of poor people wealthier is somewhat more difficult to defend.

Other Considerations: Hostage rescue

Yes, I know that there are other factors to consider. For example, tyrants who make their nations a living hell rule some countries. Citizens would have reason to leave those countries by the millions and flock to any country that offers freedom. In America, with at least a certain basic set of liberties guaranteed to the people of every state, we do not have this problem. I am not saying that all arguments restricting immigration are bad arguments, but some of them certainly are.

Yet, even this argument has a moral taint to it. If you knew that a sadistic individual had taken a group of people hostage in a house nearby, the moral obligation would be to rescue them. The morally concerned individual would not be inclined to aiding the sadist by setting up guards to make sure that none of his captives escape. The moral obligation is to either kill the tyrant, or get the people out of there -- one of the two. It is not to lock them in.

An Aside on Iraq

For any who catch the implication -- yes, this is a moral argument in favor of getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That argument has merit. Before the war started, I was in favor of taking action to effect a regime change in Iraq. Any opposition I have to the war stems from the fact that Bush is an incompetent leader. It is sometimes better not to decide against doing the right thing, than to assign the task of doing the right thing to somebody who is going to flub it up.

This is not an essay on the moral permissibility of war with Iraq. It is an essay about the moral position to take with regard to immigration. On this issue, we have to start with the fact that we are not talking about commodities here. None of the entities our policy deals with is disposable -- or at least no moral person would see them that way. Any policy that argues for disposing of a set of people for the benefit of others has serious moral drawbacks.

Final Considerations

As an atheist, I also have to consider the fact that the only life we have is here on Earth. There is no God to compensate the victims of earthly suffering in an afterlife. There is no making up for the pain and suffering we cause on this world. The best way to reduce that suffering is not always easy to see. Yet, the first step towards adopting a good plan would be to clear away the underbrush of muddled thinking that is blocking our view. Hopefully, this essay at least added a little clarity.


Anonymous said...

The issue with most people (Pat Buchanan types aside) is not all immigration but illegal immigration. This is an important distinction because, by definition, these people are criminals.

I'm afraid there is no parallel between interstate migration and the international kind since transport between states is a protected right and there is no such thing as legal citizenship of a state; just the overarching US citizenship we all have in common (just living in a state is enough, given US citizenship).

For fun, here is my proposal (it's far too radical to ever make it):
1. Arrest and deport illegals as we find them.
2. Establish an unlimited quota on all immigrants - require only a security check.
3. Eliminate all state benefits for non-citizens (at least!)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The idea that the analogy does not work because interstate immigration is legal and much international immigration is illegal begs the question.

Illegal immigrants are criminals. However, those who hid Jews in their attic in NAZI Germany, or who helped slaves to escape to Canada before the Civil War, or those who engage in sodomy in most states in this country are criminals as well.

Anybody in Afghanistan who converts from Islam is a criminal, and certainly every person who signed the Declaration of Independence or fought in George Washington's army was a criminal.

Those who engaged in civil disobedience to end segretation in this country were criminals.

Ghandi was a criminal, as was Nelson Mandella.

In discussing morality, the first question can never be whether a person is or is not a criminal. The question is whether his actions ought or ought not to have been made illegal.

Anonymous said...

I do not agree with your comparision. We are talking about 11 million people who illegally entered the country. They did not come for any noble cause. They are not Ghandi, Nelson Mandela or those that protected people who would be burned in ovens. Many of them come to commit crimes suck of the sysytem. Sure many come for jobs but that does not make them saints, they are still breaking the law.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous --

I think this whole "they're breaking the law" angle is very much overplayed. Most of the people that come, as far as I can tell, do so because they are deperately poor and need to feed their families. Speeding is against the law, but most people don't villify moderate speeders -- even though speeding is almost never for any important purpose (like feeding one's family). The illegal immigrants may not be saints, but, on the other hand maybe some are -- the fact that they broke the law by sneaking across the border to better their lives does not disqualify them for sainthood.

Anonymous said...

Not only was George Washington a criminal, but also a traitor, and if the word had existed then, he'd probably have been described as a terrorist as well. (An interesting thought experiment for my fellow Americans reading this: how would you feel about Washington and about our country if he had actually *been* a terrorist, using terrorist methods to break his country free of British rule? How do you think the rest of the world would feel about him?) Buzzwords distract from reasoned consideration of the issues; they never enhance it.

Making a better life for your family is a noble cause in my opinion, just as much as anything Gandhi or Washington or Mandela did (and let's not start on the personal lives of any of those people...) and a long step ahead of many, perhaps even most saints.