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Opening The Floodgates: Why America Needs To Rethink Its Borders And Immigration Law

by George Leef for the Foundation For Economic Education

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, its 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. Its 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 didnt 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 Americas 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 liveas 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, Johnsons 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.

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

This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman.

About The Author

George Leef is the Vice President for research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Carroll College (Waukesha, WI) and a Juris Doctor from Duke University School of Law. He was a Vice President of the John Locke Foundation until the Pope Center became independent in 2003. Prior to joining the Locke Foundation, he was president of Patrick Henry Associates, a consulting firm in Michigan dedicated to assisting others in advocating free markets, minimal government, private property and individual rights. He has served as book review editor of The Freeman, an educational free market magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education, since 1997, and has published numerous articles in The Freeman, Reason, The Free Market, Cato Journal, The Detroit News, Independent Review, and Regulation. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.