Sunday, December 09, 2007

Illegal Immigration

Michael Kinsley (hat tip: Mark Thoma) is right, and Andrew Samwick is wrong. (Well, mostly wrong. He does make an important point about fairness to people who are trying to immigrate legally.)

Another question: Why are you so upset about this particular form of lawbreaking? After all, there are lots of laws, not all of them enforced with vigor. The suspicion naturally arises that the illegality is not what bothers you. What bothers you is the immigration. There is an easy way to test this. Reducing illegal immigration is hard, but increasing legal immigration would be easy. If your view is that legal immigration is good and illegal immigration is bad, how about increasing legal immigration? How about doubling it? Any takers? So in the end, this is not really a debate about illegal immigration. This is a debate about immigration.

That's not a good test, unless Kinsley is arguing that a politician's desired amount of legal immigration should not depend (negatively) on the number of illegal immigrants who are already here. One does not have to argue that there are no differences between illegal and legal immigrants (for example, in their economic or fiscal impact) to assert that the key distinction of legality is relevant for public policy.

Let me try to clarify what I think Kinsley is arguing. Let’s suppose we ask a slightly different question: How many total immigrants, legal plus illegal, should we have in the US? I allow three different answers:
  1. exactly as many as we have now,
  2. more than we have now, or
  3. fewer than we have now.
(I'm talking about immigration flows, not about a snapshot of the number of immigrants at a particular time.)

If you give the first answer, I’m inclined to doubt your sincerity. Undoubtedly there are some people who do think we have just the right number of immigrants, but it’s hard to imagine that there are many. It’s clear (to me anyhow, from reading blog comments on the subject) that there is a broad distribution of opinion about how many immigrants we should have. It seems implausible that the distribution would just happen to have a large atom located at exactly the status quo. You might support the status quo for reasons of general conservatism, but in that case, you’re not particularly against illegal immigration in general; you’re just against having more illegal immigration than we already have. If you are against illegal immigration in general, then you are against the status quo, and you’ll have to do better than claiming general conservatism.

If you give the second answer, then you are pro-immigration, and if you claim at the same time to be against illegal immigration, Michael Kinsley will presumably agree with you: “We all oppose breaking the law, or we ought to.” But if you are pro-immigration, you’ve got some explaining to do as to why illegal immigration should be more of an issue than “illegal drug use or illegal speeding.”

If you give the third answer, I submit that you are not just against illegal immigration; you are against immigration. (I mean against immigration at the margin; presumably that’s what it means to be against immigration, since hardly anyone would argue for zero immigration.)

It seems to me, though, that the real issue is not whether illegal immigration is good or bad, but what we should do about it. The question of what to do should depend not so much on how much immigration we want as on what the costs and benefits of various options are. If preventing illegal immigration were cheap, then presumably even pro-immigration people would support doing more about illegal immigration so that we could increase legal immigration. It isn’t cheap, and as someone who doesn’t consider immigration (at the margin) to be a bad thing, I see the general imperative for enforcing laws as the only major point in favor of strong enforcement. In my opinion, marijuana and exceeding the speed limit both cause more net harm than illegal immigration, and I don’t think we should devote any more resources to enforcing immigration laws than we do to enforcing marijuana laws or speed limits.


Blogger Karl Smith said...

The issue that doesn't quite come to the forefront using your test is that illegal immigrants are poor and brown while most people's image of legal immigrants are middle class and asian or eastern european.

So many people will say yes more legals and no to more illegals because more illegals means more poor brown people, who are generally responsible for the debasement of our society. But of course, its really about following the law because they never speed or smoke pot.

Oh yeah and get rid of the last reminants of welfare because unlike Social Security or the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction food and shelter for poor black kids is wrecking the federal budget.

Sorry for that, I will be better now.

Sun Dec 09, 10:22:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not clear that more legalization would stop the flow of illegals in. As long as Mexico has a much lower standard of living than the U.S., there's always going to be a major incentive for illegals, and it's unlikely that it can be stopped at any reasonable cost.

Mon Dec 10, 07:40:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What? No proposal they apply for statehood?

Tue Dec 11, 03:15:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Lord, a full merge would certainly eliminate illegal immigration.

Tue Dec 11, 09:07:00 AM EST  
Blogger Ken Houghton said...

Define a as the number of legal immigrants, b as the number of illegal immigrants.

If you increase a, then a/b may grow larger of itself (if there is demand, which can be assumed by the presence of illegals).

If you assume a greater benefit from legal immigrants (e.g., higher tax revenues), then part of that benefit can be earmarked to deal with the illegals—at the margin, more legal immigrants is the way to cut down on illegal immigration.

If you don't assume that illegal immigrants are a problem that has a cost-effective solution, then your position on legal immigration doesn't matter, except if you want to claim, contrary to all evidence, that increasing legal immigration would reduce per capita GDP.

Otherwise, Karl Smith's penultimate paragraph, without the final backtracking.

Fri Dec 14, 04:38:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! This is really confusing Ken! I'm trying to follow your argument (I tried to build a decision tree), but I'm having a difficult time. Maybe I'm just not properly following the discussion - i.e., missed too many of the earlier points that were made. I'm just wondering what "otherwise" is referring to (what is the set of possibilities that "otherwise" is the complement of?) Are you saying that if legal is better than illegal and illegal cannot be stopped, one's position on legal is irrelevant and that if legal is better than illegal and illegal can be stopped then that means you are a biggot or a right winger? Or are you saying something else?
Anyways, I'm very interested in your opinion, and I'd like additional clarification.

Sat Dec 15, 12:09:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The invasion of our country by illegals and the impotence of our government to enforce the law is forcing us in a dark direction. These are the first rumblings of modern sectionalism. Insurrection and perhaps Civil War loom on the horizon. Immigration itself is a good thing. "Gate-Crashing" by millions of people is more dangerous than the foolish people of our time understand. Something must be done now, or we will face dire consequences in the coming decades. Do not let your compassion blind you. Study history and you will see the true danger here. This issue will be the one that divides our Nation. Mark my words and remember.

Sat Dec 15, 05:48:00 PM EST  
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