Imagine you belong to a church that offers food and temporary assistance to the truly needy. Its charity is unburdened by federal subsidy, and thus unattached to federal strings and regulation. It works humanely and practically, getting people on their feet and providing shelter to those who, for one reason or another in our highly regulated society, have had trouble getting a job that pays a decent wage — or any job, thanks to minimum wage laws. The charity is voluntarily funded.
Now imagine one day there’s a knock on the door of your church, and in walks neither a person in need, nor a person offering to help, but a federal agent. It turns out that some of the people your church has been peacefully helping are illegal immigrants. Maybe you suspected it. Maybe you had no clue. Perhaps you knew all along but didn’t think it mattered.
Imagine the leaders of your religious charity being hauled off to prison. It is a federal felony to assist illegal aliens — whether it is done by a religious organization in the form of charity or by a company in the form of an honest job. It does not matter whether you knew you were breaking the law. Ignorance is no excuse. If you were involved in peacefully helping an illegal immigrant receive food, shelter, medicine, schoolbooks, or whatever, you are now a felon.
This is not an imaginary concern. Several months ago, the House of Representatives passed an immigration reform bill that would criminalize free association with illegal immigrants. Employers and churches would be targeted with the only tool the state knows how to use — force. The legislation would make being an illegal immigrant, or helping one, a felony. Many illegal aliens would be imprisoned, not merely deported. The central planners have also devised a physical barricade to be erected along a third of the U.S.-Mexican border, a sort of reverse-Berlin Wall to isolate America’s socialist education and health care system and its jobs from foreign contamination.
Over the last several days, in one of the largest peaceful demonstrations in American history, hundreds of thousands of activists have flooded streets across the nation in protest against the bill. Whatever one might think about their agenda as a whole, the hostile reaction to the immigration bill since its passage in the House appears to have influenced the Senate’s preliminary deliberations. The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill without the most draconian provisions against immigrants and charities that help them.
Some might be unhappy that the teeth have been taken out of the immigration bill, and that the pro-immigrant activists appear to have had some effect on the legislative process. But it has become clear that, the more "serious" the efforts to curb immigration, the more brutal will be the policies against the immigrant and his prospective employer and benefactor alike.
When you trust the government to address an issue you believe needs addressing, you are entrusting and empowering that coercive institution, that political, corrupt institution of the state, to improve the world where it has failed virtually every other time it has been so entrusted and empowered. Your freedoms will be among the casualties.
From a purely anti-state perspective, the whole notion of illegal immigration is weighed down by absurdity. This is not to say that mass immigration is never a threat to the property rights and cultural values of those living within a geographical area. Immigrants who swarm across the borders only to go onto welfare are consuming more than their fair share of the public loot. Immigrants who trample on the private property of Americans living along the border are guilty of trespassing. Many illegal aliens come to America and remain criminals in the true sense. With this in mind, we can probably argue for a distinction between libertarian immigration and non-libertarian immigration.
But the concept of illegal immigration — whereby a monopolistic coercive entity draws some line in the sand and dictates who can cross it, fining and jailing and shooting those that defy its rule — is ridiculous.
The state should not have the authority to decide who is invited and who is not invited on your property. And it should not have the authority to brand all denizens who come from outside of some arbitrary boundary as "illegal." Some argue that, although this might be true in principle, the law is the law and it needs to be respected. But as libertarians should recognize, defying a government’s law is not always malum in se. It would be asinine if this were the case, for sometimes laws are so outrageous that merely following them would be criminal, or contrary to other laws. Breaking the state’s laws is not always the same as violating rights.
Thus the designation of all illegal immigrants as criminals is a malum prohibitum designation — it stems not from the natural law, or property rights considerations, but rather from the state’s arbitrary decree.
To derive a libertarian position on immigration, it is no more valid to accept the state’s division of people into groups of illegal immigrants and others than it is to adopt any other dualistic statist construct. Illegal gun owners, illegal drug users, tax resisters and jaywalkers are not, a priori, criminal actors, and neither are illegal immigrants, and any sweeping legislation that attempts to treat them all as criminals is a piece of collectivist trash.
Very well, very good, I am picturing some of you saying. But in the meantime, America is being flooded by immigrants who don’t pay their own way and who, surprisingly, are no more interested in American culture, American history and literacy in English than, well, the average native-born teenager who grows up in red-state America and joins the Army. What to do? Isn’t it just practical to treat all illegal aliens as illegal aliens, and throw them all out?
I am surprised that, given the huge mess socialism, Civil Rights egalitarianism and the police have created in our time, so many libertarians are willing to defer to sloppy expedience on the issue of immigration and expect the state to sort things out close enough to how the market would do so.
We wouldn’t expect the government’s wars and surveillance to protect us from the terrorist threats incited by its own policies, would we? There are plenty of terrible problems in society largely created by the state for which there is no solution so long as the state is mucking everything up. U.S. foreign policy, gun control policy, and drug policy have made America a much more dangerous place, for example. It would be a lost cause to hope that the state should protect us from its own blowback, and it’s especially foolish to petition it to expand its powers in order to restrain the very demons that its powers have unleashed. So the welfare state plus mass immigration equals a big mess. So what? Most problems don’t have government solutions. As for the House immigration bill, spending billions of dollars to arrest, prosecute and jail immigrants and those who are hiring or assisting them does not seem to make good sense for the taxpayer. The state would only be yanking immigrants and their associates out of the private sector altogether and forcing them into the exorbitant criminal justice system, with all costs socialized to the people.
We should recognize by now that any War on Illegal Immigration would be a war on the civil and economic liberties of Americans and other peaceful people. As it stands, the feds brutalize countless people whose only crime was to move where there was a better work opportunity. They ship people back to Communist tyrannies like Cuba. They shove people just as peaceful and productive as the European immigrants who built this country a century ago into immigration Gulags, to languish and wait while the paperwork is processed. All the while, they hand out welfare to natives, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants alike, for the state sees no contradiction in coddling and throttling the same demographic, so long as its power and budgets swell with each gesture of false kindness or raw cruelty.
There is no easy, painless answer to the question: What to do about illegal immigration? The only solution that would end illegal immigration is to stop defining all travel across borders that the state does not approve as "illegal." Slashing the state’s power to offer social services and override property rights should accompany any libertarian reform to address the immigration question. But any attempt to direct state violence to addressing the perceived problem will yield massive collateral damage, feed the alienation of and division among peaceful people, and expand the powers and cost of the state. Ultimately, the wall won’t keep the bad apples out, and neither will cracking down on churches and businesses.
Moreover, that immigration enforcer that comes snooping around your home, your work, or your place of worship just might be a little harder to shoo away than a migrant yearning to breathe free. I especially doubt the federal police agent will be any more interested in the American traditions of liberty and honest work.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.