Legal and Illegal
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
I’ll happily admit I hate that obnoxious little pro-immigrant slogan of the left which reads "Ninguna persona es ilegal." Those who proudly display this slogan on their cars or on their faculty office doors obviously think they’re shaming their ideological adversaries. It’s not working. Although the slogan is typical of the utter vacuity that passes for argumentation on both the left and the right these days, it does raise a point. What is the difference between a legal and an illegal alien?
Obviously there’s a legal distinction. Congress has declared that if immigrant X has filled out the appropriate paperwork and has been given the green light by some federal agent, he is thus legal. Congress has also declared that if immigrant Y has not filled out the appropriate paperwork, he is not legal. Indeed, it bears a rather striking resemblance to the difference between legal drugs and illegal drugs. That is, it’s a completely arbitrary distinction.
Viagra is legal because Congress says so, and marijuana is illegal because Congress has decreed it. There’s certainly no objective standard behind why the federal government stoops to grant private citizens the freedom to choose to use one but not the other. There’s very little objective difference between the two in terms of long-term health risks. In fact, Viagra is likely a much bigger risk than marijuana. Yet, since college hopheads are a considerably less influential lobby than wizened seniors in need of a pick-me-up, objective reality will clearly never compete with interest-group politics.
Yet, the anti-immigration lobby makes much of this merely legal distinction. "We’re not against legal immigrants," they say, "we’re only against illegal immigrants." The sincerity of this claim is often belied by the fact that they say this in one breath, and then in the next breath call for massive decreases in legal immigration or, in some cases, a complete moratorium. So while they have no problem with legal immigrants, they’d also like to make sure that precious few immigrants qualify as legal to begin with.
And why should there be a moratorium on immigration, legal and otherwise? Why, because immigrants crowd the public schools, cause sprawl, clutter the pristine natural environment, and make the local workforce look bad. Indeed, these are many of the same arguments we hear out of elitist anti-growth Latte Towns who happily use the power of government to keep the hoi polloi from moving in and ruining everything for those who are already there.
What we find at the heart of this hair-splitting about legal and illegal is that the "we like legals, but not illegals" argument is just a ruse to inspire indignation against immigrants in general, relying on appeals to an anti-growth, anti-capitalist, pro-environmentalist agenda. It is an attempt to convince the reader that there is something objectively different between a legal immigrant peacefully working and an illegal one doing the same. The key is to label them trespassers and criminals although the immigrant who does not resort to welfare has no more violated anyone else’s rights than a nine-year-old girl who sells lemonade without a permit. Those who feign ignorance and claim to favor deporting peaceful, self-sufficient immigrants merely because it is "against the law" are no different than those who support arresting small girls for selling fruit juice because it is after all, "against the law."
After they have made the case that "illegal" immigrants are somehow different, the next step of course, is to use the power of the state to have any additional peacefully employed workers declared "illegal" and then — problem solved. Thus, even if the person is gainfully employed, rents an apartment, keeps to himself, and never resorts to welfare, according to the feds, he is illegal. Yet, a "legal" immigrant who lives off the system (not to mention the legions of Americans who do so) is perfectly welcome. I mention this not to argue (although it’s a good argument) that legal immigrants who resort to welfare should be deported, but to illustrate that the distinction between legal and illegal is based on little more than an arbitrary decision made by politicians (another group living off the government dole) perhaps thousands of miles away.
But can we develop an objective measure of who should be legal and who should be illegal? A suggestion: anyone who comes here seeking work and legally declines all access to public schools and welfare programs shall be declared legal, while anyone who attempts to take advantage of such programs shall be deemed persona non grata and deported. Since the federal government is not empowered to make such laws (or immigration laws of any kind), states and localities shall deport immigrants who apply for taxpayer-funded benefits.
An even better approach would be to apply this rule to immigrants from out-of-state as well, and not just to immigrants from abroad. For starters, Montana should declare that anyone from out of state who attempts to take advantage of welfare programs funded by the good people of Montana, shall be deported back to Alabama (for example) upon application. What a happy day for true federalism that would be.
This would finally add some actual rationality to the debate over who is legal and who is illegal. The standard is simple. Those who try to use the power of the state to steal from the taxpayers will be declared illegal and deported. This would save us from the tiresome business of allowing Congress (which is totally unqualified to determine what sorts of immigrants the market demands) to set immigration quotas by simply pulling a number out of the air.
The key is to encourage those who wish to work to come here and do so. And since immigration is indeed so driven by local demands for labor, ultimately, the attempts to keep out those who wish to work will prove to be about as successful as the war on drugs. Legislative attempts to restrict that which consumers and employers demand will always be doomed to failure, although they will always succeed in empowering and enriching government in the process.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.