January 19, 2004

Out on a Limb: Hanson's Wrong on Immigration

It always worries me a bit when I disagree with intellectual giants. It's quite possible that I'm the one who'll have egg on my face at the end. Victor Davis Hanson's WSJ opinion piece on immigration is a classic case where I feel compelled to go out on a limb to play David to his Goliath.

First he starts with the assumed constant of illegal immigrants existing outside the program. Why would these people not pay their fine and enter the country legally? Space constraints in an op-ed might explain it but I have a different answer. It's just a bad assumption.

You don't start an illegal immigration discussion with the illegal immigrant. You start it a few months before when he's just one more guy in a sea of people who don't earn enough and don't have very good prospects of earning much more for the rest of his life. The moment he decides to leave his local labor market before any borders have been crossed, that's the point where this proposed program starts to come into play.

Now this platonic ideal, this everyman of economic migrant labor, has a choice. Currently, he can go off to apply for a green card, or he can pay the tens of thousands needed to get a coyote or a snake head to get him across the border illegally. If he doesn't qualify for one of the easy to get green card categories (permanent R-1s, for instance, are pretty painless and there are often a number of them that go unused every year), there is a significant opportunity cost of going the legal route.

Tote up the decades of poor wages, the uncertainty of ever getting to the head of the line and the $40k price tag of illegal admission, fake papers, and the opportunity cost of keeping your head down in the US doesn't look so bad. So our everyman hits the shipping containers or desert crossings or whatever and arrives in the US where he first pops up on VDH's radar screen.

With the new program, the calculation changes. Our labor migrant everyman doesn't care about the US per se. He just wants a nice house and to live in relative comfort at home in his village. He wants his kids to have decent nutrition, a shot at a good education and a better life. He wants the local version of the American dream but in his own culture, with its own characteristics. Working for a few years in the US to build up a stake and he can use that capital to live a decent life at home as a member of the local elite.

Why would such a person ever choose illegal immigration when it limits employment opportunities, limits legal protections, will result in lower wages, and costs more? Why would an employer ever choose an illegal immigrant when he can get plenty of legal temporary workers and the fines are likely to go up beyond the realistic differential he can extract in wages from the illegals?

There are cases of children and aged coming north, probably quite a few. But if you have the ability to go back and forth to your home country, why would you increase your costs by bringing your dependents to a more expensive locale?

Mexico is not a place where it is hard to find food, health care, or pretty much anything else. Mexico is a place where it can be hard to find these things when you earn little to no money. With low wage rates in Mexico, the excess that a temporary worker can send home creates the conditions for a much better life back home than the family would get by moving to the US where everything is so expensive. The family comes because travel is so risky, so expensive that the extra costs are less than it would take to travel by coyote twice a year.

The Bush plan takes care of this by reducing the cost to cross borders down to bus or train fare. Poof! Dignity as one of the richest families in your home town or a strange and confusing life in the US where you always feel the 2nd class outsider and you're in the bottom half of the economic order. How do you think those incentives will play out?

The last three paragraphs bring up a disappointing sketch of a proposed alternative. Everybody on the right against this proposal has the same answer, enforce existing law and all will be well. There is never any price tag attached to this because nobody has the guts to actually tote up the cost to do it. Nor is there ever any discussion of what it would do to Mexico if such a massive deportation program were to take place. Mexican instability is something to be avoided if possible.

The two competing images of enforcing current law that I have are the dutch reclaiming land from the sea with their dikes and King Canute exercising his 'divine right' of kings to order the tide to halt. There is an obligation of those who advocate enforcing current law to build an outline of what we would have to change to do that and how much would it cost.

You can't just wave a magic wand and say use the army. They're busy fighting a war and are likely to stay busy for years. Border defense against economic migrants is not what they're designed to do anyway so they would need significant retraining and retooling. And any decent military strategist will tell you that a single line defense is not preferable. It's much better to have defense in depth.

In the immigration context that means "a return of the old green immigration vans, the 'Migra' patrols of my youth that used to scour central California to pick up illegal residents for immediate transit back to Mexico". People will get across. They will concentrate and come at the border in such numbers that a certain percentage will get through. That's just the reality of the current situation. Unless we're going to shoot them, we can't catch them all because they (the jobless economic migrants) have nothing better to do and we do (like running an economy to pay for all those border guards).

The reality is that seriously enforcing immigration law as it currently stands would create a lot more 'migra' van raids then giving temporary worker cards out. Those vans disappeared because we gave up, not because of any particular change in law. Any change in law which increases conformity of the law reduces the number of green vans needed to enforce the law.

VDH's strongest points are the moral ones. But these are the most easily addressed in the process of getting actual legislation passed. If we are truly embarked upon a project of eliminating the non-integrating gap, a program of US temporary workers could play a vital part in that.

Every US embassy has a commercial section. It would be proper to the "shrink the gap" strategy to encourage economic development in these countries by creating international connections with the US. Create entrepreneurial centers for temporary workers to create their own businesses in their own countries with US help and advice.

Let them have the same access that US citizens currently have and you create not only a temporary worker with some cash in his pocket but someone who will have both the financial capability and intellectual tools to start up a small business and a measure of political protection from rapacious local elites who are the major cause of the country's non-integrating gap status.

Using these returning workers as a method of stitching these countries into the global economic system is a way of both solving our primary national security problem of the era and reducing the pressure to send wave after wave of economic migrants to the US.

Posted by TMLutas at January 19, 2004 11:49 AM