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Thursday, April 6, 2006


"A Right to Migrate

"A Right to Migrate

By Nathan Smith

Sourch Tech Central Station Daily  

"At the heart of the current immigration debate is an ethical question: Is it wrong for a poor but able-bodied Mexican without the requisite documents to cross the Rio Grande to look for work in El Norte?


Certainly, it is illegal. On the other hand, no one is harmed by it in the strictest sense. No one's person is violated. No one's property is stolen or damaged.


It's true, of course, that illegal immigrants may bid down the wages of low-skilled native-born workers. But this is relevant neither to law nor morality. If I become a dentist, I may marginally reduce the wages of other dentists. That does not make my dentistry illegal or immoral.


Or is it wrong to break the law, per se? But hardly anyone believes that consistently. Most of us approve of one or more of history's famous lawbreakers. Take your pick: Sam Adams and the Boston Tea Party boys; Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence ; Pastor Bonhoeffer; Mahatma Gandhi; Martin Luther King; Robin Hood; the Prophet Daniel; the early Christian martyrs. Even the usual argument for obeying laws you disagree with -- that we're all part of a social contract, and owe obedience to the state in return for the benefits we get from it -- doesn't apply to foreigners, who aren't part of the US social contract, at least not before they get here.


I am sympathetic to the idea that a Mexican who comes to the United States to work and share our material prosperity thereby tacitly consents to be ruled by the laws laid down by Washington. With one exception: It is absurd to say that, by immigrating illegally, he signals his consent to the law which he is breaking.


In short, an undocumented Mexican who enters the US is doing something illegal, but it is not clear that he is doing anything immoral. Certainly, in terms of the minimalist morality of not harming others and fulfilling one's obligations, he is not.


Is the law that prohibits an undocumented Mexican from entering the country, then, an unjust law? Or can such laws be defended? Different defenses of these laws come from the right or the left.


"Defending our borders"


Critics of immigration from the right like to say they support "defending our borders." This is a clever phrase, because it erases the distinction between peaceful workers and invading armies. Every state must defend its borders against invading armies, to protect its citizens' lives and property. But states have generally permitted the entry of peaceful traders, who do not threaten the lives or property of citizens. In any case, they know the difference between the two. By pretending not to understand it, right-wing opponents of immigration may score rhetorical points, but they fail to make the case for the widely-disobeyed laws.


That said; the case for restricting immigration in order to "defend our borders" is more legitimate in the wake of 9/11. America is in no danger of armed invasion from Mexico or Canada, of course -- the idea that Mexican immigrants pose an irredentist threat to the Southwest is sheer fantasy -- but we are threatened by jihadi terrorists, who could potentially filter in across our southern border. If counter-terrorism were the good-faith motivation for our tight border controls, the case for US citizens to cooperate with them would be strong.


But a counter-terror borders policy would look totally different from what we now have. For a start, we would probably permit the unrestricted entry of passport-carrying nationals of Mexico, which is not a terrorist source, and then cooperate with the Mexican government to prevent fraud, and thus prevent a flood of job-seeking migrants from camouflaging terrorist infiltrators. At present, there is not even a pretense that counter-terror is the major motivation for our border controls. The main challenge for applicants for US visas is to prove, not that they have no ties to terror, but that they don't intend to stay and work.


The argument that we need to defend our borders is perfectly valid, especially after 9/11. It just isn't a defense of anything like the regime of border controls that currently exists.


A conundrum for paternalists


A critique of immigration from the political left was recently published in the Denver Post by Paul Krugman. Krugman calls himself "instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration," but he thinks that "we'll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants," because he is concerned about the effect of immigration on the social safety net:


"[M]odern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should - and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.


"Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they're here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more."


Krugman's argument amounts to a paternalist case for border controls: he doesn't want to let in immigrants whom we'll be unable, or unwilling, to treat "humanely" by "providing [them] with essential health care, education for their children, and more," even if they still want to come without those guarantees. This restriction is in the interests neither of current citizens, nor of potential migrants, but only of Krugman, and others who feel a psychological need to live in a welfare state.


There are many hundreds of millions of people in the world who lack "essential health care, education for their children, and more." Does "basic decency," in Krugman's opinion, require that we provide for them, too? Presumably not, but then why do we suddenly acquire this obligation "once they're here?" We can't provide a social safety net for the whole world. We may be able to provide one for everyone physically located in the US, but only by restricting who gets in, and why should we do that?


The reaction of a leftist like Krugman to immigration represents a change in, or possibly an unmasking of, the motivation behind the welfare state. A generous view of the welfare state is that it is meant to serve the ends of mercy -- a desire to alleviate the suffering of others -- and/or social justice -- a belief that poverty is (in part) a result of misfortune or exploitation, and therefore that we make life fairer if we tax the well-off to help the poor. But there is nothing just about guaranteeing a decent life to all who live north of the Rio Grande by closing the door of opportunity to those born further south. Nor is there anything merciful about denying a destitute Mexican the chance, however uncertain, of improving his lot in the United States. Krugman entitles his article "We've got a moral duty," but in fact he has detached the welfare state from its notional moral content, and the "basic decency" he mentions is really a form of squeamishness: We know there is poverty in the world, we can't alleviate it; we just don't want to see it here.


This is a cowardly point of view, but Krugman is free to cast his vote for legislators who will pass laws designed to keep poor people abroad where Krugman doesn't have to see them. Krugman has not, however, made the case that any aspiring Mexican or liberal-minded American citizen should obey such laws.


Civil disobedience


Many actions prohibited by law -- murder, robbery, perjury in court -- are also morally wrong. Other actions -- most private lies, adultery, skipping church (according to some people) -- are immoral, but not prohibited by law. A third class of actions is prohibited by law but is not morally wrong, and these are problematic.


When policy and conscience clash, the stage is set for what Henry David Thoreau, in his classic 1849 essay, called "Civil Disobedience." Thoreau's premise is the primacy of the individual conscience against democratic majoritarianism.


"[A] government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then?... It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right."


Based on this premise, Thoreau argues that the right response to an unjust law is deliberately to break it, and then take the consequences:


"Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?... If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I saw, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine..."


Thoreau seems to have a lot of disciples lately. An estimated 15 to 20 million people are breaking the law, residing in the United States without legal permission. Millions more are hiring them, leasing them accommodations, and otherwise doing business with them and aiding them. So far, though, this lawbreaking generally does not qualify as civil disobedience in Thoreau's sense, because most illegal immigrants and their employers would rather deceive the state to avoid punishment, than defy the law openly and go to prison as living testimonies against injustice. But that is why the recent pro-immigration demonstrations are so interesting: defiance of immigration laws is becoming more self-conscious, more public, more proud. Illegal immigration may be evolving from a black-economy phenomenon into true mass civil disobedience.


Victor Davis Hanson, among others, predicts that the demonstrations are likely to provoke a backlash. Okay, but what are the backlashers going to do about it? Civil disobedience challenges the powers that be to decide how much violence they are willing to do in defense of (allegedly) unjust laws.


Thoreau wrote that "a minority is powerless when it conforms to the majority... but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight... if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men... ay, if one HONEST man... were actually to be locked up in the county jail [for anti-slavery civil disobedience], it would be the end of slavery in America." Um, not quite: Thoreau proved himself wrong by going to jail for not paying his taxes, without ending slavery.


But Thoreau is right that civil disobedience can vastly empower a minority that is willing to take risks and make sacrifices for a just cause, in the context of a liberal state which is not willing to commit atrocities against non-violent people. Mahatma Gandhi led a successful movement for Indian independence by means of satyagraha, an Indian version of civil disobedience. He succeeded because the British were not willing to kill on a large scale to maintain their rule of India, and because Gandhi and others in his movement were too brave to be diverted from their purpose by lesser punishments, like imprisonment.


It's a safe bet that the American people would not countenance the massive coercion and violence -- the Berlin Wall at the border, the long trains full of deportees, the raids of peaceful suburbs, the tearing apart of families, the repression of peaceful protesters, the jeers of "ethnic cleansing" from around the world -- that would be necessary to block or reverse the natural process by which migrants are drawn from poor, low-opportunity countries to the thriving economy of the United States. The question, then, is whether illegal immigrants and their sympathizers have the courage and conviction to organize civil disobedience until they force lasting change.


The right to migrate


I, for one, hope they do. And I hope they bring about a world in which the right to migrate is accepted as an essential pillar of freedom. That's the long-run vision. How to get there is harder. But we can afford to let in anyone who is not a threat to national security, if we manage the economic impact of immigration so as to ease the way.


Low-skilled workers in the US today enjoy higher wages because border controls reduce the competition. Lift the border controls, and wages would fall. From one point of view, that's fine, because US-born low-skilled workers earn a lot more than (most) low-skilled foreign workers earn abroad. Why not narrow the gap? On the other hand, low-skilled workers are used to, and expect, a relatively high (by worldwide or historical standards) level of disposable income. A principle of good policy is to avoid causing unpleasant surprises, when possible.


So if immigration redistributes wage income from (some) US workers to newcomers, why not offset this by using the built-in redistributive effects of our tax-and-transfer system?


Every worker in the United States today pays a payroll tax to pay unsustainable hand-outs to the generation born in the 1930s or earlier. There's nothing fair about this, but we're used to it, and we lump it together with the general obligation to pay taxes. And 12.4% is a burden, but it won't ruin your life, the way being deported from or barred entry to a country might. So, as a start, we can create a guest worker program, available to all non-terrorists, and require participants to pay their 12.4% payroll tax, while barring them from collecting benefits in the future. This would be fairly easy to arrange, and it would help to shore up the finances of the Social Security system, making the retirements of working-class Americans more secure. (To avoid causing unpleasant surprises to anyone, these policy changes would not affect current legal immigrants.)


A more direct way to compensate the US-born working poor for the effect of immigration on wages is through the Earned Income Tax Credit, a negative tax on labor income established in 1975 and rapidly expanded in the 1990s. Currently, most Green Card-holding immigrants are eligible for the EITC. If we allowed in guest workers while not making them eligible for the EITC, this would allow US-born low-skilled workers to be competitive with guest workers in the labor market, while still enjoying a higher standard of living. And more prosperous guest workers' income taxes would help to finance the EITC.


Guest-worker programs are appealing, in part, as a market-friendly form of foreign aid. Instead of brain-draining poor countries, the theory goes, guest workers will enrich their home countries by bringing back savings and skills. But once they're in America, guest workers tend to want to stay. Solution: give them a monetary incentive to return, by creating a mandatory guest-worker savings account (say, 20% of all earned income), which they can withdraw only when they get home. Or if they want to stay, they have to accumulate a certain amount (say, $50,000) in their savings accounts, after which they can apply for citizenship, but in that case, they forfeit the money.


Every year, the federal government would split the proceeds from these forfeited savings accounts 300 million ways, and send everybody a check, as a tangible reminder of the benefits of immigration. (It's not a lot. If 1.5 million guest workers became citizens, we'd each get $250. A poor family of four would get $1,000 -- no fortune, but not pocket change either.)


Finally, if we're still reluctant to see desperate people on our streets, we can require guest workers to pre-imburse the US government for the cost of deporting them. After that, if they end up in desperate need, they have a right to be sent home by the US government, on demand. If they return home on their own, they can get this money back.


The details are immaterial: the point is that open borders can benefit all Americans . I'm all in favor of bribing the median voter during a transition period, though I would hope that these policies would be phased out over time. Regardless of how they're treated by our tax-and-transfer system once they arrive, potential migrants are always better off having the option of coming, than not having it. And it is less unjust to let in guest workers and tax them, than to deny millions of people the chance to come to the greatest country in history, just because of the accident of where they were born. In the meantime, if illegal immigrants are ready to resort to protests and civil disobedience to get the American people to do the right thing, more power to them.  "


Nathan Smith is a writer living in Washington, D.C. You can e-mail him here. Read more of his ideas about immigration here, here and here.  "

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