Immigration and the Rule of Law

Joe Citizen thinks to himself: “I'm fine with immigrants, as long as they come here under the established legal procedures, not illegally and under cover of darkness.  The rule of law is important.”

And Joe Citizen is right. The rule of law is important. Laws shouldn't be openly flouted. If they are, it means that something's gone badly wrong. So much for the disease, which everyone can see.  Now here's my prescription, which I know won't be easy to take.

Obeying the written law is important. Other things, however, are also important.

Being humane is important. We shouldn't become East Berlin and go shooting people – ours or theirs – merely in the name of getting control.

The privacy of one's home is important, and so is the freedom to do business. We should do all we can to minimize invasive raids on private homes and businesses, raids that breed racial animosity and chill free enterprise. Control is important, but so is freedom.

Good relations with our neighbors are likewise important. We shouldn't allow fear and suspicion to poison our relations with Latin America, especially given the enormous economic growth there in recent years and the great potential that the region has finally begun to realize.  In our rapidly globalizing world, we should want these countries as friends and neighbors like never before.  It would be a cruel irony if, at the moment that the region finally began to turn around, we also turned our backs on it.

Yes, the rule of law is important.  But the rule of law doesn't mean merely following the letter of whatever happens to be found in the law books.  Respect for the rule of law is not a purely mechanical process.  It's also a constant invitation to ponder what's really important, and to put those things in our law books.

As the eminent economist and political theorist F. A. Hayek has written, “if a law gave the government unlimited power to act as it pleased, all its actions would be legal, but it would certainly not be under the rule of law.  The rule of law… requires that all laws conform to certain principles.”

If Hayek is right – and I think he is – then sometimes, the rule of law may conflict with the statutes on the books.  In those cases, doing right doesn't mean an ever-harsher enforcement of the statutes.  It means amending them to better reflect the values that bring us to write laws in the first place.

Why do we have laws?  Our laws are a framework in which we can reliably do business, enjoy the benefits of civil society, and rest securely in our own homes and with our families.  The free and open movement of goods and people is a part, rightly understood, of the rule of law.  Peaceful relations with peaceful neighbors?  Also the rule of law.  Being humane?  It's the very foundation of the rule of law.

The problem is not with our borders, which are a geographic marvel. Our borders need no fences. They are peaceful, unarmed, and undisputed. Conveniently, they put us right next to our largest and third-largest trading partners – a situation many countries would envy.  (India's largest trading partners are China, with which it has chilly relations, and the United States, which sits pretty much at the other side of the globe. They should be so lucky!)

Nor is the problem with the immigrants themselves.  If we were perfectly frank about it – which, thanks to our current law, few can be – we would have to admit that large sections of the American economy would simply collapse without illegal immigrants.  Very few come here for our lavish social welfare system – for that, they would do better in Canada, or France. Most people come to the United States to work very hard, at disagreeable jobs, for low pay. Exactly as immigrants of all races and backgrounds have always done.

Deporting illegal immigrants en masse would cause many American businesses to fail. It would leave American produce to rot in the fields. And in the process, it would throw many now-employed Americans out of work.

The harm done by such a move would vastly outweigh the share of “our” jobs that we might recoup for “our” people.  On the whole, immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America don't take our jobs – they share our economy, and with us, they help it grow.

No one likes to admit it, but our economy today depends in part on the benign neglect of some outdated, ill-considered immigration laws. The time has long passed when we could do without hard-working Latino immigrants, who now live here as everything from field hands to students at Harvard. It's time to change our laws – out of respect for the rule of law – and be more welcoming to immigrants here under a legal regime that doesn't force us to choose between our liberties and the validity of our statutes.

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