Immigration and the Law


Forgive me for venturing again into the immigration debate, but it seems (judging by combox discussions) that I haven’t made my point clearly enough in my past two outings. I tried pointing out that

  1. immigration (even unskilled) is not a drag on the overall economy,
  2. if we accept the debatable premise that immigrants are a drag on the welfare system, then we should fix the welfare system instead of building a wall,
  3. belief in the integrity of the law seems less at risk from illegal immigrants than it does from, say, legalized abortion,
  4. immigration has not been shown to be (statistically) significantly related to crime rates,
  5. having a burdensome route to legal immigration will likely encourage the types of illegal immigrants that we don’t want (i.e., risktakers, people with nothing to lose, etc.), and
  6. we should spend more time and effort encouraging the adoption of proper institutions in foreign countries than in blocking emigrants from these foreign countries fleeing corruption.

But, try as I might, people still seem stuck on the “I like legal immigration, but not illegal immigration” idea. Implicit in this argument is the acceptance of current immigration law as valid or just. My point in writing all of these articles is not to provide an apology for people breaking the law to come here and refuse to assimilate. My point was to encourage asking the question “Are our current immigration laws wise or just?”

law books on a shelf by umjanedoan

law books on a shelf by umjanedoan

Here’s yet another hypothetical: we’ve all seen cute little kids selling lemonade; we never think they are shady characters who should be forcibly removed from society. But what if we made selling lemonade illegal? Who would sell it? The law won’t reduce demand but it will push up prices with the added risk, thereby attracting profiteers who a) hold the law in contempt, b) probably aren’t very nice people, and c) are the types of people we would try to forcibly remove from society. Our strict immigration laws probably encourage the (illegal) immigration of more undesirable folks than if the laws were more lenient. Sure, more lenient laws would mean more immigrants, but it would mean more nicer immigrants and more immigrants who respect the law.

What if it were illegal for anyone in the U.S. to move to Texas? Would immigration to Texas cease? No. Would it affect which immigrants ended up in Texas? Undoubtedly. Do you think there would be a greater or smaller amount of nice immigrant families moving to Texas? A greater or smaller amount of dangerous people with nothing left to lose?

I find it odd to juxtapose the “immigrants are okay if they follow the law” logic with the pro-life position. The point that pro-life people (need to) make is that the legality of abortion does not provide it moral cover. We aren’t content that people just reduce their use of legal abortions; we would not consider it just to keep abortion legal even if we got the number of abortions to decrease significantly. We realize that the law of legal abortion itself needs to be changed. Can you imagine a Catholic saying “I’m all for legal abortions; I’m just against illegal abortions”? No, we know that abortion is objectively evil; the law impacts abortion by making it more or less prevalent.

Similarly (but of course not to the same degree), forcibly keeping immigrants out is, I would argue, (a lesser) evil. People should have the freedom to escape poverty and corruption, and morally we should be willing to help people doing just that. Sure, some bad apples will come in, but God creates all of us even knowing we will sin, some gravely and with final impenitence. The law impacts immigration by affecting who chooses to come.

Even though Jesus said “those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do,” the “get tough on immigrants” crowd seems to only want those who are well to enter our borders. If you are not convinced by the lengthy academic literature showing no significant connection between immigration and crime rates (hint: at least read the abstracts!) then you need to provide a moral reason for keeping immigrants out, most of whom won’t break any other law besides the one saying they can’t come here.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Tim Shaughnessy is a cradle Catholic living in Shreveport, Louisiana with undergraduate degrees in economics and political science from Kalamazoo College, and a Master’s and Ph.D. in economics from Florida State University. He teaches economics at the undergraduate and graduate level, and is a faculty advisor for the campus Catholic student organization. He has worked at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and was the first managing editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality while an undergraduate. He also worked for Representative Harold Voorhees in the Michigan state legislature. He serves the parish RCIA program as a sponsor and lecturer, and is active in parish and diocesan pro-life activities.

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