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.

  • Joe M

    Tim. On balance, I believe that I agree with you on this issue. But, I’m playing devil’s advocate on the crime influence point.

    I didn’t scrutinize the studies you posted very closely. But, at a glance, they appear to be “control” based models. It seems that control-based models are a way for people to inject subjectivity and reach any conclusion they want to under the guise of a scientific study. “Controlling” the crimes of illegal immigrants by explaining percentages of them as due to low education, poverty or some other common control factor really just muddies the data to the point that any outcome can be chosen based on selected model criteria.

    There is a lot of un-muddied data that contradicts these studies and does suggest that illegal immigrant crime is a problem. For example, in border areas, the data shows that illegal immigrants commit a disproportionate amount of the violent crimes that occur there. That the US population would theoretically commit the same crimes at the same rate IF they were in a matching control group is little consolation for the people who are victims of the non-theoretical crimes.

    I think that crime is a valid concern and needs to be addressed. One possible counter-argument is that if more immigration were legal we would have better mechanisms to control crime (fingerprinting, id cards, vehicle registration, etc.).

  • Chris


    You argue that “having a burdensome route to legal immigration will likely encourage the type of illegal immigrants that we don’t want (i.e., risktakers, people with nothing to lose, etc.)” and that “our immigration laws probably encourage the (illegal) immigration of more undesirable folks than if the laws were more lenient.”

    Frankly, it’s hard to discern a plausible mechanism that could result in that outcome. What strict laws – assuming that the US has them – may plausibly do is disproportionately discourage the “desirable folks”, but it will not encourage migration (whether in the form of lawful immigration or illegal migration) from the “undesirable folks”. But while stricter laws might increase the percentage of the illegal migrant pool made of “undesirable folks” (by reason of their being less susceptible to legal deterrence), it will not increase the absolute numbers of “undesirable folks” migrating and will probably decrease them – just possibly not as much as it will decrease the numbers of “desirable folks”. Should the host country be more concerned about the absolute numbers of “undesirable folks” or, as you seem to imply, by their relative numbers?

    Moreover, “strict” and “burdensome” are relative; one might argue that the fact that the U.S. welcomes by a wide margin the largest number of legal immigrants (including the largest number of asylees) of any host country in the world suggests that the US immigration regime is not unduly burdensome.

    You question whether our current immigration laws are “valid or just” (and later “wise or just”, which is different). All I can say is that someone who wants to venture that US immigration laws are not merely unwise, or less than perfectly just (as nearly any human law is), but so thoroughly contrary to eternal law that they are actually *invalid* (such that we or anyone else would be dispensed from our prima facie moral duty to obey them) has their work cut out for them.

    Tim, you also argue “We should spend more time and effort encouraging the adoption of proper institutions in foreign countries than in blocking emigrants.” Taking that proposition as true, who says we don’t already adhere to it? In the 2013 budget, the US administration asked for less than $18 billion *combined* for Customs and Border Protection and for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – and we must bear in mind that those funds cover a lot of activities other than “blocking emigrants”. At least if money has any correlation to “time and effort”, the amount of time and effort we spend as a society “encouraging the adoption of proper institutions in foreign countries”, through our government not to mention through many private and charitable initiatives, DWARFS the time and effort we spend “blocking emigrants”.

    Finally, you mention that belief in the integrity of the law seems less at risk from illegal migrants than it does from legalized abortion. I’m not sure if that comparison can be made, or if it is relevant here, because it’s a matter of “apples and oranges”. The integrity of the law is threatened in very different ways, on the one hand, by a prohibition that is frequently disobeyed and, on the other hand, by an unjust license. (Both tend to bring the civil law into disrepute, to be sure.)

    At any rate, I’m not sure anyone who reads this blog would challenge the notion that legalized abortion is a greater crisis for the civil law than is the immigration regime. The pertinent question is, if we accept that proposition as true, does it actually yield any insight into whether and/or how the immigration laws should be changed?

  • Ann

    “Are our current immigration laws wise or just?” Ah, so you are saying that all of our immigration laws are unjust? How so? Are you saying that a country does not have a right to control who comes in and stays? Immigration is morally neutral and a country does have the right to restrict it. Can you show me in the CCC where the Church says otherwise. Abortion is always immoral. Wow, that’s quite the pretzel you twisted to make that argument. No, I do not have show a moral reason to have immigration limits/laws. It is a matter of sovereignty for any country. A county has the right to make such laws. They should be just. You need show in what ways the immigration laws of the US are unjust or immoral. So far all you have done is show why you think they are unwise (we would get better immigrants is there were few or no restrictions).

    “People should have the freedom to escape poverty and corruption, and morally we should be willing to help people doing just that. ” Well, we have done just that for a long time. “Give me your tired poor…..” and all that. It is relatively recent that we have had the huge influx of illegals. I believe the influx of illegals is not the result of our immigration laws or limits but rather the economic and political conditions in the home country. We have spent the last 11 years trying to fix conditions in a home country with disastrous results. We cannot fix the world and I think an argument can be made that it is immoral for the USA to go about the world “fixing” things.
    “most of whom won’t break any other law besides the one saying they can’t come here.” And tax fraud, id fraud, insurance fraud, …..yeah only those.

  • Teep

    Tim, this is a good summary. I’m of the sort that doesn’t need the statistics, since I don’t think that mere induction followed by texas-sharpshooting leads to ‘evidence.’ However, with it included or without it, your argument makes sense. I have often thought that what set the U.S. apart and got it rolling through the Guilded Age and the onset of world politics in the first half of the 20th century is that its gates were open. Their would not be much of a Catholic influence on culture in this country at all if it weren’t for the easy immigration policies of the period, in spite of the rabid anti-immigrant movements of the period. Granted, workers were taken advantage of when they got here, but the pay off within a generation or two was enormous . . . a culture of civic responsibility and ethos of the common good that has been missing for quite some time. (And not the top-down socialist variety of it, for the most part, if one overlooks the New Deal. Ok, I’m asking for a lot) In any event, I don’t understand the new breed of anti-immigrationists either. It appears to be a kind of fundamentalism about the events of the not so distant past in our country’s history projected into our present day. A “let’s forget the value of those cheap labor Irish, Italians, Germans, etc.,” if you will.

  • Elliott

    * Last sentence should read “changing the way our thought leaders think”

  • Elliott

    I would support a great deal more legal immigration if our native-born American intellectual establishment weren’t decidedly anti-American and bent on instilling these anti-American values on everyone who shows up at our door. “Hello! Welcome to the land of the oppressive and home of the patriarchal. We’ve been single-handedly responsible for your country’s lack of development for the past 100 years. Therefore, feel free to vote yourselves as much of our money as you would like and to join us in undermining the institutions that enabled our ascendancy. It’s ironic that in another hundred years, America will be just as poor, violent, and corrupt as the place from which you came!” Again, this is an argument for fixing our country’s loony leftist elite and not for restricting immigration, but seeing as changing the way our “thought leaders” will take much longer than changing a couple of laws, I believe we should make sure we’ve solved the first problem before attempting the latter.



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