Immigration: keep the illegals out!


My earlier post spawned a flurry of comments that all offered similar criticisms. To paraphrase the most common: “Legal immigration is fine; it’s illegal immigration that we need to stop. Illegal immigrants, by definition, break the law by coming here and continue to break the law while they live here. Everyone knows that crime increases the more illegals there are.” As often happens, what everyone knows isn’t necessarily true. In one of my own comments I pointed to three different academic articles that reveal no association between immigration and crime rates; here, here, and here. Since then, I dug a little more and found more research; here, here, here, and here. Oh, and here, here, here, and (if you’re not into academic papers) here. There; you can’t claim invincible ignorance now. A quote from here summarizes how clouded the debate can be:

America has a big problem with illegal immigration, but a big part of it stems from the word “illegal.” It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions. Used dispassionately and technically, there is nothing wrong with it. Used as an irreducible modifier for a large and largely decent group of people, it is badly damaging. And as a code word for racial and ethnic hatred, it is detestable.

Nogales border fence By bunky's pickle

Nogales border fence By bunky’s pickle

I couldn’t help but mentally draw the connection between the “immigrants are criminals” idea and Prohibition. If our borders were more open, i.e., if it were less costly for people to move here, it would attract more “normal” types of immigrants. As it is, though, when our border is militarized, when getting into the U.S. is very costly and dangerous, then the types of people who will be attracted to entering will pretty much be the opposite of the people we want: people with no good options at home who are willing to engage in dangerous, risky behavior to come here. When we outlawed alcohol, violent criminals got us our alcohol; now that alcohol is legal, the providers of alcohol certainly are a more respectable group. Is it possible that our “get tough” political motivation on immigration policy, that illegals are criminals, is self-fulfilling in the sense that those are the ones who most try to come here given how difficult it is to come here legally? On the relationship between immigration and the drug war, see good commentary here.

“Illegals could be terrorists.” True, as could any native. But the statistical probability that a given immigrant, even an illegal one, will commit a terrorist act is extremely small. Do we deny everyone the American dream (or at least deny them from fleeing their own domestic nightmare) because of this extremely small probability? Do we shun our poor neighbors over so tiny a risk?

“They take our jerbs!” Commenter Paul says “The unskilled labor influx is actually a detraction for the local economy. An unskilled laborer who is illiterate or only semi-educated due to their former homeland is more likely to be hired even for entry-level positions like working at McDonald’s or pushing carts at Publix. The problem with this is that you have educated kids graduating from high school that can’t get a job because they’ve been filled with low skilled immigrants who have very little chance of upward mobility.”

I found this an odd argument for a couple of reasons. First, it would seem to be a good thing that we have educated our high schoolers sufficiently that they don’t have to work at McDonald’s or push carts at Publix. The preferable alternative, then, is to have our educated high schoolers performing jobs for which they are overqualified? Isn’t that the lament frequently offered about college education? Second, the economist in me, after hearing that high schoolers are having trouble finding work, again feels obligated to point out that lowering the minimum wage would do much to increase employment in this group.

As is obvious, I only present principles here; I am not adept (or long-suffering) enough to plow through actual legislation that is being considered, like Carson is. Certainly legislation can be written well or poorly; a more strict immigration policy that is written well and actually prevents criminals from coming in but allows normal, hardworking people to do so would be preferable to a poorly written policy that pushed open borders but did nothing to address the welfare handouts that immigrants supposedly seek (though in the video I posted previously, the point was made that illegals often don’t qualify for such things). Further, U.S. legislation can do next to nothing to change what largely drives most immigration: poor institutional quality in developing countries. When countries do not respect the rule of law, private property rights, the benefits of free trade, the importance of constitutionally limited government, etc., then of course people will want to leave. Do we turn them away at our border because their government rulers are kleptocrats? Is that the immigrant’s fault?

As is also obvious, I nor anyone else blogging for CV claim to speak officially for the Church. We are Catholics in good standing approaching timely issues through the mind of the Church but often providing various viewpoints on issues of prudence. Catholics in good conscience can arguably be on both sides of the immigration debate; my intention here and earlier is simply to highlight a viewpoint that is well-established amongst economists, seems to be favored amongst the U.S. Bishops, but is often ridiculed amongst conservatives.

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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