What the Immigration Bill Overlooks
by Sheldon Richman
In passing the monstrosity known as immigration “reform,” the Senate overlooked a few things of importance. This is unsurprising. A bill on immigration that is backed by leading Republicans and Democrats, big business, and government-co-opted unions is bound to have missed some things.
The bill, whose fate in the House is uncertain, would appropriate $40 billion over the next decade to “secure the border.” This would entail hiring 20,000 more border patrol agents and building 700 more miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. The spending would include $4.5 billion on technology for surveillance. As the Washington Post reported, “The border security plan … includes unusual language mandating the purchase of specific models of helicopters and radar equipment for deployment along the U.S.-Mexican border, providing a potential windfall worth tens of millions of dollars to top defense contractors.”
The bill would also set up a procedure under which the 11 million human beings who are in the United States without government permission could become citizens in 13 years. To come “out of the shadows,” so-called illegal immigrants would have to pay fines and taxes. The New York Times notes that the “tough border security provisions … must be in place before the immigrants can gain legal status.”
In conventional terms, the bill seems fairly complete. So what does it overlook? Several things:
First, by nature all individuals — not just Americans — have rights. Specifically, they have a natural right to engage in any peaceful activity, that is, any conduct that does not aggress against other people. Among those rights, therefore, is the right to travel and settle anywhere, so long as no one else’s rights are violated. Considering that plenty of Americans would eagerly rent apartments to and hire, say, Mexicans, migration is included among the freedoms all people possess.
Second, and closely related, an ancient and honorable principle holds that an unjust law is no law at all (lex iniusta non est lex). The idea is that no one should be compelled to do what is unjust or be prevented from doing what justice requires or allows — such as freely moving about. Conservatives and progressives alike are vexed that the 11 million U.S. residents without papers violated the law to get here. How dare they! But according to the ancient principle, what they violated was a not a law but a mere legislative decree, which conflicts with the natural law and hence is contrary to justice and freedom. It is an established maxim that no one is obligated to obey an unjust law. Since that’s the case, we should not be talking about amnesty for residents without papers; amnesty implies wrongdoing, and these human beings did nothing wrong. They should be left free to go about their lives. Incidentally, there also should be no amnesty for the government officials who have harassed residents without papers rather than leaving them in peace. “I was following orders” is no excuse.
Third, the free-enterprise system, which conservatives claim to support and pretend that we have, necessarily includes the freedom of business owners to hire whoever is willing to work for them. It is the height of hypocrisy for conservatives to call for harsh penalties on businesspeople who hire “illegal workers.” When it’s a choice between free enterprise and border control, most conservatives choose border control — and that speaks volumes. The flip side, of course, is that any individual should be free to accept a job offer from any business owner. The government — and all those who want a border lined with armed agents and barbed wire-adorned walls — should butt out.
Finally, if we mean what we say when we express sympathy for the world’s poor, we cannot in good conscience maintain barriers to free immigration. The foreign-born are people too, as deserving of a shot at the good life as any American. When individuals move from capital-poor to capital-rich societies, their productivity increases, enabling them to better provide for themselves and their families. (They also present new opportunities for exchange to the indigenous population.)
It is cruel and hypocritical for America not to do the one thing that would best lift the fortunes of the world’s poor and oppressed.
Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).