Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Systemic Thinking About Illegal Immigration

The Arizona law that seeks to enforce established U.S. law on immigration through the agency of the state law enforcement has put the spotlight on illegal immigration again. Solving this problem is in the best interests of Republicans, because it will continue to be used by the Democrats in their attempts to make the party look racist, which it is not.

The issue requires a realistic view of the incentives driving the current problem. For the businesses that employ the illegals, such as restaurants, poultry and meat packing, landscapers, and janitorial firms, the illegal immigrants are a source of cheaper labor. To say that native Americans are not willing to do these jobs is not technically correct; they are unwilling to do these jobs at the wages on offer from these businesses. Often, these businesses are able to employ the illegal immigrant at below the prevailing minimum wage, either directly or through not paying social security and withholding taxes for the worker. So there is a large incentive on the part of businesses to provide a magnet for people to cross the border illegally or overstay a visa, the other main source of illegal immigration.

For the workers, even the reduced wages on offer are a significant improvement over the wages available in Mexico or other third world nations. Their desperation for income drives them to the very dangerous undertaking of crossing into the United States. Because they are outside of the law, they also become prey for the unscrupulous. For the "coyotes" that guide them across the border and often abuse the illegals, they provide a steady income.

The border between the U.S. and Mexico is the primary entry point for this illegal immigration. The length of the border makes it very expensive to adequately patrol and prevent the immigration. Further, while one might infer that a person in the country illegally, i.e. without authorization, has committed the crime of "improper entry by an alien," that is not necessarily self evident. As a result, the actual violation is "illegal presence" and is not technically a crime. The civil sanction is deportation, not any criminal prosecution. This puts the Arizona law into a different light. Essentially, the police are being asked to perform a check for a civil violation while they going about enforcing Arizona's criminal code. One might view that as fairly benign or as overreach. For example, would we like the police to check the status of child support payments of everyone they arrest? One might argue this either way. Conversely, it puts the outcry against the law in a different context. What rights are being violated? However, as a libertarian, suspicious of state power, I have to ask what constitutes suspicion that an individual is an illegal alien and therefor subject to having to produce papers. Let's say I was jaywalking after going swimming at a community pool and have no identification on me and am detained. How do the police determine reasonable suspicion of my alien status? I think this is a tough one. I would have much preferred if the law had been limited to persons taken into custody, because then there is really no additional penalty for an immigration status check, they are already detained.

We find a situation with huge economic incentives driving behavior. Conservatives and libertarians often point out the folly of Obamacare and other government efforts by a similar analysis showing how stupid legislation drives behavior. The current example being the lack of enforceable penalties means that healthy people won't buy health insurance until they are sick, driving up insurance rates. With regards to illegal immigration, the only solution is to remove the economic incentives to cross the border illegally in search of work. This leaves these options:

1. A massive crackdown on employers who employ illegals to dry up the demand. This would involve massive increase in the policing and enforcement of existing law. We are already perhaps seeing a test run of this option in the San Diego prosecution of the French Gourmet restaurant. The federal DA is seeking forfeiture of the property of the restaurant as a means of leverage to settle the case. I personally have eaten there and had them provide food for catered events, so I am distressed. We see the heavy hand of the state and it makes me nervous.

2. A much more massive guest worker program that we currently have. If every worker who wanted to search for work in this country were allowed to enter the country after being fingerprinted, having a records check and being issued a green card; there would be no need for the trek across the Arizona desert. Further, such a program would probably require a sub-minimum wage to remove all the incentives to work illegally. Further, such a program would have to require workers to return to their country of origin when no longer working and prevent them from becoming citizens to be palatable. Such a program would be good for the economy, but would probably rouse organized labor to vehemently oppose it.

3. Vastly increase the budget to enforce the border with Mexico. I don't think this will solve the problem by itself, the economic incentives are too powerful. I know this is what most of my readers would like, but frankly, we should be realistic about how effective this will be. The East Germans couldn't stop the steady leakage of people out of that country even with a massive police apparatus and much less economic incentive. What are we going to do?

Ultimately some compromise among these three options will have to be made. As you may have guessed, I favor mostly option 2, because I believe that we are economically better off the more work that is performed in our own country. But we need to offer some solutions. Total intransigence just looks like nativism.


  1. Make it a mandatory jail sentance for hiring illegal workers. General Population required.

  2. 'Dawg,
    Seems like a big expansion of state power that could easily be abused to pick winners and losers. Sounds strange coming from a libertarian like you.