Are 'Illegal' Immigrants Illegal?

by Don Boudreaux on March 31, 2006

in Current Affairs, Immigration

One of the chief complaints that persons opposed to immigration today level against those immigrants now in the United States without permission of the United States government is that these immigrants are here illegally. “They broke the law; they’re criminals” – so the story goes. “Send them home and let them apply to come here legally.”

The phrase “illegal immigrant” is a boon to xenophobes. It permits them to mask their hostility to freedom of movement, to freedom of association, and to foreigners, behind high-sounding rhetoric about the rule of law.

I concede that many people today are in the United States without Uncle Sam’s formal permission. I disagree, however, that these people are ‘illegal’ or ‘criminal’ in any but the most formal and empty sense of the terms.

Law is not so much what legislatures declare it to be; law, instead, is the complex of norms and expectations that motivate most people in a community. In some states – including, I believe, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Mississippi – the legislative codes still prohibit sexual intercourse between unmarried persons. Suppose you’re a resident of one of these states and you’re called to jury duty. The case is State v. Jones, where the state government is prosecuting Ms. Jones (an adult) for having voluntary sex with her boyfriend (also an adult) in the privacy of their own home. Would you vote to convict Ms. Jones even if both Jones and her boyfriend admit that they are not married to one another but that they routinely have sex with each other in private?

Would you find it compelling if someone argued “Look, I personally have no problem with unmarried adults voluntarily having sex with each other.  But the law’s the law! If unmarried adults want to have sex, let them do it legally; let them first get married or move to a state that doesn’t criminalize fornication. Then they can screw each other all they want. But if the law says that sex between unmarried people is illegal, then if we let people get away with breaking this law openly, arrogantly, we risk undermining the rule of law in the United States.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere (and here), it’s a mistake to confuse legislative declarations with the law. In fact, despite what’s written in the statute books in some American states, it is legal everywhere in the U.S. for unmarried adults to have sex voluntarily with each other. The actual law is revealed by the practice.  Statutory language, in this case, obscures the law.

And so it is with so-called “illegal immigration.” Although not as universally accepted today throughout America as is consensual sex among unmarried adults, immigration without permission of government is widely enough accepted that we can conclude that it is lawful, despite what is written in the statute books.

Employers hire foreign workers without caring much whether these workers can document that they are in the U.S. with Uncle Sam’s permission. Consumers patronize commercial establishments without caring enough about the official status of these establishments’ workers to cause these consumers to seek out establishments that clearly document that they hire only ‘legal’ workers. And save for a relatively small handful of busybodies – such as the so-called “Minutemen” – we Americans in our private choices and actions do virtually nothing to hinder ‘illegal’ foreigners from living and working and playing in our midst.

A ‘law’ that is overwhelmingly ignored – a ‘law’ aimed not at protecting innocent people from the initiation of force or fraud by others but, rather, at protecting one group of people from the economic competition of another group of people – a ‘law’ that depends for its creation and enforcement upon both ideological and economic interest groups whipping up political passions – any ‘law’ with one or more of these characteristics is not really a law. At best such a ‘law’ is a government command that must be enforced without the active cooperation of the populace and, in many cases, against the revealed wishes of this populace.

Anyone in America peacefully going about his or her business is not illegal, regardless of whether or not this person has Uncle Sam’s permission to be here.

SATURDAY-MORNING UPDATE: New York Times columnist John Tierney quite eloquently makes much the same point in his column that appears in today’s edition.  Here’s his concluding paragraph:

Railing at them ['illegal' immigrants] for breaking the law is not going to make them go home or stop others from following them here. Immigrants will cross the border one way or another. The more of them we let in legally, the better off everyone will be. Whether you welcome more immigrants, as I do, or whether you’d rather see fewer, there’s no point in commanding the tide to ebb.

So true.

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Johnny March 31, 2006 at 5:06 pm

I wonder – do the people clamoring for an immigration crackdown consider themselves to be "illegal drivers" every time they exceed the speed limit?

Robert Cote March 31, 2006 at 5:45 pm

Someone in America peacefully going about his or her business is not illegal, regardless of whether or not this person has Uncle Sam's permission to be here.

So after the burglar invades you home and then procedes to rob you in a civil and respectful manner?… Fine. I trust you. Post your street address and proclaim that you not only won't lock your doors but that you refuse to persue charges.

Oh, and I pay usurious uninsured motorist carriers on my vehicles. It is ILLEGAL to drive in California without insurance. You shall now put your money where your mouth is and remit to me personally and for anyone who asks that fee.

Actually I'm not as mad as the paragraphs above appear. I'm just tired of the same old tired polemics that start with " opposed to immigration" and only then procede to illegal immigration. Hey, Ventura County is in the process of hiring 22 translators to facilitate their access to public services. Your generous offer to pay for those employees is most welcome.

Aaron Krowne March 31, 2006 at 5:49 pm

What kind of argument is this? It seems to have the form:

"bad laws exist, therefore illegal immigration isn't a big deal."

Clearly some laws are good. And clearly certain parties are benefitting from undocumented labor. And this is happening at my expense, as I'm not a patron of black market labor.

If illegal immigrants (or whatever you want to call them) can get a pass on taxes and other civic responsibilities, then I want out too.

After all, its just law, and some laws are really bad.

Don Boudreaux March 31, 2006 at 6:00 pm

Immigrants come here mostly to work. They contribute. Their contribution through the market is far more important than any contribution they do, or might, make by paying taxes.

Moreover, the form of my argument is not "bad laws exist, therefore illegal immigration isn't a big deal." My argument is "not everything declared illegal by statute is, in fact, illegal."

Ivan Kirigin March 31, 2006 at 6:07 pm


I've commented here about immigration before. I would agree with you that being against something because of the current set of laws is against it is a pretty bad reason.

Similar arguments could be said for the current laws surrounding same-sex mairrage and smoking pot.

" Their contribution through the market is far more important than any contribution they do, or might, make by paying taxes."

I'd be interested in seeing number about this. I've seen studies that point out that the lower price of unskilled labor is less than the greater taxes from a higher propensity to use government services. More recently I've decided that this is mainly an issue with those services, and not so much the immigrants.

That said, it is a simple fact that the US can't accept everyone who wants to come to the US. Our institutions would probably suffer greatly, there would be extreme social stress, and I'm not interested in shanty-towns.

So there must be a strategy for immigration. I would prefer letting in many millions more immigrants, and an unlimited number of people with skills or traits that are rare and highly desireable. How about IQ greater than 125, or a masters degree+, or a great deal of money?

As for the 12 million people already here, the question is really one of the welfare of those that would attempt to cross the border if we grant those already here amnesty.

If we tighten the border and grant amnesty to those already here, wouldn't that mean than many more would-be immigrants die?

anomdebus March 31, 2006 at 6:10 pm

Unfortunately, I don't have much time for this reply..

Johnny, I think a more appropriate comparison would be driving without a license.

Don, it would seem to me in your last comment that you might mean something closer to "not everything declared illegal by statute is, in fact, immoral."

I think there is compelling interest in knowing who is in the country and there be some mechanism for revoking that license under certain circumstances. Even if you believed that appropriate punishment for a guest worker for certain crimes is deportation, how do you keep them from coming back if your plan is to let anyone who wants to work, just come and work?

save_the_rustbelt March 31, 2006 at 6:24 pm

So there are three billion poor people in the world, let's just open the borders and let the mayhem begin.

"…immigration without permission of government is widely enough accepted that we can conclude that it is lawful, despite what is written in the statute books."

I thoroughly doubt that, it is just that the vast majority of us are in no position to do anything about it, which is why we expect the government to be our surrogates.
99.99% of Americans are not engaged in tracking down bank robbers or murders, which hardly means we approve of those activities.

Bad argument.

Scott March 31, 2006 at 6:31 pm

As a Canadian, my understanding of U.S. history might not be the best, so please correct me if I'm wrong. But wasn't the U.S. built upon immigrants? I seem to remember hearing stories about millions of poor Europeans flooding in through Ellis Island. Who knows maybe the U.S. would be much greater if it were still confined to the original 13 colonies and a had a portion of it's current population.

Broocks Wilson March 31, 2006 at 6:55 pm

I think it is absurd that an institution like the Berlin wall that the United States so detested because it was against the fundamental rights of freedom of movement, and over the past 10 years more than twice as many people have died at the border than died at the Berlin wall.

save_the_rustbelt, in Texas, Arizona and California (and throughout the country, but not so much New Mexico, because then it'd be just like living in Mexico) we take advantage of these immigrants by employing them for their cheap labor. Throughout the country we take advantage of these immigrants by buying what they produce.

Mr. Kirgin, I've always been interested to see just what services they use? All I'm aware is of the use of US schools by their children and the use of hospitals. Beyond that, if these people were to pay taxes, I don't think that our revenue's would greatly alter, or that they would pay for the service's used, if there is a negative discrepancy between how we much we benefit and how much we do not. Beyond that I don't think that anyone with a 125+ IQ, a graduate degree or an extremely large amount of money tries to cross the border illegally, and I think almost all would be accepted into the United States under regular immigration restrictions.

Mario March 31, 2006 at 6:58 pm

Justifying breaking the law is wrong, in my view. Allowing only one NATION, namely, Mexico, to be predominant in the issue of immigration is also wrong. Are immigrants defined now as Mexicans? Other "immigrants" aren't granted the same privileges as Mexicans nationals. I am against illegal entry into the U.S. and have no need to compare it to driving, marriage or other irrelevant analogies. Immigration should be a legal process allocated to ALL races, not just one. People patronize hotels, restaurants and landscaping businesses because they don't have a choice and have no control over who works where and what their legal status is. I am appalled at the people who support intrusion as immigration and never even mention the fact that people from other races would also like to be allocated the same privileges that law-breaking people now take for granted.

KirkH March 31, 2006 at 7:19 pm

I know a guy who moved here barely knowing english, went to UCSD, invented an IC used in cell phones, sold his business for a dozen or so million dollars and let me drive his Ferrari. So I'm pro immigration too.

Minh-Duc March 31, 2006 at 9:14 pm

The analogy should be closer to free trade. An advocacy for free trade does not mean an advocacy for zero regulation free trade. We still want the government to inspect imported foods for safety reason. The same can be said of illegal immigrants. I am pro immigrantion and an immigrant myself. But I oppose letting people into the country without some minimal screening process. At least, I want to government to screen for people with criminal background.

Another issue is fairness. I have waited in a miserable refugee camp for two years to come to the US. Illegal immigration is cutting in line.

There are people out there who oppose illegal immigration because they are xenophobes. But labelling everyone who oppose illegal immigration as xenophobes is an oversimplication of the debate.

While I understand the economic importance of having immigrants. This is not how we want it. Beside, as our economy advance and become more technological, many of the jobs illegal immigrants are performing will disappear – replace with machines. We will have a large number of unskilled and unemployed persons within our border.

johnny bonk March 31, 2006 at 9:25 pm

Don – "Law is not so much what legislatures declare it to be; law is, instead, the complex of norms and expectations that motivate most people in a community"

…. how touching,
you can explain it to the next State Authorised User of Violence that calls at your house ( policeman / baliff etc), I am sure that the State Authorised person will understand and leave your property immediately.

In fact, the law is that which is enforced and one would hope that that which is enforced is
a: On the statute books.
b: Was put on the books by a legislature.
c: Does not change arbitrarily.
d: Has some connection to the norms and expectations of the community upon which it is enforced.

bbartlog March 31, 2006 at 9:54 pm

It's an interesting point, but since I oppose mass Mexican immigration (I'll leave off the 'illegal') because it's bad for America rather than out of misplaced enthusiasm for written law, I think I'll stick with my opinion. If it were currently legal for two or three million semirandomly chosen Mexicans to come here every year, I would argue that the number should be greatly reduced.

Tom March 31, 2006 at 10:57 pm

An open borders policy would be wonderful for Al queda! Once Al queda is here they can apply for jobs at United Airlines and Delta. I don't think freedom of movement for potential terrorist is a policy most Americans would support. Or how about 150 million Chineses coming here and voting for control of the US government and dictatorship. Don, would your tune changed if instead of low skilled illegals coming here there were 500 thousand economists pouring over the border every year?

Pedro Bento March 31, 2006 at 11:17 pm

Broocks; People with a graduate degree don't try to enter illegally, because they couldn't find a job without proper documentation. I would strongly disagree that anyone (except Canadian graduates or those with political connections) is able to legally enter the US (to work) without waiting for a very long time, unless they win the Green Card lottery. The legal process takes years, and more money than many potential immigrants can make in their home country. Many choose to come to Canada, wait three years to get citizenship, and then enter the US under NAFTA. It's a cheaper and often shorter process that way.

I'm starting to realize that many Americans don't seem to realize how difficult it is to enter the US legally. I'll be working there legally this summer, but only by exploiting a technicality in the VISA requirements.

TLB March 31, 2006 at 11:24 pm

A truly childish, ignorant post.

The great majority of the American public wants the laws enforced. Politicians refuse to do what they want because they're corrupt.

Politicians are able to get away with it for a variety of reasons, but things look to be changing.

Here's an example: 75% of the residents of a town might complain about a prostitution strip, but the strip keeps operating year after year desite their wishes because the cops are on the take.

As for the comments, a fun game would be to try to find all the logical fallacies in them.

Tom Kelly March 31, 2006 at 11:56 pm

Wake up ignorant racists!

Nothing will damage our economy and the world economy more than forcing millions of less than legal immigrants to give up their high productivity in the U.S. to go to idleness or low productivity jobs in their countries of origin!

Our standard of living is a function of world productivity. When aggregate productivity goes down, the aggregate standard of living goes down.

Forcing these immigrants out of their jobs could make the Great Depression look like the great vacation- especially in states like Texas and California which, if a go home law was effectively enforced, would lose 15-20% of their population!

Listening to a lot of talk radio these days, I feel like I'm living in Germany on the eve of the Holocaust. Suddenly the solution to all our problems is- "let's get rid of all those Mexicans".

But for the grace of God each of us could have been born on different soil. Why should freedom to pursue opportunities, especially in the land of the free, be limited to those whose accident of birth put them here?

Let's impose a reasonable fine on those who have broken the law to get here and let them get on with their productive lives. Then allow residence to anyone who can pass a background check and pay the entrance fee in the amount they have bid for a residence permit in regular and plentiful on line auctions of same. The deficit will shrink from the fees while the social security system is shored up by millions of younger workers.

The fact that people want to come here is an opportunity- not a problem.

Andrew April 1, 2006 at 12:07 am

Don, I agree with you in as much as you say, "The actual law is revealed by the practice." There is many a law on the books prohibiting any number of activities over which John Law refuses to lift a finger. It is only the laws that are enforced that are, in fact, "the Law". I find much of your argument to be specious and sophmoric, and I would expect beter from a man of your intellect. "It’s a mistake to confuse legislative declarations with the law," is it? What, pray tell, do we citizens elect our various legislators to do if not to make legislative declarations commonly known as laws? I suspect that your views stem from your Virginia citizenship, and that were you a Californian, as am I, you'd give much more heed to the "illegal" aspect of illegal immigration. Were it not for the $10 billion plus that we spend annually on services for illegal immigrants, California's structual deficit would largely disappear. Another solution though, would be to follow your logic and simply not enforce laws that call for the state to feed, house, educate and medicate unlawful non-citizens. I, and many people of my ilk, are all for immigration, and for a free labor market, however we would find it preferable to know who is coming into this country and whether or not they are prepared to pay enough in taxes to cover the cost of the services that they take adavtange of while here. In reality, the scofflaws of the world have nothing to fear as far as this issue goes, becuase the Feds are absolutly feckless in regards to stopping the mass importation of poverty to our shores.

bartman April 1, 2006 at 12:19 am

Pedro Bento:

Why do you think emigrating to Canada is easier or cheaper than emigrating to the US? At the very least, a potential applicant has to pay several thousand dollars in government fees as well as demonstrate that they have sufficient funds to live unsupported for half a year in Canada, which amounts to about $8-$10,000. I recently checked this info out for my Nepalese teaboy, who want to emigrate to Canada. Given his $150/month salary, he'll never even be able to afford to apply.

Secondly, you fail to understand the NAFTA process: the NAFTA visa (TN-1) is limited to a rather short list of professionals who come to work in the US temporarily. Contrary to what you think, Canadians do not have unlimited right of abode and employ in the US. Snowbirds are limited to 90-day stays as visitors.

Henri Hein April 1, 2006 at 12:49 am

Don, thanks for the post. The gist of it seems to parallel the difference between common law, developed through centuries of tradition, vs. civil law, passed down by legislatures.

There is also a jurisdictional clash going on: Some states such as California and Texas favor — in fact, needs — more immigration than the national government allows.

It is odd to see comments from people appearently accepting the self-proclaimed wisdom of politicians. Likewise, commenters on this blog usually display more economics insight. We know that minimum wage does not in fact raise wages; we know that free trade does not in fact reduce overall competiveness; could we not understand, or at least ponder the possibility, that immigration does not cause unemployment or crime?

Stephen Moore conducted a research comparing US cities with low immigration against US cities with high immigration:

"Compared with low-immigrant cities, high-immigrant cities had double the job creation rate, higher per capita incomes, lower poverty rates, and 20 percent less crime. "

"A landmark 1985 Urban Institute study on the impact of immigrants on California, which found that Los Angeles prospered in the 1970s in part because of large economic contributions by immigrants.(21) Even with a huge inflow of Mexican manufacturing workers, black employment in Los Angeles for teenagers and adults increased at faster rates than the national average for the decade of the 1970s and through the early 1980s. The study found that, despite the 220,000 new Mexican immigrant households that entered Los Angeles during the 1970s, unemployment rates in the city fell relative to the nationwide rate and per capita income rose faster over the decade"

"the seventeen cities with the most immigrants in 1990 had a 1991 crime rate of 8.7 per 1,000 population. The cities with the fewest immigrants had a crime rate 17 percent higher, or 10.5 per 1,000 persons"

"Low-crime cities had roughly twice as large an immigrant presence as the high-crime cities in both 1980 and 1990"

Henri Hein April 1, 2006 at 12:54 am

"I am sure that the State Authorised person will understand and leave your property immediately"

You are confusing judicial powers with executive powers. If you sit on a jury, you are absolutely empowered to ignore laws you find unjust.

Henri Hein April 1, 2006 at 12:57 am

"Once Al queda is here they can apply for jobs at United Airlines and Delta"

They already can. It's not clear what your point is. The current immigration-hostile policy is not doing an admirable job keeping the terrorists out.

Henri Hein April 1, 2006 at 1:00 am

"That said, it is a simple fact that the US can't accept everyone who wants to come to the US. "

It may or may not be a fact, but there's nothing simple about it.

"Our institutions would probably suffer greatly, there would be extreme social stress, and I'm not interested in shanty-towns"

Given that open immigration has generally been a boon to economic conditions in the past, what do you use to conclude shanty-towns would be the result in the future?

Henri Hein April 1, 2006 at 1:07 am

"99.99% of Americans are not engaged in tracking down bank robbers or murders"

Perhaps, but your analogy is false. Don did not ask anybody to track down immigrants if they don't approve of them. He pointed out that we are actively doing business with them.

As somebody who occassionally does business with illegal immigrants, and whose situation would have been worse without them, I can pay first-hand witness to Don's statement. I would never knowingly do business with a bank robber or murderer.

Morgan April 1, 2006 at 1:09 am

Sorry, but if the notion you're promoting is that law is revealed through its application, and you're appealing to jury nullification as the way we see how the law is applied, you'll have to show me that juries routinely and overwhelmingly decide that people who have entered the country illegaly are not guilty of any crime worthy of deportation.

I assert the right for the government of the United States to know who is in this country, to exclude known criminals, and to limit the rate at which people enter the country to something approximating the rate at which the economy can absorb them into the workforce.

I don't deny that immigration is a net economic boon, especially in the long run. I would like to see legal immigration channels become much wider, deeper, and easier to navigate than they are now. I have no problem with allowing immigrants to find work without wage restrictions, though I think people born in the country should also have that right.

Nevertheless, I'm clearly nothing but a racist xenophobe, and probably a prudish jobs-protecting busybody as well.

Broocks Wilson April 1, 2006 at 2:03 am

First of all there is a difference in what I said and what you said. I did not say that it isn't hard to get a work visa to the United States legally, it's extremely hard. However, if one has the qualifications that were mentioned, than enetering the United States is a much easier process.

Even beyond that, I agree that legal immigration should be a much easier process. However, that seems politically impossible given the issue at stake. The post than seems much more applicable, that since the type of immigration that one might conceive of is not a political possibility, but that this type of immigration is neccesary to our economic growth, than it seems the way in which the law is being viewed is one in which we do not view the feeling that illegal immigration is illegal.

Also, it would be nice if those who are saying that the services that immigrants use take up more than what they put into the economy could please evidence that. I am not familiar with California law, but perhaps there are certain laws in California which neccesitate that. In Texas, people are not guaranteed housing, especially without a valid form of identication. The only things that illegal immigrants are granted in Texas is the right to catastrophic health care and education, and Texas does not have a structural defecit of $10bn caused by illegal immigrants, which are as prevalent as in California.

And from much of what I understand, getting a work visa to work in Canada is much harder than in the United States. From what I understand of my friends who live in Montreal and Calgary, you must be able to prove somehow that a Canadian cannot do the job that you are going to do.

Henri Hein April 1, 2006 at 4:10 am

"if [...] you're appealing to jury nullification as the way we see how the law is applied"

I was not. The point is not related to the formal process of courts. Illegal immigrants get deported without due process, as I suspect you're aware.

The point is that cops follow orders; citizens don't.

"you'll have to show me that juries routinely and overwhelmingly decide that people who have entered the country illegaly are not guilty of any crime worthy of deportation"

People here in California exonerate illegal immigrants daily on a massive scale. They work in agriculture, restaurants, housecleaning and construction. The lumber yards are thick with day workers, many of which are illegal. Californians are served by illegal immigrants in restaurants, the owners of which routinely hire without questions. If Californian citizens were as concerned as you were, the USCIS hotlines would be constantly swamped.

"I assert the right for the government of the United States to know who is in this country, to exclude known criminals, and to limit the rate at which people enter the country to something approximating the rate at which the economy can absorb them into the workforce."

That sounds like central planning. Specifically, how can we know 'the rate at which the economy can absorb them' ?? Not only do we not know what this rate is, it is unknowable — and that's assuming that there even *is* such a rate, which is not given.

" I'm clearly nothing but a racist xenophobe, and probably a prudish jobs-protecting busybody as well."

If you are in favor of central planning in general, perhaps it's just a matter of education. If you single out immigration for central planning, I'm curious about your motives.

Ed April 1, 2006 at 4:20 am

While I agree with most of what you said, a law is still a law, what your talking about is called post conventional morality. Where societies, cultures, etc. set there own guidelines regardless of what the written law says.
And, I do agree the good that immigrant/undocumented workers do far out ways the bad. However, something has to be done to straighten things out. I mean what happens when you are the one out of 50k, 100k, 500k, 1 million, or whatever it is that has his or her credit ruined because an illegal worker is using your SSI number? What happens when you go to refinance your home and you find out that your just bought a house in Juarez, New Mexico, only you live in Vermont? And, no one is really sure what the balance is as far as positive effects on the economy versus drains on state health and education budgets. While we all can agree that these workers certainly help out our private sectors they also place a large burden on our public sectors such as health care and education. The response to this is that more and more children go to private schools, and the divide between private practice health care and hospital health care widens. There has to be a better balance and its not just about immigrants it is more about socioeconomics. If we don't start to solve some of these larger problems the divide between rich and poor will continue to grow and grow. The truly wealthy don't care about how many immigrants cross the border, because the truly wealthy aren't affected the same way everyone else is. The truly sad part about all of this is that these people that are crossing our southern border would be better characterized as refugees than illegal alliens. The wealthy people in Mexico are fine, it's the poor people that are without and are crossing our borders. If we aren't careful it could be the same way here someday that it is in Mexico.

JohnDewey April 1, 2006 at 6:54 am

Should fairness to legal immigrants really factor at all in our decision about what to do now? Our borders are so porous that it is possible for anyone to eventually cross illegally, or remain here illegally after a visa has expired. Some immigrants chose the legal route, but they could have come here illegally. They evaluated the risks and the relative opportunities and made their choice. Is it fair that the choice was easier for Mexicans because they live across the border from the U.S.? Life is not fair. So what? It's not fair that sparsely populated Saudi Arabia sits on top of more oil than does India.

We cannot deport 12 million illegal immigrants. It's neither feasible nor desirable economically. So what's the best thing to do? If we provide incentives for these immigrants to become legal in some form, at least we can begin to collect all the taxes that some believe are not being paid. We can make sure that employers are not abusing these workers.

Should we close our borders to prevent more from crossing? Perhaps. But I don't want to pay billions to do so just to make life fair for prospective immigrants from the rest of the world. I also don't want to limit our economic growth by artificial restrictions on the number of available workers.

Half Sigma April 1, 2006 at 12:02 pm

What a stupid exercise in semantics! The dictionary says that illegal means "not according to or authorized by law : UNLAWFUL, ILLICIT; also : not sanctioned by official rules (as of a game)."

"Illegal aliens" are living here without the proper legal authorization, so they most definitely are legitimately labeled as "illegal."

Patrick R. Sullivan April 1, 2006 at 1:46 pm

The proper distinction is between 'illegal' and 'criminal'. There is civil law and criminal law. And there is immigration law, which appears to be neither civil nor criminal.

People ignore laws all the time. Anyone remember the 55 mph speed limit? It seems that most people have looked on the immigration from Mexico as something like that. Too trivial to obey.

Is there really any harm in having a lot of Mexicans enter informally and produce things here? They do pay taxes; sales taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes.

The Mexicans I've known are extremely hard working, entrepreneurial, talented people. They speak a language that has hundreds of (if not thousands) of cognates with English. They have very strong families. They're not likely to convert to Islam and join Al Qaeda cells.

Frankly, it might be Mexico's problem losing them.

Broocks Wilson April 1, 2006 at 1:53 pm


The problem you brought up about having a illegal alien steal your credit or social security number I don't think really applies to the situation, because that is something that happens far more often with American citizens stealing other Americans credit. Plus, the illegal alien doesn't have to live in America to get that information.

Also, Ed, I don't think that more and more children are going to private schools because they have to due to illegals infiltrating their schools, I think most of the children that goto private schools go so that they can get a better education. Also, I think the argument is that illegals do work that Americans shouldn't be doing so that Americans can make more money and reap the benefits of the rewards of lower labor in their personal life.

Strophyx April 1, 2006 at 1:56 pm

If I were on the hypothetical jury you describe, I would indeed vote to acquit. However, with laws I consider to be immoral and/or unconstitutional, I also advocate and work for their repeal. To do otherwise would seem to say that laws aren't really important and we'd do just as well without them, relying on custom, tradition or current popular feelings and social conventions, sanctioning those who violate them.

Laws should be taken seriously. Bad laws should be repealed and good ones enforced. I'm all in favor of liberalized immigration laws, guest worker programs and would seriously consider a well-crafted amnesty program. I'm not willing to say that we should simply ignore borders altogether, letting anyone who wants to come here do so whenever they decide to.

JohnDewey April 1, 2006 at 3:37 pm

Robert Cote,

Do you know what caused Ventura County to hire the translators? Is it due to some federal requirement or court directive? Or is it a decision by the elected representatives in the county or in the state?

It would seem that not hiring translators would put the burden back onto those who do not speak English. I guess I don't have a problem with doing so. However, I think governments and corporations throughout the U.S. have a long history of hiring bilinguals in order to serve those who do not speak English.

Robert Cote April 1, 2006 at 4:23 pm

John Dewey raises a couple of interesting points. First he says; "We cannot deport 12 million illegal immigrants. It's neither feasible nor desirable economically"

I ask; Why? What would happen? Serious hypothetical question. What would happen? I can see monster local gains in nearly every social and economic category. I was going to exclude diversity but then I realized even that would improve. The demand for billions in infrastructure would suddenly relax by years or decades, the state budget would instantly go into surplus. Educational test scores would shoot up and the schools would be so flush with cash because of our constitution there would be a flowering of education at all levels. Billions would be freed up as special immigrant services are no longer necessary. Then there's healthcare. Drug resistant TB and the reemergenge of Whooping Cough will no longer steal precious tax dolllars from other problems. One nned only look at the pattern of emergency room closings to see why they are closing. Imagine that, more healthcare faster and cheaper. And when I say faster, not just more emergency rooms but the ambulance ride. There are census blocks in Los Angeles where driver liciense, insurance, registration noncompliance exceeds 90%! And our food, lettuce, strawberries? Cheap, yes cheaper. Without the supply of exploitable workers automation will arrive only 60 years later than in every other industry.

Johan asks specifically about the 22 translators. Therein lies a tale. Did I leave an impression that they would be Spanish English? No. They are Spanish Mixteca. English? No, these people will be translating Mixteca to Spanish because there are 10,000 Mixtecans here that neither speak Spanish or read and write in any language. The job of the translators will be to get these people access to the free services in the county. Walk a mile in my shoes, go to my daughter's high school for parents night and sit through the Principal’s speech anf then sit through the translation. For both there is also an ALS translator. So, instead of a free laptop for every legal resident we get to pay for the Spanish translator and trilingual signer. Hey, everybody who thinks there is a net benefit is welcome to pay my uninsured motorist insurance as well. My point was that there is as much housing danger associated with “stated residence” as there is with “stated income.” Both -should- raise the risk premium but as we are finding out, not enough. Heck, let’s not even imagine stated residence applies only to immigration status, look at all the people who bought investment properties claiming primary residence. Lies and lawbreaking have consequences beyond just circumstances of the liars and lawbreakers.

Immigrants of all variety add to our culture, alter our culture but no one is claiming they destroy our culture. Mere hyperbole to bolster attacks on the person rather than respond to the content. Participants here are to be lauded in this regard. I sit in traffic exacerbated by persons who do not have insurance, registraion, licienses. I pay more in insurance as a consequence. My healthcare is more expensive, slower and of lower quality because necessary emergency services are misused by people immune to the consequenses of their behavior. The money I pay for my children's education is misdirected to preferentially enhance their general quality of life. The Feds don't do anything because California gets 78 cents back for every dollar they send to D.C. Much of the difference being "free" federal money obviously.

Opening the door to legal immigration won't help. That would involve lowering the standards of self sufficiency, health and such. Does anyone honestly advocate we welcome TB carriers? Even the healthy hard working honest arrivals will proceed to violate our basic laws such as zoning. Oxnard, CA is one of the most overcrowded cities in the nation. Make no mistake the overcrowding affects everyone not just those doubling up families in a single garage. There are 10,000 Mixteca in the city that are worse than illiterate. Meaning they don't even speak Spanish! Suddenly our county healthcare network is employing 22 interpreters. Remember that when paying taxes or medical premiums. My life is directly, blatantly and negatively impacted by a deliberate flouting of laws designed to protect me. Some claim that since the laws are not being enforced get rid of the laws. Or maybe someone will lead by example and pay the uninsured motorist coverage portion of my next auto insurance bill? I know, the St. Johns Regional Medical Center is always looking for patrons. Would anyone like the address to where you can send your tax deductible contribution? Oh, I see… the light begins to dawn. Some people like the laws that protect -their- property and like the ignoring of laws that purportedly advance -their- condition. This is about being generous with other peoples' assets. You, you… you Democrats!

Andrew Kronenberg April 1, 2006 at 4:58 pm


Your usually outstanding comments have deteriorated significantly on this issue. Your analysis ignores the fact that along with the contributions of both legal and illegal immigrants, there is a very significant economic burden.

Living in the Phoenix area, I see the effect of unabated immigration daily. Numerous areas of Phoenix are steadily deteriorating due to this influx, along with services and infrastructure. There is even significant environmental damage in areas where illegals are crossing the desert.

You seem to be suggesting that we should let everybody into this country, regardless of law. This is not serious analysis. The law (actually various laws, and they are jumbled and unclear) exists for a reason. By your thinking, elimination of borders is the logical conclusion, again, not serious analysis. The answer is to fix the law, not ignore it, and we simply can't let everybody in who may wish to come here.

Because no current deterrent exists – you can literally walk right across the invisible border in parts of AZ – your way of thinking on this is basically already in effect, and has caused the current mess. More of the same is not the answer.

Ann April 1, 2006 at 6:27 pm

"I wonder – do the people clamoring for an immigration crackdown consider themselves to be "illegal drivers" every time they exceed the speed limit?"

A better comparison would be whether someone driving a stolen car should, when caught, have to return the car. You're saying that the thief should be allowed to keep the car (perhaps paying a small fine), while the legal owner must continue to do without it. Does it depend on whether the keys were left in the ignition?

If we hadn't had so many illegals coming here, there would have been more pressure to increase the legal levels, and people such as Minh-Duc and the many others in line might have gotten in earlier.

The illegals have already benefited, often for years, from their violation. Why does having profited from breaking the law in the past make it imperative that they continue to profit from it, at the expense of those that followed the law? Even if they paid taxes on the stolen car and drove it responsibly, they're still profiting from having taken a car that should have gone to someone else.

John Dewey says that those who are so messed up that they tried to enter legally deserve to lose out, since they could and should have snuck in illegally instead. Is that the selection bias that we want – only law-breakers need apply?

If we don't like the law, we should change it. Advocating wide-spread selective enforcement is asking for trouble, as is a tradition of offering amnesty periodically. With this amnesty, advocates aren't even pretending that it will be the last one and that it will somehow prevent another huge wave of illegal immigrants.

Tom Kelly April 1, 2006 at 6:50 pm


Thank you for reading and responding to my previous post.

I don't understand why you resort to an "M argument" by "Godwinning" my post. The fact that I feel like anti-immigration hysteria is approaching pre-Holocaust anti-Jew hysteria is just that- a fact of how I feel. I'm not calling anybody a Nazi or some such. There are times when using that particular historical analogy is appropriate, regardless of it's otherwise inappropiate use as a debate killer.

What I'm not seeing in this national debate much is discussion of the productivity implications of unemploying millions of productively employed, though illegal, workers.

We live in a world, not national, economy. Every one of us derives benefit from every one of us being as productively employed as possible.

If American citizens were more productive in the jobs that illegals currently hold, they would already hold those jobs.

Prosperity is dependent on exactly one thing- productivity. Anything that lowers productivity lowers prosperity.

Forcing current illegals out of their jobs by requiring possession of a registered biometric ID for employment will lower productivity. That is a huge price to pay for what?

I opened my previous comment with an intentionally abrasive phrase, "Wake up ignorant racists!" If you're not an ignorant racist, don't worry about it, that line is only directed to those who are.

If you are a well informed lover of all mankind, please respond to the C argument of what we would get for legislating a dramatic lowering of aggregate productiviy.

On a global basis, none of the costs of supporting millions of now unemployed former illegal immigrants go away- only their incomes and their ability to pay those costs themselves go away.

Nathan Adams April 1, 2006 at 6:54 pm

The way I take Don's post is that the effective law is not exactly what is written in the books — it is a mix of the written law, the law as it is actually enforced, and the law that is accepted by most of the population.

The problems associated with illegal immigration to the U.S. is a result of the three components of effective law diverging too much. The same is true of U.S. public policy on "hard" drugs and the developing world's situation with private property rights described by Hernando de Soto in "The Mystery of Capital".

Any attempt to bring the "real" and written components of law closer together on the immigration issue will improve the situation. This principally suggests that the U.S. should radically increase the quota on work visas to Mexicans and people from the other latin american countries.

A concerted effort by the feds and states to significantly reduce social services that go to "legal" and "illegal" foreign workers wouldn't hurt either.

Pedro Bento April 1, 2006 at 10:29 pm

I believe the US courts have already ruled that social services can not be in any way restricted for legal immigrants. While such restrictions would probably be a great way to win over many anti-immigration-types, I just don't see it happening in America. I believe Canada does have something like this, though.

Henri Hein April 1, 2006 at 11:06 pm

Robert Cote asks: "Why? What would happen?"

Economic disaster would happen. First, farms that can no longer hire labor will stop or limit production. Some farms will close shop, causing unemployment among farmers and native farm hands.

Next, restaurants can no longer hire labor. Service will drop. Many restaurants will close shop, causing unemployment among restaurant owners and native waiters and cooks.

Next, many cleaning services can no longer hire labor. Many will close shop, causing unemployment among business owners and native cleaners and drivers.

Construction costs will rise, leading to an undersupply in housing and development. Many construction companies will close shop, causing unemployment among business owners and native construction workers.

All this unemployment will lead to further economic depression, reduction in tax revenues (on top of the revenues lost from the missing immigrants), and a strain on social services.

Think of it this way: Let's say there are 10 million illegal immigrants, and they work at small businesses with an average ten employees. That leaves you with one millions businesses without workers, after your mass deportation. What will you tell these one million business owners? What economic gain do you see from these people having to close their businesses?

"I can see monster local gains in nearly every social and economic category"

Can you name a single incident from history where a large exodus benefitted the region where people were moving *away* from?

Leet April 2, 2006 at 5:32 am

I'm not sure that there are any states that prohibit sex between unmarried couples. If ~lawrence v. texas~ is good law (last I checked it still is), I don't see how homosexual sodomy is elevated to protected status and heterosexual sex is not (lawrence was not an equal protection case). I'm not disputing your broader argument, just correcting this point.

I'd be curious to know the law you're refering too; if it exists, I suspect it's constitutionally invalid.

johnny bonk April 2, 2006 at 7:33 am


"You are confusing judicial powers with executive powers. If you sit on a jury, you are absolutely empowered to ignore laws you find unjust."
Yes perhaps, but it should be noted that juries tend to be tame. I was only slapping Don for a piece of romantic waffle confusing what the law is with what it should be.

I don't know about the USA, but here in Britain the state can use violence against the citizen without the citizen even having the right to a trial before a magistrate let alone before one's peers. Interestingly, it is the minor offences where this applies (parking, congestion charge) – it you kill somebody then you have the right to a trial, but if its a parking ticket you can find the baliffs breaking down your door and you don't have any right to a trial.

Tom Kelly April 2, 2006 at 8:05 am

Great post, Henri.

The population loss would be staggering. Effected industries would not only be those that depend on them as producers but also those industries that depend on them as consumers.

Even if there are only 10 million illegals working here, there are another 10-20 million of their dependents, many of them citizen minor children.

Revenues will go down dramatically at Wal-Mart, dollar stores, used car lots, check cashing stores, apartment complexes, low end housing developments, ethnic grocery stores, and auto customization shops to name a few.

In our area the average wage for low skilled, documented but not necessarily legal workers is $8-10 an hour and there is often lots of overtime in these types of labor intensive industries. So typical gross wages for each worker are around $500 a week. Husbands and wives both work so their total household income is around $50,000 a year.

$50,000 a year around here buys you a starter home in a distant subdivision or a run down home in the inner city with payments around $1,000 a month. It gives them another $600-800 a month for car payments- usually a nice though probably used pick up truck for the husband and a servicable subcompact for the wife.

In short, life for an illegal immigrant family here is typical lower middle class American life, though in my experience without the all too typical victim mentality. Their impact as consumers is just as important to consider as their impact as producers.

JohnDewey April 2, 2006 at 9:04 am

"John Dewey says that those who are so messed up that they tried to enter legally deserve to lose out, since they could and should have snuck in illegally instead. Is that the selection bias that we want – only law-breakers need apply?"

Ann, I don't think this is what I said. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough.

Legal immigrants considered the risks of illegal immigration, considered the benefits of legal immigration, and made their decision. Illegal immigrants did the same. Both options were open to both groups.

Some in the illegal group may have gambled that some day they could become legal guest workers. A couple of the Senate bills may allow that to happen. But it was always a gamble, one that those in the legal group decided not to take. That some of the illegals may win their bet will not be a slap in the face to the legals.

The cost of waiting in line was much larger for the Mexican unskilled workers than it was for a highly educated Asian technical professionals. The pre-immigration standard of living for the former was far below that of the latter. The chances for an unskilled worker to obtain legal permission were much lower. It is easy to see why one might choose the illegal route and one might not.

JohnDewey April 2, 2006 at 9:26 am

"The problem with "cheap labor" is that it is not really cheap labor at all, but subsidized labor."

The few studies that show illegal immigrants receiving more in government benefits than paying in taxes are faulty. Every one of them includes the cost to educate the immigrants' children. For me, that is not valid.

Only a few parents in the U.S. pay the full cost of their child's public education.
Education of children is a public service funded by all of us. Whether paid for by property taxes or sales taxes, the cost is spread across the entire population. In many cases, those who own the most expensive property have no children at all or educate their children in private schools.

The jobs performed by illegal immigrants will be performed by someone working at very low wages. If we "legally" imported workers to do these jobs, we'd be paying the same amount for the education of their children.

Does anyone believe we could instantly find 12 million workers willing to work for low wages, who could speak English, and who elect to have no children while residing here?

The argument that existing unemployed citizens would do this work is just not supported by the evidence. Business owners who employ illegal immigrants don't get enough legal job applicants who will work at low wage jobs. They do get legal applicants who are obviously drunks and dopeheads.

Ann April 2, 2006 at 9:33 am

John Dewey -

Part of the cost of entering illegally is the knowledge that one is breaking the law. That bothers some more than others. Through amnesty, we're giving preference to those that have less inherent respect for our laws.

Robert Cote April 2, 2006 at 11:33 am

We tried Amnesty in 1986. Every single study proved that it increased illegal immigration.

John, the point is that without the push of a huge pool of unskilled, unprotected workers millions of crappy jobs would disappear and be replaced by many hundreds of thousands of good jobs many un/underemplyed US workers would be happy to take. Think, Longshoremen don't wrestle barrels of whale oil out of the cargo hold anymore, they run computerized container cranes. Think stell mills, coal miners. Heck, let's not go that far afield, think corn.

Deporting the 12 million and giving them the option to take their anchor children with them is an opportunity to make the US flower again in productivity and quality.

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