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Queuing Up for a Bad Analogy

Posted By Don Boudreaux On May 19, 2006 @ 9:19 am In Immigration | Comments Disabled

People who jump the queue – who “cut in line” – are annoying because they directly harm others. Their selfishness reduces other peoples’ range of opportunities. At best, they play zero-sum games: what queue-jumpers gain in reduced waiting time and increased chances of securing the scarce object is lost by those who patiently wait their turn. Clearly, queue jumping is undesirable.

This waiting-in-line, and queue-jumping, analogy is used in the current immigration debate to condemn ‘illegal’ immigration.  Immigrants here without Uncle Sam’s permission are said to have jumped the queue, not waited their turn for opportunities to enter legally.  But I believe that this analogy is misplaced and, hence, misleading.

Many of the Latin American immigrants who are in the United States without Uncle Sam’s stamp of approval likely have little or no chance of getting in legally. Therefore, for these people – for those whose chances of entering the U.S. legally are practically zero – there is no line for them to wait in.  To tell them to wait their turn implies that they, in fact, will have a turn.  But no chance at any real turn to enter the USA exists for many foreigners.  So it’s incorrect to portray such foreigners who then enter ‘illegally’ as selfish scoundrels who jump the queue merely to speed up their arrival in the U.S.

Now ask: does coming to the United States without Uncle Sam’s stamp of approval hurt those who are waiting in line to get this approval as a condition of entering the land of the free and the home of the brave? I don’t see how. The number of legal immigration slots isn’t reduced by the number of ‘illegal’ immigrants entering the USA.

Indeed, to the extent that those who enter the USA ‘illegally’ would be eligible for legal-immigration status, their entering ‘illegally’ actually helps aspiring immigrants who are waiting in the queue. Those who enter the USA ‘illegally’ obviously aren’t waiting in the queue to get here ‘legally’; therefore, immigrants who enter ‘illegally,’ rather than join the queue, shorten the queue.  Those waiting in the queue are made better off.

So the ‘jumping-the-queue’ analogy misleads because our disgust at queue jumpers springs from our correct sense that queue jumpers hurt those who wait their turns in the queue. But ‘illegal’ immigrants don’t hurt those waiting in the queue for Uncle Sam’s approval to enter.

There are other problems with the queue-jumping analogy that, perhaps, I’ll discuss in later posts.

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