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How to View Illegal Immigration

This morning, Diane Rehm and her guests were discussing illegal immigration generally and the current batch of proposals for immigration reform specifically. As is almost always the case in such discussions, I felt they all were looking at the problem the wrong way around and I sent this to make that point. Neither my words nor any similar ones made it on the air.

29 November 2005

It is helpful to step back and take a broader view of immigration than what I’ve heard so far.

We routinely view the problem of illegal immigration effectively as one of importing labor. But it is a much more useful paradigm to view it as exporting work, despite the fact that the work doesn’t actually leave the country.

Illegal immigration from Mexico is driven almost entirely by economics — as noted earlier in the show, we don’t have much of a problem with illegal immigration from Canada; that is because Canada’s economy generates wealth on somewhat the same scale as ours.

If we view illegal immigration as an illicit export of jobs rather than as an illicit import of people, we see a different set of solutions to the problem. As with our perpetual and ineffective war on the movement of drugs (and our earlier ill-fated internal war on alcohol), a war on the movement of jobs by interdiction at the borders and by eradication at the source (by cracking down on employers) will be ultimately futile: consumers of that illicit product are highly motivated to continue their consumption; the borders are too vast to monitor effectively; and the scope and means for providing the illicit employment in a free society is too diffuse to control with any effectiveness.

Viewed that way, it should be clear that money spent on reducing demand would be much more effective than money spent on controlling supply. In the case of illegal immigration from Mexico, reducing demand means building a Mexican economy capable of providing work and wealth to those who need it, to those for whom coming here to get it is the least unpleasant alternative.

The solution to the problems of illegal immigration lie largely in assisting Mexico — politically through public policies and treaties, and economically by encouraging private investment — to develop a first-world economy. Without that, the rest is destined to fail.

© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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