Immigration’s big problem is illegality

By Walter Williams: Snydicated columnist

My sentiments on immigration are inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: “… Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

These words of poet Emma Lazarus served as the welcome mat for tens of millions seeking liberty and opportunity in America — legally.

Being a relatively land-rich and labor-scarce nation, immigration has always been good for our country. Plus, for most of our history, there was a guarantee that immigrants would come here to work. The alternative was starvation.

With today’s welfare state, there’s no such guarantee. People can come here, not work and not starve because the welfare state guarantees they can live off the rest of us.

At the heart of today’s immigration problem is its illegality.

According to several estimates, there are 11 million people who are in our country illegally, mostly from Mexico. Many people, including my libertarian friends and associates, advance an argument that differs little from saying that people anywhere in the world have a right to live in the United States irrespective of our laws or preferences.

According to that vision, American people do not have a right to set either the number of people who enter our country or the conditions upon which they enter. Some of the arguments and terms used in the immigration debate defy reason.

First, there’s the refusal to call these people “illegal aliens.” The politically preferred term is “undocumented workers,” which is nothing less than verbal sleight-of-hand. After all, I, too, am an undocumented worker.

My colleague, Thomas Sowell, exposes some of this verbal sleight-of-hand in his recent column “Guests or Gate-Crashers?” He questions calling for “guest worker” status for people who, because they weren’t invited, are not guests at all but gate-crashers. Sowell argues that the more substantive arguments for flaunting our immigration laws are just as phony.

How about the argument that “We can’t catch all the illegals?”
That’s true, but should we apply that principle to other illegal acts? For example, we can’t catch every rapist or burglar, but does it follow that we shouldn’t try?

The base motives for much of the political response to illegal aliens are fear of losing the Hispanic vote and pressure by employers who want to maintain a source of cheap labor. Politicians are calling for “guest worker” programs, but they’re really calling for amnesty. They are fearful of actually using that term because they know it’s political suicide, but the “guest worker” proposal is essentially the same as amnesty.

The word amnesty comes from the Greek “amnestia,” defined in part as: “the selective overlooking or ignoring of those events or acts that are not favorable or useful to one’s purpose or position.” That’s what the proposed guest worker program essentially says: Forget that you’re here illegally.

In principle, the solution to people being in our country illegally is simple. No one in the country illegally should be eligible to receive any social services except emergency medical services. Efforts should be made to deport illegal aliens. Our borders should be made secure both against illegal entry of persons and potential threats to national security.

Finally, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services procedures for obtaining work permits and citizenship should be streamlined so that law-abiding people around the world can more easily contribute to and enjoy America’s greatness.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He writes for Creators Syndicate and may be contacted at:
wwilliam@gmu.edu