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Immigration Controls Cause Exploitation


Every so often, the news is filled with reports of the horrible exploitation of illegal immigrants. It might be the story of a dreary sweatshop where people work at low wages in unenviable conditions. Worse, it could be a report about the deaths of immigrants who suffocated while waiting in a railroad car in stifling heat after being brought across the Mexican border. People have died while being smuggled in automobile trunks.

No one could help but be moved by the pictures broadcast some months ago of deaf and mute immigrants from Mexico who were allegedly forced to work on the streets of New York City. No doubt they lived in terrible conditions and were subject to exploitation.

It is hard to know what those people were promised by the Mexicans who arranged their travel to the United States or if they even had a choice in whether to come here at all. Chances are that they were lured by the promise of a better life, as so many people are throughout the world. Maybe they were willing to endure certain hardships now for the prospect of something better in the future. Nevertheless, there is no denying that those wretched souls were at the mercy of those who smuggled them into the United States and those for whom they worked. Their fate was securely in the hands of people who are not exactly admirable characters.

What has not been noticed, however, is that the smugglers and exploiters had accomplices without whom they could not have carried out their schemes. Those accomplices were the Congress, the president, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The indispensable assistance those officials rendered was in the form of a legal barrier to the free movement of people into the United States — the right to immigrate here.

Without those barriers, the degradation and exploitation of immigrants would be much more difficult to carry out. It is not surprising that few wish to indict government and law for the criminal treatment of vulnerable people. But the fact remains that government and law facilitate that treatment and thus deserve harsh judgment.

To understand why, let’s examine what we can call the Law of Black Markets. We see many instances of that law. When government attempts to forbid a peaceful activity that people want to engage in, that activity will continue despite the law — but under more horrendous conditions than previously. A mode of peaceful behavior does not vanish from society simply because government decrees that it must.

Take the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. People didn’t stop drinking liquor, wine, and beer. To many people, drinking was a perfectly legitimate activity. That judgment didn’t change when the Constitution was amended to make the production and sale of booze illegal. But something did change with Prohibition: the industry moved into the underworld. Organized crime grew. Violence connected with the trade abounded. Law enforcement was corrupted by the large black-market profits that reflected the risks of making and distributing contraband alcohol. Of course, the power of government grew, and civil liberties eroded.

This is the standard story with any prohibition. It is true today of drugs. If some people get their way and outlaw tobacco, the same will be true of cigarettes.

How does this relate to immigration? Although immigration is not outlawed, it is restricted. Many people who want to come to the United States cannot do so legally. Yet human nature pushes people to strive for better lives, and they don’t stop just because government says they must. They will merely seek other ways to get here. As a result, immigrant smugglers arise to provide a service for which people are willing to pay dearly. Employers offer them low-level jobs when they reach the United States. This is simply a matter of supply and demand. And with any black market, the price escalates to offset the risks of getting into trouble with the law. Would-be immigrants are willing to pay a lot and put up with a lot to get here and stay here.

Furthermore, there is money to be made even off people who don’t wish to move. This is where a slave trade can arise. Thugs might find it worthwhile to force people in poor countries to go to the United States to fill a demand for unskilled, low-wage labor that would not exist if immigration were legal.

What makes it especially difficult for unauthorized immigrants is that, because they are here illegally, smugglers and employers have a handy means of exploitation at their disposal: they can threaten to send the immigrants back to their native countries and their poverty if they don’t obey. In fact, anyone who wants to take advantage of them can threaten a call to the INS. An indigent person in a strange land with a strange language would find it difficult to resist exploitative demands made by someone with that kind of power. Immigrants are put at a steep disadvantage regarding the terms of employment and living conditions. Promises and contracts can be broken with impunity. Victims are not likely to sue because they obviously have no recourse to the legal system unless they are willing to risk being sent home.

But let us be clear about the source of the power to exploit those vulnerable people: the immigration laws passed by Congress and enforced by the INS. Thus, they are accessories before the fact in the exploitation of the deaf Mexicans in New York City, as well as in the deaths of other illegal immigrants who suffocate in cattle cars while hiding from immigration agents. Without the immigration laws, those victims of government policy would be alive today.

The debate over immigration has raged for years. Even many free-market advocates oppose free immigration. Opponents attempt to scare the American people with tales of immigrants committing crimes and taking welfare. The culture of the immigrants is said to be a threat to American culture.

These are red herrings. If the government didn’t tax productive American people to provide welfare, no one could go on the dole. And how will we get rid of the welfare state if it is saved from every strain on its resources? Besides, there’s no reason why a condition of immigration can’t be: no welfare.

Immigrant crime should be treated the same as citizen crime — which is to say that when anyone violates the rights of another, the consequences should be swift and certain in order to fully recompense the victim.

As for the culture, it is robust precisely because it is open and spontaneous. Immigration enriches American culture. The concern about culture reminds me of the concern about the future of the English language. Contrary to right-wing worries, English as a near-universal language is in the best shape ever. It is used worldwide and it dominates the newest frontier — cyberspace. There is no danger of English’s going into decline.

The policy debate, mired as it is in welfare, education, and labor statistics, misses the key points. First, the freedom to move about peacefully is a natural right. That is not to say there is a right to trespass. No one has a right to enter property without the consent of the owner.

But when it comes to immigration, many people (employers, for example) are ready to consent. The issue of “public property” certainly muddies the issue, because in theory it belongs to all taxpayers. In fact, it is owned by government officials. The taxpayers are merely nominal owners. There should be little or no public property at all. (Ayn Rand defined capitalism as the system in which all property is privately owned.)

But the existence of public property cannot be used to make a case against immigration. After all, if some Americans wish to invite immigrants here (as a source of inexpensive labor, for example), why can’t they, as taxpayers, do so? Why should the majority be able to stop them? Because of externalities? The same theory could be used to interfere with free trade.

Even if all property were private, there would surely be employers and employment brokers who would help immigrants travel here. The upshot is that property rights cannot be used to support restrictions on immigration. The second point usually overlooked in the debate is that it is human nature to strive to better one’s condition. As long as the government tries to thwart that natural inclination through immigration controls, we will continue to see the degradation and exploitation that surfaces from time to time. And the federal government will continue to be an accomplice in those offenses.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.