The Proper Focus of Immigration Reform

Immigration reform has seemingly become an important part of the agenda. It is good that attitudes of tolerating the presence of illegal immigrants rather than wanting them deported have overtaken the majority. A higher percentage of Americans also favor more immigration rather than less, which is also a happy development.

Yet I fear that the support for a saner immigration policy will be diverted toward a mess of new government controls. For one thing, on the “pro-immigrant” side, everyone seems to be emphasizing a path to citizenship, which is all well and good, but it might be less divisive, and just as important from a human rights perspective, simply to legalize these people and treat them as legal residents. Citizenship carries with it a bundle of privileges and civil rights, like the vote, but the first priority should be to save immigrants from the constant threat of arrest and deportation. I’d rather have all the immigrants legalized than see half become citizens and the other half continue to live in fear. By focusing too heavily on citizenship, the debate becomes increasingly fixated on nationalist identity and government action rather than freedom, and it gives the anti-liberalization side of the debate more flexibility to demand compromises that endanger immigrants’ rights.

The other direction politicians are pointing is, as always, toward “better enforcement.” Whether we’re talking national ID schemes, border walls, employer sanctions, or stricter penalties, the idea is that the government should pursue a rational, humane approach to many of the people already here, but it should finally secure the borders and crack down on those who break the law. I’ve even seem some suggest that legal immigration rates should decline while current immigrants on their path to citizenship become assimilated.

First off, these plans won’t work any more than the other plans in the past. Second of all, the federal government has no moral or constitutional to control immigration in the first place. Third and most important, people shouldn’t be thrown in jail or shipped to another country against their will just because they crossed a line on a map. Generally, illegal immigrants live and work on private property. They are de facto invited guests of whoever owns that property, and many of them own some themselves. The government’s progressive schemes to maintain some politically determined ethnic distribution of America’s national identity shouldn’t trump property rights and human decency.

Before World War I, most countries in the world had fairly porous borders. You could go freely into almost any of them. You didn’t need a passport to travel the world. And other than its obviously racist Chinese Exclusion Acts, the United States had a fairly open immigration policy. In the century since then we have seen the national government expand in a hundred different terrible ways, and clamping down on the border has been one of the worst. Anti-immigration people ignore this history when they claim free movement is incompatible with an orderly society.

The government should simply end its war on immigrants. Short of that, it should scale back this mission. That should be the focus of immigration reform: liberalizing the laws. Citizenship should be taken up as a whole different discussion, and harsher or more draconian enforcement proposals should be dismissed out of hand.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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