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Daily Journal

Unintended Consequences of the Protests

May. 3rd, 2007
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RALEIGH – Hundreds of immigrants, advocates, and other activists rallied Tuesday in Raleigh and other communities across the state. The primary effect – to the extent the protests attracted much public attention, as both the crowds and media coverage seemed down from previous rallies – was to further reduce the chances of passing immigration-reform legislation in Washington or advancing the cause of most immigrants here in North Carolina.

Stopping reform is precisely the opposite effect of what these demonstrators and interest groups intended. But that’s how things often work out in human interactions. Intentions aren’t controlling. In this case, those who advocate greater opportunities for legal residency or citizenship for immigrants don’t seem to understand that there is only one path to their desired destination – and it goes straight through the thicket of enforcing the law.

I use the term thicket to communicate the inevitable intricacies and thorns. There are hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina and many millions nationwide – mostly but not exclusively from south of the border – who came here in violation of the law. Many of them live and work largely outside the everyday world of legally enforceable contracts, safety and security in their homes and possessions, and the responsibility to pay a full array of government taxes (and, keep in mind, the opportunity to receive a full array of government services). They have no legal right to be here, which poses myriad tricky problems for them and for everyone else.

It’s critical important to accept the reality that the following statements can be all true at the same time – and are, as far as I can determine:

• The current level of immigration confers a net positive benefit on the economy of North Carolina and America as a whole.

• The current level of immigration confers a net positive impact on the federal budget, at least in the short and immediate run, because it expands the working-age base of the fiscal pyramids called Social Security and Medicare.

• The current level of immigration confers a net negative impact on state and local budgets, particularly in areas of highest growth in the immigrant population, because 1) immigrants tend to have lower-than-average incomes (reducing the amount of sales and property taxes they pay, explicitly or implicitly), 2) illegals are often work outside the income-tax system, and 3) immigrant families tend to be larger and younger than native ones, increasing demand for costly government services such as schools.

• Illegals are a large and increasing share of the immigrant pool and are particularly costly to state and local government budgets on net, and in other ways.

• There is an economic case for minimizing the government’s interference with the free flow of labor across national borders – just as there is a case for free international trade of goods and financial capital.

• However, that’s not the only issue. Every sovereign state has the right and duty to secure its borders against inflows of individuals who pose a health or safety risk to its current citizens, or even longer-term risks to government budgets or social cohesion. The fact that most immigrants pose no such risk is not to deny that some do, and that it is appropriate for even a limited government to have an effective system for screening for such individuals – be they criminals, substance abusers, terrorists, or those with uncertain employment prospects – and then ensuring that legal immigrants know which rules to follow to avoid deportation or to become citizens.

As I have written many times, I do not think that current immigration levels are the problem (though issues of assimilation and federal-state fiscal balance need to be worked out). The massive illegality in the current system is the problem. There is no way that the general public will accept immigration reform of any sort unless they believe that federal, state, and local governments will take immigration laws seriously. That is a rational demand, and currently far from satisfied.

So when self-styled reformers argue for easier access to drivers licenses, public-health services, job-safety inspections, and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, they think they are evoking compassion and advancing their cause. They’re tragically wrong. What the general public hears are proposals to ignore massive illegalities and coddle lawbreakers. They frown. They fume. And then they get called names for expressing their understandable outrage at these wrongheaded policies.

It’s as if Lou Dobbs and Tom Tancredo were secretly manipulating these protestors to provoke a public backlash against immigrants, and particularly against Hispanics. I’m not conspiratorially minded enough to buy that, but I am nearly as uncomfortable with the alternative explanation: the “immigration reform community” is, collectively, more than a few cards short of a full deck.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.