Zero Illegal Immigration: A Thought Experiment (With Time Travel)

Friday, October 23, 2015
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No one wants more illegal immigration. So isn’t zero illegal immigration a good idea?

We could think through problems like this in at least three ways: a moral argument, a national interest argument, and an economic argument.

Take these three arguments for a test drive with this thought experiment.  Right after World War II people were lamenting the problem of miscegenation: interracial marriage. They ask you what you think of their policy proposal: zero illegal miscegenation.

You might want to know whether there is popular support for eliminating miscegenation.  At that time, miscegenation was illegal almost everywhere in the United States. More than 96 percent of Americans polled thought miscegenation was wrong.

So eliminating miscegenation must be a legitimate policy goal: both morally right and in the national interest, no? This is a democratic country.

First, the moral argument falls flat because it is vile and morally repugnant for state agents to block blacks and whites from marrying. It didn’t, however, suddenly become morally repugnant in 1996, when a majority finally decided that interracial marriage was okay. Majority opinion and existing law don’t guide us in deciding whether zero illegal miscegenation is a moral goal.

Second, you would know that getting miscegenation down to zero was not in the US national interest, no matter how popular it may have been. Looking back, we know that there isn’t one iota of objective evidence that our nation was made stronger by forcing whites and blacks not to marry. Those who feel that creating “a mongrel breed of citizens” harms the national interest are now an extremist fringe, with no credible evidence to support their repugnant cause. Once again majority opinion and existing law don’t guide us in deciding whether zero illegal miscegenation is in the national interest.

A third way to think this through is using economic reasoning. Rather than look to existing law or popular opinion, use evidence objectively to measure the costs and benefits of enforcing zero illegal miscegenation. Consider the objective national interest based on evidence to ask what level of regulation on miscegenation serves that interest.

This strategy works. There is obvious harm to interracial couples from prosecuting our way to zero illegal miscegenation no credible evidence of an objective social benefit. This is what the US Supreme Court did in 1967, mocking the idea that, for the United States, “preserving the racial integrity of its citizens” constituted any kind of benefit. The costs of eliminating miscegenation vastly exceeded that nonexistent benefit, so the Court wiped all antimiscegenation laws off the books.

We can try out the same three strategies to think through zero illegal immigration.The moral argument fails: no matter how unpopular illegal immigration is, many clearly moral things have also been unpopular in the past. The national interest argument fails too. Many things that ran directly against the national interest have been legal and popular, such as arresting women who wanted the vote.

Try the third way: take the economic approach and compare the costs and benefits of regulating illegal immigration to zero. Thinking in this way about, we would rapidly reach the conclusion that extreme and draconian enforcement of zero lawbreaking has more costs than benefits. This is why we don’t have mandatory jail time for speeding, why we don’t execute people for petty theft, and why we no longer jail people for adultery. Extraordinary punishments might reduce those activities, but never to zero, and the effects of overzealous enforcement would loom larger than the original harm.

Illegal migration is no different. Regardless of what one thinks of the benefits of enforcement against illegal migration, its vast costs rise with the enforcement level. The degrading human cost is that hundreds of people die at the southwest US border every year trying to evade capture. US immigration detention camps are brutal places, overflowing with children and their often desperately poor families. The fiscal cost is enormous. The US government spends more money now on federal immigration enforcement than on all other federal criminal law enforcement combined. Thus any benefit of additional enforcement is crushed by the additional cost.

It would only be desirable to achieve zero illegal immigration by ending all regulation (as the United States tried reached zero illegal miscegenation) if we were certain that migration regulations convey no social benefit. But nations have a compelling objective interest in regulating migration. They have a security interest in knowing who is entering and who is leaving a country and a fiscal interest in knowing how long people have been in a country, for things such as doling out Social Security benefits. These things are impossible with no regulation at all.

It is futile to ask whether zero illegal immigration is good or bad. The inevitable answer is that in no circumstance is zero illegal immigration desirable (or zero illegal anything else).

A more fruitful question is What degree and kind of migration regulation serves the objective national interest? If “enforce the law” is your only answer and the only thing you demand of your representatives, I can only say that I am glad that those who shared views like yours about antimiscegenation laws were made irrelevant by the great American system.