The Arizona Conundrum

I’m interested in people’s opinions on the new Arizona anti-immigration law.  I have a hard time coming to a consensus in my own mind about the immigration issue and laws like the one Arizona passed.

My civil libertarian mind hates the police state and harassment of anyone—citizen or otherwise.

My rule-of-law mind hates that we mostly look the other way when our immigration laws are flouted—not just by the immigrants crossing the border, but by businesses who hire them and by local governments who provide them sanctuary from the law.

My utilitarian economist mind realizes how essential low-wage immigrant labor is to our economy.  A sudden extraction of illegal immigrants (not that that is possible) would be disastrous, economically speaking.

My selfish elitist mind realizes that I am part of the socioeconomic class that benefits most from this immigrant labor, since I don’t face much wage competition from them (though American academics do face a lot of pressure from educated immigrants in both obtaining jobs and getting into graduate schools).

My partisan political mind understands the importance of the Latino vote in the future.  Even a small-brained Republican like George W. realized this and tried to avoid alienating Hispanics.  Of course even smaller-brained Republican Congressmen have succeeded in sticking a racist knife into the party’s future.  Democrats (who, ironically, rely much more on electoral support from the unskilled laborers who are the principal losers from illegal immigration) just get to sit back and laugh as the Republicans do themselves in.

My cosmopolitan egalitarian mind hates that ugly racism underlying the anti-immigration view and sees open immigration as lifting at least some people around the world out of poverty.

My Christian mind is cognizant that many of these illegal immigrants are surely among “the least of these” that Christ talked about when he said, “For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in.” (Matt. 25:35)  I generally don’t like to use religious arguments as policy justifications, since the things that determine private morality often cannot justify public policy,  but I have to say these biblical verses definitely come to mind.

So what is a civil-liberatarian-rule-of-law-utilitarian-economist-selfish-elitest-Republican-cosmopolitan-egalitarian-Christian to do?

19 thoughts on “The Arizona Conundrum

  1. Sven, it seems to me that a lot rests on what you think about the immigration laws which prevent people who live on one side of the border from crossing it, since those laws are responsible both for the attitude you’re likely to take to the disobedience that follows, and to these new measures proposed to deal with the disobedience, and for a lot of those effects (intended and unintended) you mention.

    It seems to me that, if you think the law is unjust, then at least your thought that disobedience is impermissible is going to be pretty limited, and maybe non-existent. Then if you think that new laws punish people for things they have no obligation not to do, you’re going to think, once again, there’s a moral problem, and that’s going to be your focus in thinking through many other implications.

    If, on the other hand, your thinking about the original laws is that they are just, that’s going to throw switches all the way down the track the other direction. So it seems to me the place to start, anyway (probably not to end) is with the justice of immigration constraints in the first place. And I myself can’t see anything just or warranted about them.

  2. What to think, I do not know. But if Obama wants a legacy this is it.

    He should go Lincoln. Issue the Obama emancipation proclamation and pardon the illegal aliens living in Arizona. The Arizona law becomes moot. Obama captures the Hispanic vote but it could create a backlash of epic proportions. Win, lose or draw he gets a legacy.

    Mark Sherman

  3. So, six of your minds oppose the law, and the other would like a legal amnesty to make the de facto quasi-open border above board. I’d say your preference is clear.

    It’s possible to make a principled federalist argument that states should be free to experiment with the restrictions or lack thereof applied at their borders, but if those policies are illiberal and abhorrent, one should say so.

  4. The politics of this for Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians are terrible. All three should be focused on hammering away at fiscal issues (especially the deficit) and general big government-small government philosophical differences. Health care taps into both and provides a real electoral opportunity for the Republicans – and they are on the right side of health care policy wise too. Instead, this divisive issue gets plopped down and threatens to distract from all those winning issues.

  5. I want more immigrants, so I can hire a personal chef. If there are enough immigrants I might be able to hire a few from different regions of the world for variety. That is my dream (in my dream, the chefs would not work exclusively for me).

  6. Do you have an “American” part of your mind?

    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    ‘ With silent lips. “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-tossed to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    I’m with her. “Melting pot” — not just for Europeans these days.

      1. I like these sentiments, too. But I’m not sure I want to be a nation governed by idealistic poetry. I think I would choose the consent of the governed.

        Immigration is an area where there is some common ground shared by libertarians and leftists (at least some of them).

  7. Seems like almost all of these “minds” point to the law being bad except the “rule of law” mind. And when the law itself is bad, then it would seem like that’s the time to ignore the “rule of law” mind. To use an extreme example, would this mind have been angered by the sit-ins breaking Jim Crow laws in the 1960s?

    1. To me, civil disobedience is a very legitimate means of protesting unjust laws. But it is not the same as ignoring the law. Civil rights protesters publicly and openly defy the law with the intent of being punished for doing so.

      So, putting a radar detector in your car and speeding down the highway is not civil disobedience. Civil disobedience would be intentionally speeding past a police car with the intent of being caught.

      Similarly, hiring an illegal alien isn’t civil disobedience unless you call the Feds and tell them you are doing so to protest the immigration laws.

      1. So, Sven, let me ask you to generalize. Is your view that, if faced with a law that imposes an unjust demand, your morally acceptable options are limited to either obedience or open, public, flagrant disobedience? That can’t be right, can it? I’m thinking Fugitive Slave Law here…

      2. [this reply feature won’t let me reply to Mark, so I’ll just reply to myself and hope it ends up on sorta the right place]

        Mark, this is a good point. First I would have to say that I’m trying to figure out my view, but here is where I am at the moment:

        * I don’t think a society where everyone obeyed only the laws they felt were just would be a society I’d want to live in.

        * But I’m certainly not a rule-of-law absolutist. Certainly the Fugitive Slave Law should have been disobeyed–including in private, secret ways. In fact, American slavery was so abhorrent, that almost any action to undermine it would have been justified.

        * I don’t have any idea where I’d draw the line–meaning at what level of unjustness I would cross over from obedience to disobedience

        * Civil disobedience is a morally legitimate public act to protest unjust laws.

        * There are laws I don’t always obey (such as speed limits), and I usually feel OK about it, though I wouldn’t argue that I’m morally justified.

        * It seems that there are a class of laws that are nearly morally irrelevant, though speeding isn’t really one of them, since its violation can result in the death of innocents.

      3. Sven, I’m pretty much with you here. I agree I think with all your points, certainly the first two. What that means is, this issue is complex and difficult. That’s for sure. My question was mostly a way of trying to disarm what I often hear, that there’s a simple answer on obedience to the law. But there’s no such free lunch here. And I’m not much more settled than you are on what the right way to think about it is.

        On the other hand, there’s something about the polarity of the options here that I think can tell us something about what we want out of law. Neither of us wants people disobeying just any old law they choose. On the other hand, both us want people vigorously disobeying and subverting the FSL as much as possible. So there’s some substantive difference between the laws in these categories to which our attitudes respond. And what we want is for our laws to look a lot more like the first than the second. How we cash that out that differentiating feature really matters when we are thinking about law. Too many laws that look in the relevant respect like the FSL undermine not just respect for it, but the entire package of general respect for law. That’s a systemic effect that we rarely hear legislators worrying about, but immigration law (like drug prohibition) really brings out those costs.

  8. [This reply feature won’t let me reply to Sven up above, so I am forced to append my comments down here.]

    “I’m not sure I want to be a nation governed by idealistic poetry. I think I would choose the consent of the governed.”

    Strawperson much?

    Please understand that I was NOT proposing we replace our government with idealistic poetry. I am uncertain how you got this impression.

    I am just describing what influences my consent. Maybe it will influence the consent of others. There is a strong argument that it should influence the consent of citizens who take pride in a romantic concept of America that includes the melting pot and the Statue of Liberty, etc.

    Consent, consent, consent. There, are we cool now?


    I favor open borders. The amount spent on the INS could cover for a lot of economic dislocation caused in the transition, eh? I also distrust any libertarians who do NOT support open borders. (Restricting immigration seems a bit statist and not super free market. Just sayin’.)

      1. Grover, I appreciate the force of Friedman’s argument here (and thanks very much to the pointer to Will’s column on that). But I wonder if facts as they have developed would give him pause. The illegal status of those very immigrants has lots of other implications besides ineligibility for welfare benefits. It also renders them ineligible to participate in the institutions which provide the conditions of basic just relations between individuals, such as protection from force, fraud, and so on which the police power of the state is supposed to serve. To the extent the new Arizona law represents more vigorous enforcement of immigration law, their illegality offers a basis for detaining and invading the privacy of citizens. These are deadweight costs that Friedman’s argument does not seem to include in its calculus (that I can see). If it’s better to have illegal immigration than no immigration at all, that’s only because he thinks those costs are outweighed. But there seems to me no guarantee that they are, or will continue to be.

      2. Very good points Mark. I wish I had more time right now to write a longer response and/or post. I’m not opposed to legal immigration but I’m not a complete open borders guy either (especially given the presence of the welfare state). Peter Singer’s utilitarian argument for a middle course is interesting – though I’m not a utilitarian and am not suggesting I hold his position. See “Insiders and Outsiders” in Practical Ethics:

      3. Great reply!

        In order for Friedman to be correct, many immigrants have to come here and not work. If lots of them work, all the welfare state stuff is quite regressive tax-wise and the contribution of immigrants could cover their draw. So Friedman is really arguing that there is a huge pool of lazy, malevolent immigrants lounging around waiting – poised with an initiative otherwise lacking in their lives – to uproot their entire life and learn a new language but also with the liquid resources to afford the journey despite their low standard of living that would be improved by our sucky welfare. Many people don’t think this is the case. There are a lot of the good, hard-working potential immigrants out there, so I’d want to see the numbers.

        You do realize of course that one can’t fear/scapegoat immigrants for BOTH reasons? Because they are going to steal American jobs AND that they AREN’T going to steal our jobs?!

        Very few people in the US quit their jobs to go on welfare; I feel that there is VERY strong empirical evidence that having a job in the US is vastly more enjoyable than living on welfare in the US, even if that is itself better than living on welfare in, say, Mexico. And that is not even factoring in the expense of anti-immigration efforts by the government… (Quick, what is the annual budget of the INS? How many immigrants on welfare could that cover?)… or the value of having extra consumers in our economy.

        Further, one obvious assumption of Friedman is that not all other states are welfare states. One liberal reaction to globalism makes a lot of sense — encourage all nations to respect human rights and care for the welfare of their citizens. A global minimum wage solves so many other problems, in addition to fears of (new) immigrants.

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