Politics & Policy

Is Illegal Immigration Moral?

Dimensions the debate too often ignores.

We know illegal immigration is no longer really unlawful, but is it moral?

Usually Americans debate the fiscal costs of illegal immigration. Supporters of open borders rightly remind us that illegal immigrants pay sales taxes. Often their payroll-tax contributions are not later tapped by Social Security payouts.

Opponents counter that illegal immigrants are more likely to end up on state assistance, are less likely to report cash income, and cost the state more through the duplicate issuing of services and documents in both English and Spanish. Such to-and-fro talking points are endless.

So is the debate over beneficiaries of illegal immigration. Are profit-minded employers villains who want cheap labor in lieu of hiring more expensive Americans? Or is the culprit a cynical Mexican government that counts on billions of dollars in remittances from its expatriate poor that it otherwise ignored?

Or is the engine that drives illegal immigration the American middle class? Why should millions of suburbanites assume that, like 18th-century French aristocrats, they should have imported labor to clean their homes, manicure their lawns, and watch over their kids?

Or is the catalyst the self-interested professional Latino lobby in politics and academia that sees a steady stream of impoverished Latin American nationals as a permanent victimized constituency, empowering and showcasing elite self-appointed spokesmen such as themselves?

Or is the real advocate the Democratic Party that wishes to remake the electoral map of the American Southwest by ensuring larger future pools of natural supporters? Again, the debate over who benefits and why is never-ending.

But what is often left out of the equation is the moral dimension of illegal immigration. We see the issue too often reduced to caricature, involving a noble, impoverished victim without much free will and subject to cosmic forces of sinister oppression. But everyone makes free choices that affect others. So ponder the ethics of a guest arriving in a host country knowingly contrary to its sovereign protocols and laws.

First, there is the larger effect on the sanctity of a legal system. If a guest ignores the law — and thereby often must keep breaking more laws — should citizens also have the right to similarly pick and choose which statutes they find worthy of honoring and which are too bothersome? Once it is deemed moral for the impoverished to cross a border without a passport, could not the same arguments of social justice be used for the poor of any status not to report earned income or even file a 1040 form?

Second, what is the effect of mass illegal immigration on impoverished U.S. citizens? Does anyone care? When 10 to 15 million aliens are here illegally, where is the leverage for the American working poor to bargain with employers? If it is deemed ethical to grant in-state-tuition discounts to illegal-immigrant students, is it equally ethical to charge three times as much for out-of-state, financially needy American students — whose federal government usually offers billions to subsidize state colleges and universities? If foreign nationals are afforded more entitlements, are there fewer for U.S. citizens?

Third, consider the moral ramifications on legal immigration — the traditional great strength of the American nation. What are we to tell the legal immigrant from Oaxaca who got a green card at some cost and trouble, or who, once legally in the United States, went through the lengthy and expensive process of acquiring citizenship? Was he a dupe to follow our laws dutifully?

And given the current precedent, if a million soon-to-be-impoverished Greeks, 2 million refugee North Koreans, or 5 million starving Somalis were to enter the United States illegally and en masse, could anyone object to their unlawful entry and residence? If so, on what legal, practical, or moral grounds?

Fourth, examine the morality of remittances. It is deemed noble to send billions of dollars back to families and friends struggling in Latin America. But how is such a considerable loss of income made up? Are American taxpayers supposed to step in to subsidize increased social services so that illegal immigrants can afford to send billions of dollars back across the border? What is the morality of that equation in times of recession? Shouldn’t illegal immigrants at least try to buy health insurance before sending cash back to Mexico?

The debate over illegal immigration is too often confined to costs and benefits. But ultimately it is a complicated moral issue — and one often ignored by all too many moralists.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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