Bruce Bartlett

One of the things that bothers me about the immigration bill is the view held in the White House and Congress that “something” must be done; the option of doing nothing is not an option. It is my experience that when this idea takes hold, it is almost inevitable that something bad will result.

In principle, I favor the free mobility of labor—just as I favor free trade and the free movement of capital. If we still had the kind of economy we had in the 19th century, in which the government was minuscule and there were no welfare programs, I would be inclined to say, let anyone in who wants to come here. The only way they are going to survive is by working their butts off, and if they are willing to do that then we want them.

This was, of course, the generally held view at that time. The United States welcomed immigrants from anywhere and everywhere. But beginning in the 1930s, this country began to become more and more of a welfare state. Many government programs now confer significant benefits upon those who produce nothing.

I’m not saying that illegal immigrants come to this country just for the governmental benefits, but the availability of such benefits reduces the burden of being illegal. The alternative of turning away people who may be seriously injured from hospital emergency rooms or children from schools simply is not viable. As long as they are here, such people will be accommodated.

To this, most immigration hardliners have a simple answer: send them back where they came from. Defend the border and deport illegals to the greatest extent possible. However, removing the 10 million or so illegal aliens now in the U.S. would be extraordinarily costly in terms of both money and liberty. I seriously doubt that most Americans would be willing to pay the taxes to make this happen or tolerate the intrusion on their own freedom—such as requiring a national identification card—that it would require.

So we are left with the current situation in which free immigration of the 19th century variety is untenable and complete elimination of illegal immigrants is impossible. It is this fact that supporters of the immigration bill are exploiting to claim that since something must be done, their approach is necessarily the best we can achieve.

But what about the option of doing nothing? Why this is this not considered a viable option is a mystery to me. It may be the least bad alternative.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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