Do we really want to pack them up, forcibly, by the millions in the greatest forced migration in human history? How many are there, 15, maybe 20 million? No one has ever moved 15 million people against their will. No one has ever moved half that many without concentration camps, forced marches of one form or another and mass death through plague.
If there’s another way to do it, please tell me what it is. But I haven’t heard one. What I hear is slogans like ‘what part of illegal don’t you understand’ and attacks on ‘amnesty.’ Slogans move callers to dial in to talk radio, but they don’t move 20 million people voluntarily back into poverty and squalor. Soldiers do that (unhappy ones); box cars full of people do that. Camps surrounded by barbed wire do that. In the end you either let them stay or you herd them out. If you want to call it amnesty, go ahead.
After all, what’s wrong with amnesty? The idea has a well-worn legal tradition, one strongly associated with the Christian faith. It means forgiveness. After the Civil War, Lincoln offered amnesty to rebel soldiers. Was he wrong to do so? They had taken up arms against their own government; they had killed hundreds of thousands. But Lincoln (as opposed to the radical republicans) had the wisdom to offer forgiveness. What about runaway slaves after emancipation? They had broken the law, shouldn’t they have had to pay the price even after the laws were changed? Of course not. Why should immigration laws be any different? If we liberalize them, which seems well overdue, should we still punish the people who violated the law which we later deemed too harsh?
Amnesty is a strong part of the U.S. political tradition. Vietnam draft dodgers received amnesty. Do you think we should track them down and imprison them now? Conservatives often argue for amnesty. Tax amnesties are a favored release for overburdened tax payers.
Supply-siders rightly argue that widespread tax cheating is a sign that taxes are too high, that they are driving productive people into the black market. They argued that widespread violation of the national 55 mph. speed limit was a sign that law was too restrictive. Americans concluded that widespread violation of prohibition laws (not just statutes, but an actual part of the Constitution) was evidence that the law was too strict and that laws like prohibition which are so onerous that otherwise law-abiding citizens broke them, undermine the rule of law.
Ronald Reagan saw it, even if alleged ‘Reaganites’ don’t. He signed amnesty into law in 1986, inviting three million ‘illegals’ to become ‘legals.’ He even defended the idea in his 1984 Debate with Fritz Mondale: “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” Would he do otherwise now? Would the man who didn’t want to deport 3 million of God’s children, now deport 15 or 20 million of them? Reagan had a completely different idea about immigration and the border from the wall/moat/electrocution/drone model. His diaries show an emotional discomfort with militarized borders with Mexico. He met with the President of Mexico to try to discuss ways to do something better with the border then to turn it into a fence. Reagan was concerned about a fence, while the recent crop of would-be-Reagans spout nonsense about walls with moats topped by electrified fences.
Reagan was influenced by free-market thought in this regard. Milton Friedman believed that immigration, even illegal immigration, was good for freedom. His argument, which was in this regard identical to Austrian economists like Ludwig Von Mises, was that human capital should be free to cross borders just like financial capital should be. Forcible interventions into immigration were really just forcible interventions into the labor market designed to restrict wage competition, just like unionism, just like mandated 30-hour work weeks or forced retirement or wage floors. Von Mises saw that “There cannot be the slightest doubt that migration barriers diminish the productivity of human labor.” – Ludwig Von Mises, Liberalism.
He saw immigration crackdowns as what they are, just another form of protectionism, and, like other forms of protectionism, as dangers to peace: “In such a world without trade and migration barriers, no incentives for war and conquest are left.” – Ludwig Von Mises, Human Action.
Both Friedman and Von Mises had concerns about immigration driven by the welfare system. In “Free to Choose” Friedman nuances his pro-immigration views by pointing out that one cannot have a fully free immigration system when new immigrants can immediately apply for welfare.
In this way, the Friedman position on immigration, as pro-immigrant as it is, falls short of the Biblical one, which not only encourages immigration, but even encourages immigrants to participate in the social relief system of Ancient Israel.
The anti-immigrant impulse also falls short of the vision of the Founders. This is one issue where the TEA Parties have to diligently study the writings of the Fathers to get things right. The Founders wanted a big and growing country with lots of immigrants. In fact, immigration was one of the causes for the War for Independence. Apparently King George wasn’t letting us to get enough of it. Jefferson complained:
“He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
Healthy and growing nations talk this way and Malthusianism be damned. More people means mostly more minds and hands, not mostly more mouths. It was taken as a given by the founders that population growth is a good, and that policy should encourage it. Healthy nations grow and talk about immigrants as source of hope. Anything else has just too much of the death rattle of empire to it.
What does the Constitution say about immigration? Really only two things: first that it’s generally up to Congress what the rules should be—they can loosen and tighten the standards as they see fit. Second, it makes an exception: No matter what Congress says, children born here (with the exception of those born to families such as diplomats who are not under our legal jurisdiction) are citizens. No amount of torturing the text can change the fact that the children of illegal immigrants are citizens. So what are the family values conservatives going to do, send the parents or grandparents packing, while the kids stay here? This is pro-family?
We need a re-set on this issue. Freedom, growth, assimilation, more freedom, more growth, more assimilation: that’s our heritage. If the Republican Party gets tagged at the anti-Latino party, because we give into austerity economic models and zero sum game theory, we’re dead. And we will have brought it on ourselves.
Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.