Steve Chapman

Conservatism, declared George Will recently, "is realism: about human nature and government's competence." It requires accepting human beings as they are, not as we wish they were, and recognizing the limited capacity of government to transform the world for the better. But in the immigration debate, many conservatives are embracing policies that, by this standard, are anything but conservative.

Just as children are nature's way of mocking their parents' best intentions, illegal immigration is one of those phenomena that show the ineffectuality of laws in impeding humans from pursuing their interests. It would be nice if we could lay down lines on a map and expect people to stay on one side or the other. But when forces bigger than geography are at work, the decrees of nations often prove useless.

Mexicans and Guatemalans and other illegal immigrants come here out of an elemental and healthy desire to improve their lot. Once they arrive, they get willing cooperation from Americans who find these foreigners can also enhance our welfare.

Both illegals and natives gain something from this movement of people. To suppose that policies emanating from Washington can overcome these drives is like assuming that laws against sodomy can neutralize libidos.

Conservatives need no instruction on the value of market mechanisms in creating wealth. But the continuing illegal flow of people into this country, which so many conservatives decry, is a product of those mechanisms.

If there are no jobs in Town A and lots of them in Town B, many residents of A will decamp for B. The same holds for countries. Mexicans making $15 a day have a huge incentive to go where they can make $15 an hour. Like water rolling downhill, they are naturally drawn to places where they will be better off.

Of course, we often alter or stop the flow of rivers by damming them. But damming people is harder, since they, unlike H20, have the means and the motive to outwit such efforts. Thus the paradox discovered by Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey: As we have increased our efforts to seal the Mexican border, migrants have been diverted to remote areas that are harder to patrol, so much so that the rate of apprehension has actually fallen.

Even if the border could miraculously be made airtight against trespassers, it would do nothing to stop foreigners from coming on tourist or student visas and then staying on after they are supposed to leave. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, as many as 45 percent of the foreigners here illegally arrived with the blessing of the law. Build a 2,000-mile fence, and more will come that way.

Hardliners think the way to get rid of illegal immigrants is to get rid of the jobs they fill. In the Senate bill endorsed by President Bush, advocates of tougher enforcement got a new system for employers to verify that their workers are entitled to be here. Anyone newly hired (and, in time, anyone with a job) would have to pass a check of federal databases.

It's a fine idea in theory, but note that it requires government authorization for every employment decision in a large, dynamic economy, an approach that is just slightly at odds with the free market. It also presumes a level of efficiency that conservatives do not usually expect of government.

In practice, as a small-scale pilot program begun in 1997, the verification system has proven fallible. Randel Johnson, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently testified before Congress that the databases "are not always up-to-date, there is a high error rate in determining work authorization, and the program is incapable of capturing identity fraud." The Society for Human Resource Management estimates the new system will increase the administrative burden on employers tenfold.

Those who endorse a vigorous immigration crackdown are upholding a sound conservative idea -- namely, the rule of law. But for law to effectively rule, it has to accommodate reality. Believing that immigration enforcement can wall us off from people who are prepared to endure huge sacrifices to come here is more in the realm of dreams.

Any benefit a new law can achieve is bound to be modest and incremental, discouraging some illegals from coming, diverting others into legal channels and having no effect on others. Our leaders are better off trying for small improvements than insisting on grand solutions. In this and most other spheres of government endeavor, conservatives should know, it's wise not to expect too much.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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