Arizona has enacted a law that makes illegal immigration to the U.S. a state crime. As the top state for border-crossings from Mexico (and so, the main way station for illegal entry into the U.S.), Arizonans were tired of waiting for the Federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to stem the tide of illegal immigration into their state. They were also afraid that crime was rising due to the presence of law-breaking illegals.
Even before the law was signed, a great outcry arose . The Obama administration opposes it . Latino groups reject it. “Progressives” hate it. But let’s face it: illegal immigration is illegal, isn’t it?
The new law does criminalize illegal immigration in Arizona (illegal immigrant status itself is a Federal offense, so the Arizona law piggybacks on the Federal immigration rules). The new law’s most basic violation is a misdemeanor, but repeat offense and many other conditions can raise it to a felony. It mandates that all illegal immigrants convicted of any crime in Arizona be delivered to the Federal Immigration and Naturalization service. So in effect, in enlists Arizona police and courts in actively enforcing Federal immigration laws.
It penalizes employers who hire illegal aliens. Since many illegal immigrants cross the border in Arizona no matter where they are headed, the law makes it a felony to transport illegal aliens for profit. It makes it illegal for any Arizona government official to fail to enforce immigration laws. Those who neglect the law may be sued by private citizens. Finally, it allows police to inquire about immigration status based on a "reasonable suspicion" that someone is an illegal immigrant.
Here in Guatemala where I’m currently living the condemnation of the new law is universal. This is understandable, since Guatemalans have to pay $140 or more just to apply for a visa , and few can get one. Over the last ten years, Guatemalans have formed the third largest group of illegal aliens in the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security . Meanwhile, Guatemala isn’t even in the top twenty sources of legal, naturalized U.S. citizens. Thousands of Guatemalans every year make the long journey to Mexico’s northern border, attempting to cross into the U.S. by land. Some die, some turn back, and many suffer.
Yet who can blame them? In Guatemala, $10-$20 is a decent day’s wage, but prices for most products are not much lower than in the industrialized world. And Guatemala has a long history of troubled governance. Right now there’s a terrifying crime wave going on: murders fill the papers every day. Houses here are built like fortresses: just the picture of the open lawns and bare, unbarred windows of U.S. houses must seem like a dreamland of peace and plenty. People who cross the border without permission are violating no one’s rights. Ignoring the INS does violence to no one. They’re just ignoring a restriction on freedom. When their lives and well-being are at stake, they are morally justified in taking that chance.
I don’t think the idea of a free society is compatible with anything other than an open immigration policy. Foreigners have rights, too, and in normal circumstances no government should prevent peaceful individuals from dealing with each other by trade, no matter what their origin or nationality. Being born south of the border, or in India or China, or anywhere for that matter, should be no bar to honest folk seeking to live independently, even if they dare to buy or rent property in America or —gasp!—seek work in America. (However, the government need not provide foreigners with subsidies or welfare benefits, most of which it shouldn’t provide to anyone at all in the first place.) America has the honor to be the empire of liberty. America is not a nation , and it never should become one: we’re defined by allegiance to a constitution, not by language, race, religion, or tribe.
Yet the idea of a free society is even less compatible with the failure to enforce the law. The rule of law is the basis for all dependable liberty and for open government. Impartial and impersonal law makes possible a society of contract and independent action and it bans official caprice or vaguely-enforced statutes from affecting us. The American immigration laws are a disgrace. They give preference to American family members and historically important immigrant nationalities like the Irish and the Italians. They discriminate against Asians and against achievement-oriented individuals of every stripe. The inventive and hard-working should really be the first admitted, not the last, if we want America to thrive.
Americans accept these oppressive, distortionary laws mainly because no one has really enforced them, up to now. The border patrol is a joke. At least a third of long-term immigrants to the U.S. each year come and stay illegally. Many who are now legal residents originally flouted the law to come, then won legal status in a past “immigration reform” that in effect encouraged illegal immigration as a route to citizenship.
So if the Arizona government will actually enforce the existing Federal laws, bully for them! Certainly, the Federal government should do more to enforce its own laws. Whatever the law is, please, let’s enforce it objectively and with due process. When the law is unjust or unwise (and so many are!), we must fight at the polls to correct them. But if we undermine the rule of law just to win the odd smidgeon of liberty, we are cutting our own throats.
Making it illegal to hire or transport illegal aliens certainly violates the rights of everyone concerned. So I can’t cheer that aspect of the Arizona law. It’s one thing to enforce the Federal statutes we have. But there’s no need to throw fat on the fire of a protectionist approach to immigration.
The aspect of the law that is drawing the most fire is the “reasonable suspicion” provision. The law gives police wide latitude in judging whether or not to ask a person to provide proof of legal residency. Critics claim that the law enables racial profiling, and that all immigrants will be subject to nuisance searches. I don’t understand what the griping is about: if you have a passport with a valid visa, or a green card, or a U.S. passport, just carry them. I carry my passport every day living in a foreign country as I now do.
In practice, the identity check in Arizona may just become more thorough. But perhaps the local police will use the law as a bullying tool: selectively hitting certain neighborhoods or workplaces. I hope that Arizona courts will refine the meaning of “reasonable” here to embrace standards of respect for individuals and even-handed application. However, it’s a fact that the majority of illegal aliens in the U.S. are Mexicans and Central Americans. And that’s who is likely to be crossing the border in the Arizona desert, too. So it’s perfectly reasonable to check whether apparently foreign-born Latinos are in the country legally. Just as it is perfectly reasonable to check whether anyone with a non-native-speaker accent is in the country legally. Anyone who flies commercial in the U.S. experiences the absurdity of uniformly hassling obviously innocent people. The critics of this law sound as if they’d prefer for Arizona cops to set up check-points or conduct random checks: that would hassle everyone, and it would be pretty ineffective at finding illegals, too. Let’s do what we can to get the U.S. to adopt a more rational Federal policy. It’s high time that the Republicans and Democrats came together in a new immigration deal that opens the country up more for productive, independent immigrants; legalizes the illegals already here; and really enforces whatever (crummy, rights-violating) restrictions the law retains. But let’s get off the Arizonans’ backs. In essence, their new law just takes the Federal government at its word. That word, which is the law, is too important to denigrate or ignore.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.