Opinion and Economic Analysis and Banking & Finance

HICKS: Fear, not economics, drives immigration debate

May 8, 2010

The immigration debate deserves some straightforward economic reasoning.

At the outset, it is necessary to say something about Arizona’s new immigration law. This law simply makes the federal crime of illegal immigration also a crime against Arizonans. This allows police, in the course of normal law enforcement, to check someone they suspect of illegally entering the country. This law is easy to label as racial profiling, for in Arizona it is certain it will be Mexicans, not the Quebecois, most often detained. But this label is a spurious charge.

Mexico is in the throes of a violent lawlessness that is spilling over into the United States. Dealing with this is neither racist nor unconstitutional (though, that is not a particularly high bar for judging the efficacy of public policy). For those of us not living in the shadow of Mexico’s fluid lawlessness, the immigration problem has an entirely different dimension. In the Midwest, there are three issues.

First, illegal immigration does not steal American jobs. That’s simply not how the economy works. The work done by illegal immigrants is work that mostly would not otherwise be done without them. It is a pure gain to our economy. If an American loses a job to an illegal immigrant, that job is destined to disappear. The only question is where that work happens—either in a U.S. or Maquiladoran factory. I welcome the factories here.

Second, it is untrue that illegal immigrants cause a significant fiscal drain. They pay taxes while using fewer services. But, even if this were a problem, the easiest fix is amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Finally, there’s a mistaken notion that immigrants do not benefit the country. This is counterfactual. Legal immigrants have both higher education levels and higher earnings on average than we native Americans. Economically, they are among our biggest national assets. Illegal immigrants also offer benefits. And, perhaps more important, the way they are treated is an important barometer of our national values. Here’s why.

I cannot imagine why my country would not welcome someone to our midst who would make the harrowing, difficult and dangerous journey from Mexico to the United States to work. To work! Is there really any better expression of what we think of ourselves as Americans than this? What else could we expect from our fellow citizens?

One secular lesson is very important in my house. From time to time, I carefully explain to my children that their forbears have fought in every American conflict from King Phillip’s War to Iraq, at Valley Forge, Chickamauga and D-Day. But I make clear to my kids that they are no more American, nor more deserving of citizenship and its benefits, than any immigrant arriving this day at the Rio Grande or JFK Airport.

So, once again, we are engaged in a national discussion of immigration. It is a difficult matter, full of real fear of violence. Fears of job losses are misplaced. This debate isn’t about economics. If it were, there would be no discussion.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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