Is Immigrant Amnesty a Conservative Policy?
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 some time 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.
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