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This Too Shall Pass-What’s Legal and What’s OK

April 1, 2017

Most Americans break a variety of laws each and every day. Around the country today, thousands of spouses were battered, thousands of consumers were cheated, and millions of speed limits were broken. And as the old Army ad goes, that was all before breakfast.

We justify the liberties we take with the law of the land in a variety of ways, but most justifications fall into two categories: indifference and moral equivocation.

While indifference is self-explanatory, moral equivocation can be a bit more complex. It generally takes the form of claiming that one’s illegal actions are not actually harmful: “I know how to drive safely at 80 miles per hour.” “I’m not hurting anyone by smoking this.”

Then there are darker equivocations, where retribution serves as a loophole to avoid observance of the law: “She had it coming.”

Regardless of how we justify our lawlessness, at least two overriding themes emerge. The first is that these justifications are rarely anything but self-serving. “If I feel like doing this, I’m just gonna go ahead and do it.” A classic American, individualistic stance. The corollary, the second theme, is that it’s not really illegal unless you get caught. We would not have such a cavalier attitude toward doing the deed if we thought the book was going to be thrown at us.

When I broke the speed limit last week, I probably didn’t mean to, but ultimately I was indifferent. I didn’t feel that my temporary lead foot was a complex moral issue, and I knew I wasn’t going to be pulled over.

Those people in our neighborhoods who assaulted their spouses last night were banking on the affected parties not calling the police and probably just saw it as part of the ups and downs of a relationship. All of us, justified or not, shrugged our shoulders and went on with our lives.

Let’s now do something radical and apply our own standards to someone else: when someone crosses the Mexican-American border illegally and comes to the U.S., what is their justification?

With the understanding that not all stories are the same, there are a significant number of people who come here, quite simply, for economic opportunity. The scrap wages that we “native” Americans (irony intended) tend to laugh off and reject are accepted by many of them as an improvement on the life they left, and some can even stretch their money far enough to send some back to their family back home.

This act of illegality—this act of crossing into the U.S. without permission—must of necessity be a carefully thought out decision, weighing the risks and opportunities involved. The goal here is improving one’s lot in life. This is a quality-of-life decision. Depending on circumstances, it can be a life-or-death decision.

This is not the absentmindedness of accelerating too fast in a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds. This is not a vindictive backhand to keep an unruly spouse under one’s thumb. This is a humbling and dangerous decision. It is an attempt at self-improvement, not just self-serving.

And if it’s all about not getting caught when we break laws, how much more should that be true for undocumented immigrants, given the gravity of the decisions they’ve made to improve their lot in life?

Of course, all of this justification means nothing if the lawlessness of undocumented immigrants were doing real damage to our nation. That would mean all the current immigration round-ups serve a greater purpose, helping making America great (again?).

The most common talking point among conservatives is that undocumented immigration is wreaking havoc on the American economy and workforce.

The whispered undertones, which we will only discuss briefly, are that the immigrants are destroying our way of life. Only the most ignorant will say this in mixed company. The more educated and thoughtful people (not always the same set of folks, mind you) understand that this excuse was played out in the 1800s when it was used on the Irish immigrants, among others.

But what of the economy? I’m not going to wheel in the statistics, because frankly, I don’t have to. An elementary understanding of economics and some basic reasoning skills are all you really need to debunk this argument that immigrants hurt the economy. (For those of you who don’t have those tools, consider this an invitation.)

An economic system has inputs and outputs, producers who produce the inputs, consumers who use the outputs. And all of us participate from both sides. When we go to work, we put on our producer/input hats. When we come home and use stuff, we put on our consumer/output hats.

Immigrants, regardless of legal designation, do the exact same thing. They work and they come home. They produce and consume. So even if one of “them” took “your” job, that job’s income allows them to become a potential customer for a business that you could start or work for. Millions of undocumented immigrants represent a consumer bloc that can (and does) support thousands of businesses that 1) employ other people (like you!) and 2) pay taxes.

If President #45 finds that there are exactly 13,483,561 undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and surgically extracts each one of them, here’s what will happen to the U.S. economy:

  • There will be 13,483,561 fewer consumers contributing to the U.S. economy. At $10K per person, that’s $134 billion less consumption annually.
  • Unemployment could very well go up. That sort of dent in consumption is the thing recessions are made of. The 5% of Americans who are actively unemployed are for the most part not looking to fill the jobs the undocumented immigrants would leave behind. The unemployed who aren’t counted in the unemployment rate will be even less motivated to take low-paying jobs—heck, they weren’t looking for jobs even when their only prospects were higher-paying jobs.
  • Industries that rely on undocumented labor will suffer. (No, we shouldn’t have created that sort of employment infrastructure, but wagging a finger won’t change the issue.) Industries suffering means production is interrupted, consumers get irritated, goods get scarce, prices go up, and all sorts of domino effects proceed from there.
  • Government spending required to sniff out and deport these people would be high. Given that there’s no economic upside, it’s a lose-lose-lose scenario.

It would make infinitely more sense to send the 13 million Americans who paid the highest effective income tax rates on a vacation to Cancun as a thank you for supporting the government. You’re still sending the same number of people south of the border, you’re creating goodwill with taxpayers and with Mexico, which would see a huge tourism boom related to the initiative, and there would be little or no spending on legal wrangling, law enforcement, or investigation.

Speaking of goodwill, we have not even started to discuss the intangible, non-economic repercussions of such a policy change, carried out to its full extent. The immigration hardliners will count our reduced standing in the world, our diminished relationship with Mexico and Mexican-Americans, and all the other awful side effects as part of the price we must pay to do the right thing and preserve the integrity of America.

Apparently, this vision of the integrity of America has everything to do with selectively enforcing our nation’s laws so that the most vulnerable are held to the strictest standards.

And for us regular citizens, it means indirect support of these measures by continuing to elect officials who decide how to enforce regulations like these in a way that destroy people’s lives and the nation’s economy.

Meanwhile, you can still explain away your lead foot and your neighbor can continue assaulting his spouse, because traffic accidents and domestic violence, we appear to believe, aren’t real issues that cost lives and livelihoods.

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