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Perils and Privileges

AN ESTIMATED ELEVEN million illegal immigrants live in the United States. More migrants, mostly from Mexico, pour in over the southwest border every day. To halt the flow, the United States has hired additional border patrol agents and built a fence along parts of the border, but migrants have evaded these measures by shifting their routes and entering through deserts that are unprotected. Some of these migrants lose their way and die of exposure. The Border Patrol gives medical aid to anyone it finds and captures, but it cannot reach everyone who needs help. A few Americans have taken steps to offer water, food, and medical aid. But these Good Samaritans have come into conflict with the Border Patrol, and with ranchers and other citizens who have set up patrols to detect illegal migrants. And during a period of high unemployment, Americans throughout the country, but most notably in Arizona, have supported laws that crack down on illegal immigration but that may result in racial profiling and harassment of Hispanics. 

According to Ananda Rose, the pro-migrant groups are driven by religious conviction, compassion for people who end up dying in the desert, and opposition to American law, which in their eyes treats illegal migrants too harshly. The ranchers and their supporters do not oppose immigration, but they do oppose uncontrolled entry by illegal migrants, who bring with them dangerous crime including drug smuggling, and often destroy property and ultimately threaten, or so they argue, American culture. A lawful system of migration exists, one that distributes visas to people who live in different countries; the illegal migrants from Mexico act unfairly by pushing to the front of the line. The upshot is a “showdown” between two passionate groups that share no common ground.

Rose avoids taking sides in the dispute, but it is easy to see where her sympathies lie. A nun who works in a soup kitchen that helps migrants on the Mexican side of the border “is a well of strength and determination.” A member of the anti-migrant Patriots Coalition, who is described as “sitting in a lawn chair, eating his third cream donut and petting a standard white poodle who is draped in a full-sized American flag,” gets less favorable treatment. Rose thinks that reasonable people can disagree about how the government should deal with illegal immigration, but she also thinks something must be done to end the deaths in the Sonoran Desert, and she is clearly more impressed by the charitable impulses of the pro-migrant groups than by the law-and-order mentality of the donut-chomping patriots. Indeed, she criticizes an Arizona law that devotes state enforcement resources to immigration enforcement, and she attacks the border fence, arguing that it sends a message of exclusion.

But the book is less about who is right than about why people disagree. Its chief virtue is its fine-grained account of the motivations of the people on both sides of the debate. Yet Rose’s earnestly respectful reporting of what people say is also a weakness. The pro-migrant groups cite Biblical passages that direct people to help strangers in desperate circumstances. The anti-migrant groups cite Biblical passages that commend respect for established law, as well as the general consensus, among Christians and others, that citizens ought to be able to control their borders, because it is impossible to run a society on Christian or any other principles if migration by people who reject those principles is not controlled.

Here again Rose expresses the pro-migrant side more sympathetically, but also dutifully notes Jean Bethke Elshtain’s rather accurate observation, at least on the evidence presented in Rose’s book, that the pro-migrant groups justify their agendas by cherry-picking their favorite Biblical passages without making serious theological arguments—no doubt because useful instruction on American immigration law in the twenty-first century is not going to be found in a two-thousand year old text written to address the dilemmas of nomads and primitive agriculturalists. Of course, the same can be said about the anti-migrant groups. Argument based on scripture lacks standing in American public policy debates; the weakness of the theological arguments reported in this book can only make one grateful for this norm.

So Rose gives up on theology and locates the border controversy in the depths of human psychology. The crisis in the southwest turns out to stem from our inability to deal with “the problem of the existence of others.” Citing Sartre and Freud, Rose argues that the existence of “the Other” poses psychological challenges because people both depend on, and face potential threats from, other people. One must choose between compassion for, and fear of, the Other, Rose says. Immigration policy might reflect the latter choice, or our inability to make a choice—what she thinks is not entirely clear.

But this won’t wash. For Sartre and Freud, the “Other” meant all other people, including our fellow citizens. Foreigners are no more “Other” than other Others. Immigration poses a different, and more mundane, set of problems. Most countries, and the United States more than many others, welcome immigrants—but up to a point. As in so many other areas of life, there are trade-offs. Immigration brings useful skills, cheap labor, cultural diversity, family reunification, and many other good things, to say nothing of the economic benefits to the migrants themselves—but it also can lead to overcrowding, congestion, the loss of common values, low wages, and many other bad things. All countries cap immigration and restrict visas to those who serve a public policy goal such as family reunification. Disagreements about how many people to admit, and what kind of people to admit, reflect empirical ambiguities about the social value added by immigration, and also uncertainties about America’s humanitarian responsibilities. Humans may have trouble reconciling their natural egotism with the demands of others, but this psychological fact provides only the loosest possible metaphor, and not a helpful one, for understanding the debate about immigration in general, and the debate about illegal immigration in particular. One can oppose immigration, or demand limits on immigration, without seeing foreigners as posing existentialist dilemmas.

The distinctive problem posed by the border is that although Americans can legitimately restrict entry into their county, it seems to be impossible to enforce immigration law in a way that does not cause a great deal of suffering and ex post regret. The more tightly the border is sealed, the more that migrants will wander through the desert in order to evade detection, and so the more that people will stumble off the trails, become disoriented under the scorching sun, and die. Meanwhile, the migrants who suffer in this way are not evil people. We thus can’t plant landmines on the border, and instead we feel that we must build a wall that harmlessly repels them, even though their efforts to circumvent the wall produce the same results as landmines would—deaths in the desert. But if the migrants are not evil people, they are not necessarily as desperate or as otherwise deserving of special sympathy as Rose and the pro-migrant groups argue. The Mexican political system is not repressive, and Mexico is not an impoverished country by global standards. Mexicans enter the United States illegally not because Mexico is poor, but because the United States is rich. They behave like our ancestors, who came to this country with little concern for legal niceties, dazzled by the prospect of streets paved with gold.

One might thus argue that the overwhelming majority of migrants from Mexico are rational economic actors who are taking a calculated risk, like a person who joins the army in order to obtain skills but then find himself in a war zone, or someone who mortgages his home in order to finance a start-up but then finds himself on the street when his business fails. We can possibly do more to inform potential migrants of the dangers of crossing the desert, but if they prefer to take these risks, it is not our responsibility to move heaven and earth to rescue them.

The pro-migrant groups blame American policy for the hardships of people who cross the desert, and argue that government must do more to protect them. But it is hard to think of solutions. Opening the doors to Mexico is not only politically infeasible; it would also be unfair to people who live in other countries and would like to migrate to the United States, many of them far more desperate than those who live in Mexico. The border patrol could set up emergency aid stations across the desert, but such a project would be enormously expensive and further encourage illegal migration by removing the major deterrents to illegal entry, which are the hazards of the desert.

Rose herself does not know what to do. A chapter with the unpromising title, “What Would Jesus Do?,” concludes that we do not know. And sensibly so. If the Redeemer in Christian theology thought about border problems in the Sonoran Desert two thousand years in the future, he left few clues as to his conclusions.

Proposals exist for ending the current immigration crisis. The existing eleven million-plus illegal immigrants, who cannot be deported without bankrupting the country, would be given a path to citizenship, and a guest worker program would be established so that the demand for unskilled labor could be met but citizenship would be withheld. Would-be migrants who are driven by economic want would enter the guest worker program, as it would permit them to earn American wages, while protecting themselves from legal harassment. But they would be required to leave the country when their work visas expired.

And there is the rub. The proposal can work only if the U.S. government forces guest workers to leave the country when their visas expire. Anti-migrant groups do not believe the executive branch’s assurances that it will enforce this requirement, because the executive branch has never tried very hard to enforce immigration law in the past. Since the Bush administration, the executive branch has attempted to rebut this criticism by strengthening border enforcement, which has created the current humanitarian crisis in the Sonoran Desert.

Rose thinks that the deaths along the border must be avoidable and that therefore they signal that the system is “broken.” This leaves me with a macabre but inescapable thought: that the deaths signal a sort of success of the enforcement program, which has raised the cost of illegal entry. More people south of the border need to take the risks more seriously. Only then will humane immigration reform become possible. Ultimately, the problem is one of costs, economic incentives, and the harsh logic of deterrence, a problem for which an introductory textbook on game theory would be far more helpful than the New Testament or Being and Nothingness.

Eric A. Posner is a professor of law at the University of Chicago.