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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Fukuyama on Immigration

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fukuyama on Immigration

Francis Fukuyama wrote a wonderful piece on immigration, "Immigrants and Crime: Time for a Sensible Debate," for the Wall Street Journal.  It is wonderful because it describes the background and motivation of most illegal immigrants to the United States and because it distinguishes between criminal and more benign economic immigrants and presents many of my own thoughts on the subject. 
But the problem of gangs and drug violence should not be confounded with the behavior of the vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S., who by and large are seeking the same thing that every immigrant to America has wanted since the time of the Mayflower: to better their condition and that of their families. They are not criminals in the sense of people who make a living by breaking the law. They would be happy to live legally, but they come from societies in which legal rules were never quite extended to them. They are therefore better described as "informal" rather than "illegal."

Understanding this distinction requires knowing something about the social order in Latin America or, for that matter, in many other developing countries. These societies are often characterized by sharp class distinctions between a relatively small, well-educated elite and a much broader and poorer population.

The rule of law exists in places like Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador; the problem is that access to the legal system tends to be a privilege of the well-to-do. The vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S. come from poor rural areas, or shantytowns in large cities, where the state—in the form of courts, government agencies and the like—is often absent. Registering a small business, or seeking help from the police, or negotiating a contract requires money, time and political influence that the poor do not possess. In many Latin American countries, as much as 70%-80% of the population lives and works in the informal sector.
The lack of legal access does not make everyone in these regions criminals. It simply means that they get by as best they can through informal institutions they themselves create. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has written extensively about the lack of formal property rights, not just in his own country but throughout the developing world. The poor do not hold legal title to their homes, despite having lived in them for years, because of the insuperable barriers the system throws up to formal registration. So they squat in their homes, constantly insecure and unable to use their property as collateral.

The poor are entrepreneurial and form businesses like restaurants and bus companies, but they are unlicensed and don't conform to official safety rules. They and everyone else would be much better off if they could be brought into the formal legal system, but it is a dysfunctional political system that prevents that from happening.
I shall adopt Fukuyama's and de Soto's term informal to describe peaceful if illegal immigrants.  Most informal immigrants do not understand our emphasis on the rule of law.  They must view our legal system in much the same way that they view the legal system in their native countries, as systems that only allow them to compete at the margin, given that the margin in the United States is much nicer than the margin in Latin American.  They do understand the proud words of the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
There is a conflict between the Law of God cited in the Declaration of Independence and our own laws governing immigration, a conflict that did not exist until we began limiting immigration in the late eighteenth century.  While this conflict may be inevitable due to our inability to absorb the tsunami of humanity seeking a better life that would inundate our shores if immigration were open to all, this limitation should give us discomfort.  It turns America from a lighthouse to the world to Reagan's shining city upon a hill, a noble example of freedom but not necessarily a refuge from tyranny, or perhaps worse, a club for those fortunate enough to be born within its shores. 

While it may not be in our power to absorb all those informal immigrants seeking their God given rights, we can give them a taste of the rule of law that benefits them and out country.  Fukuyama supports a comprehensive immigration reform, and while I wince at the word comprehensive, I largely agree that reform should include a guest worker program, a path to citizenship for many of the informals, particularly those who were brought here as children.  Limit entry, but make sure that those with legitimate business interests such as farmers and agribusinesses who have relied upon these workers to harvest and transport crops for generations can continue to do so.  Require proof of citizenship or a green card for employment, but don't push the cost of enforcing immigration law on employers.  They should not be made an extension of law enforcement, and frankly, I don't want my employer to acquire policing skills.  Let us maintain our identity as a freedom loving people with a zest for economic opportunity.

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