- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

One way of trying to justify illegal immigration from an economic standpoint is to point out that the work done by these immigrants adds to the total output of the United States.

We have all heard about the “undocumented workers” who grow our tomatoes, harvest our strawberries, clean our hotels, take care of our children, mow our lawns and do innumerable other things. All this, of course, adds to the nation’s total output.

If that is a sufficient justification, why not open our borders to everybody from countries around the world? If not, why not? By what principle would you decide where to put a limit? There is no point saying that there is not room enough for everybody to be here, because there is.

A quarter-century ago, I sat down with some statistics on world population and on land area in the U.S. — and discovered the world’s entire population could be housed in the state of Texas, in one-story, single family homes, four people to a house, on a lot slightly larger than the one where I lived at the time, in a typical middle-class neighborhood.

The world’s population has of course grown since then, so instead of putting everybody in Texas, we could spread them out from sea to shining sea, with lots of elbow room for everybody.

There is no question that, with billions more people living in the United States, our national output would be a lot larger than today. Why not do it then, if the argument based on immigrants’ contribution to increased American output is sufficient?

More important, by what principle would you decide where to draw the line — and why does that same principle not apply to today’s immigrants, legal or illegal?

The most obvious objection is that the world’s population living in the United States would not only add to output but add to the costs imposed on American citizens. That same argument applies to immigrants from Mexico or any other country today.

The emergency rooms of many California hospitals have become major medical treatment centers for illegal immigrants. The financial drain of serving people who cannot or do not pay has shut down some of these hospitals, making them unavailable to citizens as well as illegal aliens.

Schools must contend not only with the additional financial costs of educating the children of illegal immigrants but also the educational problems of trying to deal with children who require extra attention because of their limited knowledge of English. The children of American citizens have less time and resources available to them as a result.

The welfare state has made immigrants of all sorts, wherever their origin and whether legal or illegal, a major burden beyond what the immigrants of a century ago posed. Few enthusiasts for more immigration seem to want to talk about these high hidden costs of “cheap labor.”

To the hotels, farmers, and affluent families who hire illegal immigrants, the labor may be cheap but to the taxpayers it can be very expensive. Moreover, the people who live in affluent suburbs and have “undocumented workers” mow their lawns, care for their children or clean their swimming pools are unlikely to have them as neighbors. Nor are the immigrants’ children likely to attend local upscale schools.

Even people who have railed at Wal-Mart for not paying their workers “enough,” claiming the taxpayers are subsidizing Wal-Mart employees’ health care and other benefits, never seem to apply the same reasoning to illegal immigrants.

While U.S. citizens are legally entitled to welfare state benefits, Mexicans get those benefits only if they cross the border into the United States. In short, immigrants add to such costs while Wal-Mart’s American employees do not, because they can get those benefits whether they work for Wal-Mart or not.

Whatever the decision as to how many and what kind of immigrants should be let into the United States, why should that decision be made by people in Mexico, instead of being made here by Americans?

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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