- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

One of the things that bothers me about the immigration bill is the view held in the White House and Congress that “something” must be done — the option of doing nothing is not an option. It is my experience that when this idea takes hold, it is almost inevitable that something bad will result.

In principle, I favor the free mobility of labor — just as I favor free trade and the free movement of capital. If we still had the kind of economy we had in the 19th century, in which the government was minuscule with no welfare programs, I would be inclined to let anyone in who wants to come here. The only way they would survive is by working their butts off, and if they were willing to do that, then we want them. This was, of course, the generally held view at that time. The United States welcomed immigrants from anywhere and everywhere.

But beginning in the 1930s, this country began to become more and more of a welfare state. Many government programs now confer significant benefits upon those who produce nothing.

I’m not saying illegal immigrants come to this country just for the governmental benefits, but the availability of such benefits reduces the burden of being illegal. The alternative of turning away people who may be seriously injured from hospital emergency rooms or children from schools simply is not viable. As long as they are here, such people will be accommodated.

To this, most immigration hard-liners have a simple answer: Send them back whence they came. Defend the border, and deport as many illegals as possible.

Removing the 10 million or so illegal aliens now in the United States would be extraordinarily costly in both money and liberty, however. I seriously doubt most Americans would be willing to pay the taxes to make this happen or tolerate the intrusion on their own freedom — such as requiring a national identification card — that it would require.

So we are left with the current situation in which free immigration of the 19th century variety is untenable and complete elimination of illegal immigrants is impossible. It is this fact the immigration bill’s supporters exploit to claim, since something must be done, their approach is necessarily the best we can achieve.

But what about the option of doing nothing? Why this is not considered a viable option is a mystery to me. It may be the least bad alternative.

Think about the current situation a little more carefully. Illegal aliens who come here do so primarily to work. I don’t deny that. They do many unpleasant jobs that, frankly, few of the native-born would do. They do so for far less cost than would induce the native-born, and probably do a better job in many cases.

Further, illegal aliens are much more willing to do jobs that need to be done for less than the minimum wage and for cash wages that save their employers from paying a lot of taxes, such as the employer’s share of the payroll tax. Since these people never will qualify for Social Security benefits, why should they pay taxes for such benefits? Looks OK to me. I wish I had that option.

Finally, illegal aliens are not very likely to complain to the Labor Department or a union if they have some grievance. They are more worried about being deported than exploited, so they have no leverage. Therefore, illegal aliens are willing to work cheap, which allows the native-born to have inexpensive vegetables — which doctors keep telling us to eat more of — and other goods and services that improve our real standard of living.

Meanwhile, as miserable as their lives are, for most illegal aliens this is a good deal, too. They wouldn’t come here — braving a lot of hardship in the process — if they didn’t think they were coming out ahead. In short, the status quo is really a win-win for everyone.

We don’t want to open the borders entirely, because that would let in a lot of riffraff. But we don’t want to close the borders entirely, either, because we need the cheap labor. So, in my opinion, the optimum is to allow some illegal immigration, but with enough enforcement to keep it under control.

It is precisely their illegal status that makes these immigrants valuable and willing to work cheaply. If they become legal, as the pending legislation would establish, they will be demanding the minimum wage, health benefits and unions. Then they may no longer be a net benefit to our economy, but a liability.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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