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Reason Foundation

Immigration Isn't the Problem

The real issue is border security

David Harsanyi
May 3, 2010

The Congress of the United States—an institution that spent a chunk of the past year cajoling passage of the most contentious legislation devised in decades—may not have the "appetite" to take on another "controversial issue," namely immigration reform, this year, according to President Barack Obama. Bummer.

But is immigration, in the broadest sense of the idea, really a contentious matter?

Health care reform, cap and trade—at the heart of these questions resides an irreconcilable conflict of philosophy, be it economic doctrine or the proper role of government, and as we learned, no amount of negotiation will bridge these ideological splits.

Very few Americans, on the other hand, are inherently opposed to immigration. For the most part, the controversy we face isn't about immigration at all. It's about the systematic failure of federal government to enforce the law or offer rational policy. There's a difference.

Gallup polls (and others) taken over the past decade find that about 60 percent of Americans, when asked whether immigration is generally a good thing or a bad thing for the country, believe it to be a positive. Yet when Gallup recently polled Americans about the new Arizona law that cracks down on illegal immigrants, of the three-quarters of voters who had heard about the then-pending legislation, 51 percent said they favor it, while only 39 percent said they oppose it.

Americans value immigration. They recoil from lawlessness. And frustration over the impotent border enforcement has manifested itself in a flailing overreach. Arizona's law isn't a referendum on Latinos or even immigration itself. It's an unambiguous rebuke of Washington.

There are, on one noisy periphery, those who yell "Nazi" or "racist" at any sign of enforcement. In truth, many of these folks don't believe any person can be here illegally; to them, the very existence of a border is xenophobic and an affront to human rights.

That's not to say there aren't those on the other fringe—regularly lumping themselves in with mainstream opposition to illegal behavior—who disapprove of any immigration on principle. They agonize over the Third World infiltrators. They are often economic protectionists and occasionally militant environmentalists who view any growth or prosperity as a death sentence for Mother Earth.

But if you, like me, believe it's possible to advocate for a broad-minded immigration policy—one that creates more expansive guest-worker programs, offers amnesty (though not citizenship) to some immigrants already here, and enforces border control—this administration is not making it easy on you, either.

The uplifting tale of the hard-boiled immigrant, dipping his or her sweaty hands into the well of the American dream, is one thing. Today we find ourselves in an unsustainable and rapidly growing welfare state. Can we afford to allow millions more to partake?

When Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman was asked about unlimited immigration in 1999, he stated that "it is one thing to have free immigration to jobs. It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. And you cannot have both."

Dependency programs incentivize not only those who want to work but also those who don't want to work. That's why we need to allow a generous number of immigrants and visitors to take a shot at the American dream and become part of our economy. I'd just like them to do it on their own and check in first.

Perhaps I'm experiencing an abnormal spasm of quixotic delirium, but I can't imagine that most Americans would find a policy that offers both true security and robust immigration very controversial.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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