Having a debate about immigration in America can be about as productive as driving a Canadian car up a steep hill. Not only is the conversation fraught with deep, fundamental disagreements about culture, national sovereignty, and individual rights, but it is further complicated by the whole legal vs. illegal immigration thing.
Opponents of immigration will sometimes qualify that they only have a problem with illegal immigration. After all, illegal immigration is a crime, and shouldn’t crimes be punished? We shouldn’t let criminals take our jobs, drain our welfare system, and populate our prisons! But the legal/illegal distinction only clouds the debate. And that’s because the premise is deeply flawed—namely, that if something is illegal, then it must be wrong or bad.
Both supporters and opponents of immigration liberalization make this mistake, and understandably so. It’s a pretty easy philosophical error to make, so let’s pretend that instead of immigration, we’re talking about Kinder Surprise Eggs (those chocolate eggs with toys in them), which have been banned in the United States since 1938 under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act for having an embedded toy.
Marty: Hey Chad, did you hear that Customs and Border Patrol just detained two Canadian men for trying to bring chocolate eggs into the States? As a chocolate candy enthusiast, I find this very distressing!
Chad: These were no regular chocolate eggs. These were Kinder Eggs, illegal in this great nation since 1938. The bastards had what was comin’ to ‘em.
Marty: No need to be so harsh, Chad ol’ buddy. Kinder Eggs are both fun AND delicious!
Chad: Deliciously deadly maybe…
Chad: They’re a choking hazard. That’s the surprise. “Surprise, your 3 year old is asphyxiating!” Does that sound like Jolly Easter fun to you?
Marty: Of course not, but only a handful of children have ever died from Kinder Surprises. Should we start arresting people for bringing Legos and beads, not to mention plums, cherries, and grapes into the country?
Chad: You make a good point.
Marty: Great! So do you agree with me now that the Kinder Egg fiasco is distressing?
Marty: Why not?
Chad: Because Kinder Eggs are illegal.
Marty’s so upset because Chad is making a fundamental error—assuming that just because something is illegal, it’s also bad (and should be punished). By doing this, Chad muddies up the conversation. Rather than discussing the benefits and costs of Kinder eggs and letting the discussion of whether or not to restrict them follow, Chad assumes that which he wants to conclude: that Kinder eggs should be illegal simply because…they are.
What we do with the 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in America is an important question that deserves to be discussed. But the actual impact of immigration on the economy, culture, and politics of the country will take effect whether that immigration is legal or not.
The consequences of immigration don’t discriminate. And if we want to have a productive conversation about immigration policy, neither should we.