Acton Commentary

Immigration Reform, French-Style


Let's get real basic with the immigration debate. No, I don't mean a rerun of the debates on the economic impact or the numbers of immigrants or the difference between legal and illegal. No let's get even more basic. Why are they here and what do they want?

The vast majority of immigrants from all over the world come here for economic opportunity. Why do they do that? Because we're rich and they aren't. To be more precise, we have a functioning economy that generates wealth and they don't. Why does our economy work and theirs doesn't? We have the rule of law and they don't. Believe it or not, that one simple gift of our British heritage continues to pay large dividends to us and to the rest of the English-speaking world.

The rule of law means that one set of rules applies to everyone. There isn't one set of rules for the people in power and another for the average Joe. It means that property rights are relatively secure. Whether you're rich or poor, whether your family is in the government or in the gutter, you can buy, sell and own property and be pretty sure it will still be yours the next day. The rule of law and secure property rights creates an environment in which people can make investments, take financial risks and create wealth. We take it for granted that our savings will be in the bank where we left them. Most Americans don't worry about leaving their homes or businesses unguarded.

How can you create corruption without really trying? Have laws that are not uniformly enforced. The principle of the rule of law says that the same laws apply to everyone, and that everyone knows roughly what the laws are and what penalties for non-compliance are. In many Third World countries, there are so many regulations that it is not possible to do business legally. Large portions of the economy operate underground, illegally, or as it is sometimes called, “informally.”

In a corrupt system, people who have connections can do better than the average Joe. If your brother-in-law is the police chief, you get your building permits and your business gets protection. If you are some poor schmuck trying to make a living, you might not. That uncertainty and that unfairness conspire to sap the energy people could be using to build better products, and in the process, hire more workers. Everything about this stifles capital formation and business development.

Enforce the Law

What does this have to do with the immigration debate? We have a set of immigration laws that are not being enforced. We also, obviously, are not enforcing our labor laws. The employers who hire illegal workers are almost certainly not in compliance with every aspect of our labor laws governing hours, wages, benefits and working conditions.

Both the immigration and labor laws lie in wait to be enforced when convenient. That's a recipe for undermining the rule of law, the key thing that makes us richer than the rest of the world. This is true, regardless of the exact content of the laws. Any laws you don't intend to enforce or that you intend to enforce selectively, invite corruption.

But as we look at how the immigration debate is unfolding, there are even more reasons to be concerned about the rule of law. The mass demonstrations of the past weeks reveal a much more sinister development: the arrival of French-style street politics in America.

Look at the control the French public employee unions have over public policy. More than a million people came out in the street to oppose a law that is an entirely reasonable attempt to deal with youth unemployment, which has been over 20 percent for a decade. The French public employee unions organize the students to fill the streets, scare the government and control the “debate.” It is policy-making through intimidation. France is a banana republic with bad weather. If the Left has its way, it will be coming to a street near you.

Left-wing groups are actively working the immigration debate. Leftist unions and organizations worked behind the scenes of the high school demonstrations of the past weeks. Think about it: a network of e-mails went out over the week-end of March 24-25. The next week, high school kids from all across the country “spontaneously” ditched school, aided and abetted by left-wing groups, including, in Los Angeles' case, their own school officials.

The DC Clergy prayer service to support illegal immigrants was sponsored almost entirely by left-wing activist groups, cloaked in a thin veil of Christianity. The Center for Community Change, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, La Raza and other groups sponsored the prayer rally. These groups are far more about anti-American politics than they are about the Christian gospel.

My real fear about immigration is the continual importation of people who will be clients of the welfare state and the political apparatus that supports it. My parish has a lot of Mexicans. I love them. They could save the Catholic Church in America. It is a privilege to worship with them. On the other hand, I can't stand the thought of Mexicans becoming lifelong clients of the radical left, with their identity politics, their self-righteous anti-Americanism, and their entitlement mentality. Whatever you believe about the balance between controlling the future flow of migrants and humanity to those already here, the introduction of French-style street politics is an ominous development.

If we import third world politics, we will destroy our first world economy. And everyone, native-born and immigrant alike, will be worse off for that.