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IMMIGRATION/ He Who Is Without Sin

Those who complain about illegal immigration are still morally complicit in the problem: they gladly take advantage of cheaper prices made possible by undocumented workers.

Mexican immigrants march for more rights Mexican immigrants march for more rights

Just in time for the presidential election, the Obama administration has issued a directive cutting back on enforcement of immigration law. To the extent that this order can survive a challenge in the Supreme Court, it is something Obama could have achieved with the stroke of a pen at any moment since August 9, 2009 (when the Court last changed membership), if not since the beginning of his term. That he waited until now is yet another of myriad examples of our current president’s political cynicism. This move is seen by many as an attempt to undercut legislation sponsored by Florida Senator Marco Rubio to provide a more humane policy for dealing with the millions, yes millions, of children who were brought to our country by their parents in contravention of the immigration laws.

That Obama waited until now to issue the order is a mark of his contempt for the electorate in general, and of Hispanics in particular, but that such a cynical move is likely to confer political advantage on Obama is at least partly the responsibility of Republicans. Republicans have expressed outrage that undocumented immigrants are working within our borders. Yet all of us, whether or not we want to be, are economically connected to the chain of hypocrisy that is current U.S. immigration policy. While we are delighted to take advantage of the lower prices made possible by illegal workers willing to toil for less than the minimum wage, we are incensed that these workers violate our laws. Nonetheless, we still seek the lowest cost for the goods and services we buy, even knowing that in many cases the cheaper prices are a byproduct of the use of undocumented workers.

But doesn’t the blame for this situation rest solely with those who chose to enter our country illegally? No, it does not. Without a market for their services north of the border, no one would attempt a dangerous and costly illegal passage across the U.S. frontier. Without willing accomplices on this side of the border, illegal immigration would sputter to a halt. That it has not done so suggests a selectiveness about enforcement of our laws, and a certain myopia in our outrage at their having been broken. When a municipality becomes serious about enforcing the laws against prostitution, it begins arresting “clients” as well as prostitutes. Likewise, when we become serious about limiting the importation of illegal drugs we pursue the end users, and not just the smugglers and pushers. Why not do the same with those who employ undocumented immigrants? The answer is a simple one. When stricter border measures are put in place the usual public reaction is one of indignation—border holdups disrupt supply chains, block workers from commuting to jobs across the border, and slow the economy of border cities.

Effective enforcement of current immigration laws would likely result in higher domestic wages for low-skilled workers, but lower incomes in general. Why? Because undocumented immigrants are disproportionately willing to take low-paid disagreeable jobs. If those immigrants were to leave the country, wages for those jobs would rise, and the equilibrium number of people taking the jobs would fall, leaving low-skilled workers with higher wages, and all of us with less output.