To Curb Illegal Immigration, Stop Criminalizing Human Nature

To Curb Illegal Immigration, Stop Criminalizing Human Nature
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Juan Villacis was deported from the U.S. to his native Ecuador in December.  The illegal U.S. immigrant last lived in Ecuador 31 years ago. 

Lilly Guerrero is Villacis’s wife.  She and her family left Colombia in 2001 to, as the New York Times reported it, “escape rebel threats of violence and kidnapping.” Though health issues have delayed her departure, Guerrero has been ordered out of the U.S. too. Until recently, Guerrero and Villacis were physical therapists in Queens, NY. 

Unknown is what will happen to their two college-educated daughters.  They arrived in the U.S. when they were five, but their situation remains murky thanks to uncertainty about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation. 

On February 4th, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson was tragically killed in a car accident, as was Jeffrey Monroe, the driver of the ride-share car that Jackson was a passenger in.  Notable for the purposes of this piece is that the driver of the car that killed both was a twice-deported undocumented immigrant. 

The two stories rate mention for them revealing how the immigration debate is sometimes framed.  Each side has anecdotes that appeal to each side of the immigration issue.  In President Trump’s case, stories like those of Villacis and Guerrero have plainly caused him to soften his deportation stance, but the latter didn’t keep him from commenting on Jackson's death in order to make a broader point.  Soon after, Trump sent out a Tweet that called for securing the border and curbing illegal immigration. 

Up front, anecdote isn’t fact.  It tells us very little.  That some illegals drink, drive and harm others does not mean they all do, and just the same, the happy story of Villacis and Guererro isn’t evidence that all illegal immigrants assimilate as they and their daughters did.  Yet that’s not the point. Neither is legislation the point. It's human nature to migrate to better opportunity. Because it is, politicians, pundits, and readers should understand that attempts to legislate changes in human nature will not work.  

To suggest they will is the equivalent of a drug warrior seeking federal laws meant to stop the import and use of cocaine, and believing they'll succeed.  Except that there are already federal, state and local laws against the import and use of cocaine. That there are hasn’t changed the on-the-ground reality.  Cocaine is plentiful in the U.S. and easily found despite it being “illegal.” Applied to immigration, laws against it won’t alter the inflow of foreigners into the U.S. as much as they ensure that the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. will increase. 

Which brings us to a recent op-ed on the subject by the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson.  He calls for a federal law limiting immigration to “about 1 million annually.” Samuelson naturally misses the point.  Does he really think a law will automatically limit annual foreign arrivals in the U.S. to 1 million? Will the Land of Opportunity magically close up thanks to a law? Don’t worry, Samuelson’s proposal becomes even more unrealistic the more one reads it.

Indeed, Samuelson calls for immigration policies that will increase the number of “skilled immigrants.” He says they’re “good for the economy.” No doubt skilled people are good for the economy, but just as we would mock politicians and economists with no relevant knowledge planning the make and number of computers, desks, chairs and mobile phones used by businesses, logic dictates that they’re even less capable when it comes to planning the exponentially more important human capital needs of commercial enterprises.  Fear not, Samuelson’s simplistic reasoning gets even worse.  He writes that,

“the existing [immigration] system has increased U.S. poverty, driven by inflows of poorly skilled legal and illegal workers. It's as if there were an agency called the Unskilled Workers Bureau dedicated to increasing U.S. poverty.”

Samuelson contends that the inflow of immigrants drives up poverty, but then that’s the point.  Missed by this aging economist is that where there’s prosperity there’s naturally going to be lots of poverty thanks to the poor migrating to where opportunity is greatest.  These “poorly skilled legal and illegal workers” aren’t coming to the U.S. to be poor as much as they’re coming here to cure their poverty.  That the poor migrate to where wealth is greatest is a simple reminder that the single best fix for penury is abundant wealth creation. 

Taking this further, the U.S. was built by people who arrived here in an impoverished state.  That’s once again the point.  History is littered with repressive countries and regimes that have suffocated otherwise talented individuals.  That many immigrants will arrive in the U.S. tragically impoverished is a statement of the supremely obvious. Many countries trample on human progress, but the U.S. doesn't.  That's its appeal. Importantly, no laws divined by coddled economists will repress the natural human desire to migrate toward better economic opportunity.  Crucial here is that even if the feds could wisely vet immigrants for skills, those whom Samuelson views as unskilled, impoverished, or broadly less desirable would still show up. 

If Samuelson really wants to limit immigration into the U.S., he might lobby Congresss and the White House to turn some of his Keynesian economic ideas into law.  The resulting slow growth will shrink immigration in the way that laws themselves never have.  

But Samuelson persists. He asks, “How is poverty to be reduced if the ranks of the poor are constantly replenished with new immigrant poor?” Implicit in his question is that poverty is some kind of tangible disease carried from country to country.  In truth, the poor have for thousands of years exited cruel and unfree locales in pursuit of freedom, only to elevate their economic status once given the chance to marry their formerly suppressed talents with freedom.  Important here is that Samuelson's desire to foist quotas on human nature logically ensures more of what he deems poverty.  Indeed, so long as arbitrary laws make what's natural illegal, illegals based in the U.S. will be more likely to work in the lower-wage, underground economy.  If what's natural were legal, immigrants could pursue the work most commensurate with their skills on the way to the higher pay that Samuelson seemingly finds desirable.  

Bringing all this back to where we began, it cannot be stressed enough that the migration patterns of people are the purest market signals in the world.  That’s why all this talk about securing the border and getting tough on immigration, or limiting it to the "skilled," is so pointless.  Making something illegal is not the same as making it go away.  Laws can be written, quotas agreed to, and walls erected to limit the U.S. population, but market forces will always trump the law.  Barring an economic u-turn whereby the U.S. embraces pure socialism, the tired and hungry will continue to find their way to the country where wealth creation is abundant, and by extension, opportunity is greatest.   

The only difference with laws and other federal attempts to fight human nature is that people like Juan Villacis will needlessly be rendered criminals for doing what human beings have done for millennia.  As for those who might break U.S. laws to the detriment of the natives, it’s the height of folly to presume that “securing the border” or curbs on “illegal immigration” will act as a deterrent to the bad apples.  Anedcdote is superfluous when applied to immigration.  Life is going to happen no matter what.  The reality is that the legalized status of people like Villacis would afford a much smaller federal government a great deal more time and resources to rein in the bad apples. 

Laws meant to criminalize what is natural merely ensure more illegality.  That’s it. So long as the U.S. remains the richest country in the world, immigrants will figure out a way in. The answer isn’t more central planning from economists like Samuelson as much as we must recognize human nature, and respond accordingly.


John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading ( His new book is titled They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers. Other books by Tamny include The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at  

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