J. Peder Zane

Illegal immigration, inequality and North Carolina’s license bill

The surreal nature of our immigration “laws” was underscored last week when North Carolina’s House Finance Committee approved legislation to provide ID cards and driving permits to illegal immigrants.

If the bill passes the legislature and overcomes Gov. Pat McCrory’s opposition, it will allow people who should not be in this country to declare their illegal status with impunity. They will become registered lawbreakers, their new documents tantamount to a stay out of jail free card.

In fairness, law enforcement is often selective. A key difference between Republicans and Democrats is how robustly each party chooses to enforce existing statutes regarding the environment, civil rights, taxes and more. In our amped-up regulatory state, our elected officials are as much sheriff as Solon.

The House proposal is different because it does not involve interpreting the law, but disregarding it.

Given the widespread anger over the legislature’s recent decision to allow magistrates to ignore the law and not perform same-sex marriages, the House proposal should draw broad condemnation. It won’t. For good and ill, politics eventually makes hypocrites of us all, as we inevitably conflate principle with convenience.

Besides, the House proposal reflects reality. While advocates claim that illegal immigrants are “living in the shadows,” the vast majority are free and unfettered. We see them every day as they go to work and school, shop and receive medical attention. So long as they don’t break other laws, they are safe. That’s why their numbers have swelled to between 11 and 20 million, or 3 to 5 percent of the total population.

The House proposal, then, simply recognizes the lawless status quo.

But like our $18 trillion federal debt, illegal immigration is an issue we can ignore only so long. Their flow will only increase. Indeed, one of the great stories of our time is the mass migration of people from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central America to Europe and America.

Whether they are fleeing brutal and corrupt governments or just seeking a better life, most are doing exactly what we would do in their situation. That’s why it is so easy for advocates to craft sympathetic portraits of them. But those portraits and profiles ignore more complicated questions.

Let’s stipulate that the lives of billions of people – most with heart-wrenching and compelling stories – would be better if they came here. If morality, kindness and compassion are our guiding concerns, why not admit everyone? Why not, for that matter, recognize that our current system privileges those from our hemisphere who have an easier time making it here than those from far more brutal and poorer nations across the oceans? Why shouldn’t we develop systems for bringing more of them to our shores?

A truly open border dovetails with two larger ideas

This is not a reductio ad absurdum; it is the logic of President Obama, Hillary Clinton and others pushing to legalize all immigrants without articulating any limiting principle. And as we learned after the 1986 immigration reform, once one cohort of illegal immigrants is admitted, another takes its place.

Instead of simply espousing their virtuous intentions, those who advocate this approach must address the effects it will have on our country. Leaving aside the incalculable costs on our schools and social welfare programs, open borders would have a devastating effect on our poorest citizens.

Just a few decades ago, high school dropouts and unskilled workers could find decent jobs. The decline of manufacturing, the rise of automation and, yes, the influx of illegal immigrants have made it harder for them to earn a living wage. Harvard economist George Borjas has found that while prosperous Americans enjoy modest benefits from unskilled immigrants, those at the bottom, those directly competing with these newcomers, experience tighter job markets and lower wages.

It is impossible to understand inequality – both locally and globally – without discussing immigration. The North Carolina House proposal, with its come-one-come-all message, doesn’t address this problem. It ignores it. As often happens, it is our most vulnerable citizens who will pay the price.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.