Immigration is not a moral problem in itself. I say this because moral problems involve a harm done by one party to another party. Immigrants who come to the United States to work and earn a living for themselves and their families have not harmed anyone, and, therefore, their entry into the United States may be illegal but not immoral. Immigrants who work and are on the payroll of a company have payroll taxes deducted, contrary to conservative claims about immigrants being a drain on the system. Uncle Sam doesn’t care if your social security number is real or fake: the Treasury will still take your money. Immigrants who are paid in cash, just like other informal workers, still have to pay state and local sales taxes.
The non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated in 2016 that that undocumented immigrants make significant contributions in property, income and sales taxes. All told, undocumented immigrants pay “an estimated total of $11.64 billion in state and local taxes per year.” The study found that this amounted to a rate of about 8 percent, higher than the average effective rate for the top 1 percent of taxpayers, which sits at only 5.4 percent. So immigrants do, in fact, pay taxes, and they of course contribute to the economy through their productive efforts across many sectors of the economy, adding a huge but rarely counted stimulus. While they tend to work at higher rates than those born in the United States, they get paid less on average.
Someone who is working hard while being underpaid, all while contributing to tax coffers, can in no way be construed as harming anyone. But let’s take a look at another argument, the idea that immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens. The worry seems to be that the low wages paid to immigrants pull down pay for everyone. But then conservatives usually argue that competition is good for everyone, that the free market will naturally reward the best workers with better pay and benefits. It seems to me that conservatives can’t have it both ways: if competition is ultimately good, then competition from immigrants must also be good. Conservatives frequently are held to value hard work and entrepreneurship, qualities which undocumented workers manifestly demonstrate.
I suppose the objection would be that competition from immigrants is not just competition but unfair and illegal competition. It follows that the government should intervene in the labor market to carve out a special place for workers born in the United States. This seems like an odd argument for conservatives, who usually oppose interventions in the labor market, such as a minimum wage, labor unions, and even health and safety requirements. We have already said that what is illegal is not necessarily unfair or wrong, so what exactly is the objection? Laws can be changed, and we don’t always enforce the laws that we already have on the books.
Take the 55 mph speed limit on highways, which is meant to conserve gas and increase safety. Lots of states experimented with the lower speed limits only to increase them again, since no one followed them anyway. Most of the East Coast has 70 mph speed limits on the highways, but, of course, people typically drive 75 or 80. These people all consider themselves law-abiding, and yet, there you have it, flagrant disregard for the system of rules put into place. None of these people caught speeding are detained, at least not for the first few offenses, and none of them have their children taken from them.
Speeding tickets are not taken as signs of moral degeneracy, and border crossings also should not be taken signs of a character flaw, especially not by people who are fleeing from violence in their home countries. Crossing an imaginary line drawn on a map does not automatically transform a person from good to bad, and it also shouldn’t magically transform someone from a citizen to a non-citizen. If we readily accept the flow of goods and services across borders, we should also readily accept the flow of people across borders. According to the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision, corporations are people, including corporations that cross over national boundaries. Shouldn’t people also get to be people – legal people – with all the rights and duties of citizenship, even when they want to cross over borders?
We should encourage a world in which it is much easier to transfer citizenship from one nation to another, a world in which there are zero stateless persons. Migration is a tremendously important force in world history: it allows people to escape from wars and ecological catastrophes, and, due to climate change and the usual vicissitudes of history, we are likely to have many more of these in the future. National boundaries create artificial bottlenecks and prevent populations from reaching equilibrium. They create unnecessary humanitarian crises and scar the land with walls and checkpoints. They stifle economic growth and prevent innovation and discovery.
It will often be said that we want to keep the “good” immigrants but keep out the “bad.” People usually want to say that we need the doctors and engineers but not the ordinary unskilled laborers. But a twenty-first century civilization needs workers of all abilities and skill levels. Anyone who has ever eaten in a restaurant, stayed in a hotel, bought manufactured goods, or had remodeling work done has benefited from the work of undocumented laborers in the form of lower prices. It is hypocrisy to want to reduce illegal immigration to zero while benefiting from a lower cost of living.
Lastly, there is the popular argument that illegal immigrants bring gang activity and drugs into the United States. The illegal drug problem actually has little to do with immigration and everything to do with America’s vast appetite for illegal recreational drugs. The answer here is to open the borders while simultaneously making recreational drugs legal—not just pot, but acid, cocaine, and heroin too. Create a tightly regulated and taxed system for the distribution of legal recreational drugs, and the cartels will be driven out of business. This will be far more effective and less expensive than the decades of the failed War on Drugs. The taxes gathered can be put towards drug treatment and harm reduction.
I am not being funny or flippant with this suggestion. The two problems need to be tackled simultaneously. If recreational drugs are legalized in the United States, corruption and violence will go down in Latin America, resulting in immigration by choice instead of necessity. The military-style drug enforcement that has led to countless deaths and billions of dollars wasted will be unnecessary or at least greatly reduced. Tourism along the border will rebound, and prison populations in the U.S. will go down.
I said at the beginning that immigration is not a moral problem, but how we treat immigrants very much is a moral problem. A nation should be judged not based on the size of its military or the number of skyscrapers in its cities, but by how well it treats the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, America is once again showing its true colors by ripping children from the arms of their mothers and interning immigrants in camps. I have not been this embarrassed by my country since the Abu Ghraib scandal. People of conscience must work for a general amnesty for all immigrants, without penalty or punishment. Only then will our nation be great-for the first time.
Devi Dillard-Wright teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. She writes about animal ethics and philosophy of mind and is the author of a popular series of meditation books.