An oddity of the recent party primary elections for state and local offices was the prominence of rhetoric excoriating illegal immigration, an offense against laws whose direct enforcement is exclusively within the jurisdiction of the federal – or national – government. It is true that the Secretary of State, in his capacity as Mississippi’s chief elections officer, could take measures to prevent voting by persons who are not citizens. But this has not been demonstrated to be an actual problem in our state. The Auditor could, one supposes, make sure that state agencies are not improperly directing benefits to persons illegally in our state. But no one has pointed to a study that shows that this is actually happening. (Please do not cite the throw-a-dart-at-the-board case by which Phil Bryant attempted to quantify the “cost” of illegal immigrants’ presence here.) The Lt. Governor could …. what? Make sure no illegals chair major sub-committees?

The illegal immigration conundrum has conflicted both major political parties – in slightly different ways — and how each addresses it may have profound implications for political alignments going forward. Getting a handle on this issue must begin with the understanding that our provision for legal immigration, or various types of temporary-worker programs, over the last few decades failed stupendously to anticipate the labor demands that the burgeoning American economy has produced. As with any economic equation in which the supply side of the equation is suppressed, either (1) the demand side will cause prices (wages) to increase to unacceptable levels, (2) the economy – starved of supply – will contract, or (3) a black market will arise to furnish the demanded supply. The last of these possibillities is, of course, what has happened. The “giant sucking sound” about which Ross Perot warned us has turned out to be the great American job machine (supercharged by the Bush tax cuts) sucking workers through the sieve that is the U.S.-Mexico border.

A black market is always the free market’s attempt to correct an artificial demand/supply imbalance. Any attempt to address the “problem” by tamping down demand (i.e., placing sanctions on employers or deporting illegals) will produce either result number one (unacceptably high prices) or two (a severely contracted economy) or, more likely, both. Remember Jimmy Carter and “stagflation”? So from the standpoint of purely economic analysis, illegal immigration is not a problem but a solution to a problem. The problem is inadequate growth of the native population, together with a misguided legal immigration or guest-worker policy. The solution is illegal immigration.

Of course, an issue seldom presents a purely economic aspect. Critics of the non-system that has resulted in some 12 million illegals in our country (or 20 million, or whatever figure one lights upon), have several superficially compelling arguments for their opposition. The first is a rule-of-law argument: despite any alleged benefits resulting from having an adequate labor supply, solving the labor problem in this manner erodes respect for the law generally. This is true, except in cases in which the statutory law refuses to recognize the priority of immutable laws of free economic systems and human nature.

Another is what I call the “fairness” argument: the illegals already here jumped the line and should not be rewarded at the expense of those who did not. This sounds reasonable, but historically most people who have come to America have jumped some sort of line to get here. They have been those willing to take a chance, to leave the familiar and comfortable — no matter how squalid – for the unknown and challenging. This is one reason this has always been a country unmatched in entrepeneurial spirit. We attract people willing to take a risk. Our low unemployment rate tells us that we needed about this many laborers added to our existing legal population. Voila! They have self-selected, and here they are. If left to the bureaucrats, a “legal” process more likely would have produced a bunch like the Mariel Boatlift criminals.

The more difficult argument is the cultural one: introducing this many people from other places into our country in such a short period of time will degrade our essentially British-based culture. But let’s analyze this assumption. If we need immigrants, from where would we most like to get them? This analysis must recognize that our labor demand is not likely to be filled by Canadians or Aussies, and that the flow from the British Isles was spent about 150 years ago. Of the sources actually available, then, Mexico and the rest of Latin America are as desireable as it gets. These people are from a strongly Christian background (most being either Roman Catholic or Evangelical Protestant) and one greatly influenced by European culture and language. They bring with them family values similar to those of the American heartland. They do not harbor any alien ideologies about the primacy of religion over law in non-religious settings, nor do they espouse any indigestible nonsense about women’s role in society.

Contrast this with the experience of Europe and the United Kingdom, both beset by hordes of immigrants from a truly alien culture who are not just failing to assimilate but seem to be hardening in their alienation from the cultures of their adopted countries. Given the interconnectedness of the world today and the globalization of trade, we are fortunate to have Mexico, rather than, say, Bangladesh or Pakistan, along our southern border. Our similarities are of kind. Our differences are of degree.

So how should we deal with the situation that exists today, not some pined-for if-we-had-only-done-something-different alternative? We should find a way (as Bush imperfectly attempted to do) to confer some form of legal status (not citizenship) on the illegals who are here and exert control over the border going forward. In the interests of national security, we need to know and control who is coming over the border. We do not need to round up and deport millions of bricklayers, landscapers, and waiters (some of whom will soon be small business owners) in order to show that we are serious about national security. We also need to be serious – and rational — about economic security.