Following the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment on January 16th, 1919, the United States embarked on its first great experiment with the restriction of personal choice and consumption. The result was black markets, facilitated by rampant organized crime, violence, smuggling, poisonous substitutes, and a public that openly defied the law. By 1933, Congress passed the Twenty-First Amendment, striking down prohibition, although heavy regulations on the alcohol industry remain.
The modern example of prohibition that many point to is the unceasing War on Drugs that has also resulted in black markets facilitated by rampant organized crime, violence, smuggling, poisonous substitutes, and a public that continues to defy the law. In that same vein, to place attention on illegal immigration, is to find that restrictive policies on immigration are directly responsible for the hyperbolic “national emergency” that Washington has been pledging to solve for ages.
Entering the US Legally is a Bureaucratic Nightmare
Proponents of draconian border and immigration policies are often heard as saying that they are more than welcoming to immigrants, so long as they come to the United States legally. President Trump reiterated this sentiment during his most recent State of the Union address, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” Follow proper procedure and there is no reason you should be barred from entry. It is worth noting that while the President has stated his support of legal immigrants, his administration has made numerous moves to limit the number of immigrants allowed into the country.
But what does the legal immigration process actually look like? It’s convoluted and time consuming, to the point that someone could spend upwards of ten or even fifteen years waiting for a decision. The quickest ways to come into the country as a resident or citizen would be by being sponsored by a family member who is also a permanent resident or citizen, or to be a professional athlete or artist. Without an arbitrary special status supplied by society, the wait to get in could seem indefinite which prompts drastic action taken by those seeking to escape poverty, violence, dictatorship and oppression, or to reunite with family.
Black Markets and Illegal Immigrants
Black markets are a fairly straightforward craft, resulting directly from prohibition. A product or service is deemed illegal by the state but supply and demand remain relatively unchanged. Prices, however, increase exponentially as the risk of confiscation and prosecution increases the need to profit as much as possible from as many transactions that are possible. When looking at the federal prohibition of cannabis, there has been an enormous growth of those poised to profit from circumventing the law to provide product to customers or by legal, but unscrupulous, actions.
Drug cartels are ranked as some of the wealthiest enterprises in the world, legal or otherwise. Private prisons have raked in billions of dollars with the help of minimum sentencing. Police unions and departments have seen an increase in manpower and local budgets. The pharmaceutical companies have maintained a strong monopoly on patients, particularly those looking to relieve pain and those who wish to make their own medical decisions. An increase in crime goes up as a result of a severe lack of open competition. Cartels and American gangs protect their businesses with violence and intimidation, rather than sound business practices. In states that have decriminalized or legalized medical and recreation marijuana, there has been a significant drop in crime, both violent and non-violent, and particularly crimes that are directly associated with the drug trade.
Illegal immigration is no different when it comes to the relationship between prohibition and illegal activity. The vast majority of those coming to live and work in the United States will not receive a status that will expedite the process and so they must wait, creating a scenario in which immigrants must weigh the costs of the legal process against the rewards of crossing illegally and living off the radar. And every year, thousands make the decision to flout the law, crossing at great risk and cost to themselves, because it seems to be the better option.
The result is divisive rhetoric and theatrical attempts at reform, individuals forced to live as criminals, and those who profit through dangerous and unscrupulous practices. Lifting prohibition can resolve these issues while benefitting the United States as a whole.
The Market Provides
When considering a Free Market approach to immigration policy, we must first consider what an increase in legal immigration would mean for the country overall, purely from an economic point of view. From immigrants, we stand to receive a new and willing workforce, one that can help offset the impending labor shift as the Baby Boomers are set to retire in mass numbers. Immigrants provide an entrepreneurial spirit, reflected in new services and products that help to provide more Americans with employment. An increase in the population would mean an increase in the number of consumers who are able to buy directly from American businesses. And, simply put, no one can measure the potential of an immigrant, whose contribution to the American community is still unknown.
So, how does one compete with the black market? By ending the policies that created it in the first place. Consider the wait time of nearly twenty years for many applicants, which is more a deterrent than a process, albeit a failed one. Replace this with a streamlined system, utilizing the same background check system already in place to weed out international threats. Focus on the actual transition to the country and expand the probationary period to ensure that new residents are assimilating well, working or contributing to their communities, and are avoiding criminal behavior (as most immigrants already do).
For those who only wish to work for part of the year before returning home, establish a common-sense seasonal work visa, eliminating the cap that prevents employers from taking advantage of low-cost labor, providing lower prices to American consumers. This allows those who wish to find employment in the United States without permanent residency to come and go as their employer needs them. A seasonal work visa will also allow for improvements to be made in communities to our south, which could help mitigate future immigration.
End the War on Drugs and foreign interventionism. This could easily be the silver bullet for stopping drug-related crime and the (unfounded) threat of terrorism coming through the southern border. The experiment of medical marijuana in several border states, as well as full legalization in California, has shown that drug-related crime will fall and can continue to do so, so long as there is minimal state interference in the cannabis market. It also takes a large piece of the profits out of the pockets of the cartels, one of their primary sources for manipulating South American governments and maintaining a dedicated and violent workforce. Federal legalization can not only allow a new industry to flourish in the United States, creating new jobs and wealth for more Americans, but it can change the current state of affairs in South America; improving the state of our neighbors without the messy and disastrous need for intervention.
Finally, unilateral free trade with our southern neighbors, coupled with an easy-to-navigate immigration system, would be an economic boon for all involved. Low-cost goods for American consumers, increases in high-wage employment, and an improved economic outlook for South American countries, which would decrease the need for immigration, are all benefits achieved when barriers to trade are eliminated. There may be an initial increase in immigration, but over the long term, as with all free market theory, an eventual balance will be reached and immigration will begin to decrease significantly.
The solution to immigration is remarkably simple, but as I have written before, Washington does not seem keen on bringing about reasonable, cost-effective solutions that would benefit all involved and reduce the perceived need to cross the border illegally. What must be remembered, as the political stage gets set for Act Two, are the words of French economist, Frederic Bastiat, who said, “When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” Certainly not soldiers from America’s position, but those who long for a better life, often as a direct result of our country’s own policies, will certainly cross, rather than be told to take a number.