Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

January 20, 2000


The images were horrific, but what they reveal about the emptiness and ultimately the cruelty of American policy is even worse. Authorities inspecting a container ship in Seattle found human cargo dozens of sick, ill-nourished Chinese, many verging on starvation.

And three of them corpses. Authorities have captured illegal immigrants brought in by smugglers before. But it hasn’t been all that often that they’ve found dead bodies amongst the wretched human cargo.

As the media explored the story, it became more and more clear that human smuggling is not an isolated anomaly but something approaching big business. Those on the Seattle container ship were said to have paid as much as $50,000 apiece sometimes in installments, to be collected from later earning or from their families back in China for the miserable journey to the United States.

When the Chinese immigrants elude the authorities and arrive at something resembling a final destination their lives hardly turn into a vision of sunny happiness. For the most part, they work in low-wage sweatshops as something closely resembling indentured servants for as long as ten years. Often these working conditions are execrable. At a sweatshop raided about a year ago in Huntington Park, near Los Angeles, the Chinese workers weren’t permitted to leave the grubby compound and were charged outrageous prices for food that barely sustained the body and high rent for conditions that would make slum dwellers rebel. It was more like a prison camp than a workplace.


Yet they still come.

In the wake of the controversy over Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy whose mother died during an attempt to reach the United States illegally, Knight Ridder did a series on Cubans who continue to undergo terrors and sometimes death in desperate but continuing efforts to get out of Castro’s island paradise.

The small coastal village of Sagua La Chica in the northernmost tip of Cuba, where the water is shallow far out into the ocean, is said to be a favored pickup spot for smugglers and their clients. One Cuban-American paid smugglers $23,000 to get three of his relatives out of Cuba. A few smuggling rings are broken up by authorities, but many more get in one way or another; how many nobody knows for sure.


I know many people will disagree, including people who write for this Web site. But I think a good deal of the responsibility for this human misery lies less with the smugglers though many of them are certainly unscrupulous and cruel than with the generally unthinking and mostly conspicuously patriotic politicians who place such a high priority on immigration control and set unrealistically low quotas. Whenever a government artificially restricts the supply of a good or service that is in demand, a black market develops, the price goes through the roof and numerous criminal profiteers cash in. It happens with drugs, it happens with cigarettes and Cuban cigars and it happens with immigration slots.

The fact that immigrant smuggling rings are able to sustain themselves suggests strongly that the effective demand for coming to live in the United States whether permanently or to work for a while, make some money and return home is higher than the quotas the government has wisely decreed. The fact that the flow hasn’t stopped suggests that most of those who manage to get into the United States can find work of some kind or another (otherwise the word would get back to Mexico or Cuba or China quickly).

That suggests, in turn, that the U.S. economy has enough oomph to sustain levels of immigration considerably higher than the artificial quotas decreed in Washington without drastically reducing job opportunities and wage levels for those born in the country. So why set the quotas?


I won’t go on and on with sentimental slop about the nation of immigrants. But I will contend that by and large immigrants are a net benefit to the country that receives them, and that this will be increasingly true as the world economy becomes more global in character (which is happening and will continue to happen despite the best efforts of protectionists).

The main reason is that the decision to emigrate to leave the place where you were born, where your roots, family and friends are, where you speak the same language as everybody else is seldom one that is taken lightly. Most people will never do it; the risks and uncertainties are too overwhelming. Those that decide to try for a better life elsewhere are usually more adventurous, more adaptable, more inclined to take calculated risk, more entrepreneurial, more confident of their own ability to succeed in the right environment than the general run of humankind.

Some have argued that immigrants want to come here and change the country, so the United States will eventually come to resemble the Third World dead-end countries from which they flee. If anything, the opposite is true. Most immigrants still see this country overtaxed, overregulated and deadened by the hand of overweening government as it seems to many of us born here as a haven of opportunity and promise. Few want to change it except insofar as they come to understand that capitalism is not as freewheeling here as they had been led to believe. Rather, they want to understand it, meld with it, benefit from it and get themselves Americanized as quickly as possible. It seems to me those are precisely the kind of people any free country should want to have more of. And throughout its history the United States has benefited from the dynamism of immigrants, changing them and being changed by them in a sometimes rocky but ultimately mutually beneficial process.


Consider those poor souls in the container ship in Seattle. Most of them had paid, or agreed to pay, as much as $50,000 to work for years in a sweatshop before getting a real chance at making better lives for themselves. If they had the resources or prospects to make that kind of financial commitment, they could have come openly aboard a luxury liner for a lot less money. Then, if they were here legally rather than legally, they might have had some seed money to start a business, or at least to pay for housing for a few months. If they were here legally and openly their prospects for getting a job or starting a business in a white market rather than in the gray-market netherworld of sweatshops would be much better. They could start contributing, both to their relatives back home and to heir adopted country, much more quickly and efficiently than if they constantly had to look over their shoulders for Immigration thugs. Wouldn’t that be better than the current situation?

The notion that immigrants would just keep coming and inevitably overrun and impoverish the country is supported neither by history nor by logic. It wasn’t the strict immigration laws the United States enacted in the 1920s the first time in its history it had done so in such a comprehensive manner, although the openly racist Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed in the 1880s—that stopped the flow of immigrants. It was the Great Depression. Almost nobody wanted to come because everybody knew economic prospects were lousy. The chief result of the 1920s immigration laws was to prevent thousands of Jews from fleeing Hitler from having a chance at escaping repression and ultimately death.

Even as it handles most matters better than government, the market is the best way to handle immigration. You can be sure that if a recession or depression hits or even if the supply of low-skill jobs suitable for people with rudimentary English skills at best dries up the flow of immigrants will dry up in a matter of weeks.


It’s important to talk about immigration in the context of opposition to wars and foreign adventures because ultimately permitting the free flow of peoples across borders is a key aspect of building a peaceful world. If it is important to permit goods to cross borders because, as Bastiat warned us, otherwise armies will do so, it is infinitely more important to allow flesh-and-blood human beings equal bearers of the human rights and dignity we all share, not mere inanimate material things to cross borders when and where they prefer, not just when governments graciously give their permission. Migrations have been part of human history from the beginning. It is only recently that nation-states have viewed it as their right to control the flow of human beings in a comprehensive manner.

Eurocrats brag that with the coming of de facto European unification it is now possible to travel throughout Europe without a passport and numerous border checks. But while there have been border stations of some fort or another for century, it wasn’t that long ago that people could travel throughout Europe and throughout the world without a passport. The notion that traveling from one country to another is a privilege to be granted by the state rather than something akin to a human right is of fairly recent origin.

Free immigration provides a way to let off pressure in despotic regimes, but it also creates pressure on such regimes to change. If they lose their best and brightest over a sustained period of time, countries will at least have an incentive to change (though admittedly despots will resist the pressure as long as possible). Allowing more open immigration, then is a subtle but effective way to increase the amount of freedom in the world not to mention that it sets an example of respect for freedom, for the right of individual people to make their own decisions about where in the world they prefer to live rather than seeking permission from petty bureaucrats.


Those who seek to "solve" the unquestionable social strains large-scale illegal immigration places on a country through reducing immigration quotas are being seduced into a self-defeating proposition. Unless they can eliminate the "job magnet" provided by a thriving economy (which, admittedly, most politicians spend most of their time trying to do, though usually more unconsciously than purposely) they won’t stop immigration with quotas. They’ll simply increase the amount of illegal immigration, which will increase the number of people living marginally in a "gray" economy, with all the social dislocation and growing disrespect for law entailed.

Instead, as an interim measure short of completely uncontrolled borders, I would set up welcome stations at various logical entry points. There authorities would be able to check for infectious diseases and membership in terrorist organizations (real ones, not just opposition parties in dictatorships). They would also ask prospective immigrants to sign a paper promising not to ask for or accept any help or resources from the government i.e., the taxpayers for a certain period, be it five years, en years or fifty years, on pain of instant deportation. Those who thus expressed their desire (and their promise) to work rather than to be a burden on taxpayers would be welcome. I know, I know, in an advanced welfare state with a messed-up judiciary, such a scheme might not survive a couple of lawsuits from activist groups although I’m convinced the vast majority of would-be immigrants would sign such a promise gladly. But wouldn’t that be a better way to handle immigration than the current method of setting artificially low quotas and then having trouble recruiting enough INS officers to enforce the unnecessary laws?

Just wondering.

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