Immigration & the War on Drugs

Several commenters thought I was displaying too much certainty in my immigration post yesterday. Let me first say, I think this is a reasonable reaction to that post, which didn’t go into much detail and probably did display more certainty on this question than I actually possess.

Sam M wrote:

I dunno. I am a free-market type and lean toward open borders, but it worries me enough that I worry I might be wrong. I mean… unemployment is at 10 percent or some such. It is much higher among less-skilled laborers. Is it really ABSURD or RIDICULOUS to wonder if open borders might be exacerbating these issues? Is it really so beyond the pale to wonder if allowing millions upon millions of workers into the country at this time that it borders on insanity?

I think if you are that sure of your position on this issue, whatever your position is, you might want to consider the possibility that something akin to epistemic closure has settled in.

And Trumwill followed up:

By the logic put forth, either you support allowing as many immigrants as want to come here or you’re essentially in favor of dead Mexicans (or South Americans or whatever).

There is a <i>strong</i> case to be made that amnesty would actually make this worse. Increasing the likelihood of citizenship would increase the incentives of trying to sneak across the border. More will die trying to do so. So are you indifferent to the deaths of Mexicans? And do you still beat your wife?

(I am, by and large, pro-immigration – though not open borders – and am as skeptical as you are of the sinking ship. I appreciate you bringing this graph to my attention, but do not so much appreciate the nature in which it has been presented. I’m sorry that would-be immigrants are dying as they try to get here, but there are limits to the degree to which that should affect our policy seeing as how they are operating independently of our direction and, for that matter, contrary to the laws we currently have.)

I suppose I see the immigration debate as an extension of the drug war debate – and the two are not only related but remarkably similar. So long as there is a demand for low-skilled migrant workers they will find a way to get here, just like the demand for marijuana will ensure that there’s always a readily available source – law enforcement efforts be damned. The only way to make any reasonable dent in the trafficking of marijuana is to do away with pesky civil liberties and due process. Similarly, the only way to really make a dent in immigration is to introduce an intrusive national ID program, make raids on private businesses, and spend millions upon millions of dollars either building a fence or hiring countless more border patrol guards. This is because the demand is so widespread.

I think a war on meth might be more likely to succeed than a war on marijuana simply because the demand for meth is so much lower than the demand for marijuana. Likewise, I think putting resources into efforts to fight the sex-trafficking industry a lot more important and likely to succeed than efforts to stop people who want to work from getting into this country.

Actually, a much more sensible way to help stop the immigration problem would be to jointly agree with Mexico to end the war on drugs. This would all at once stop the draining of precious resources from both ours and Mexico’s public coffers, and would make especially Mexico a more hospitable, stable society. Who knows, a drug-war-free Mexico, out of the grips of both the cartels and the corrupt PRI, might just start to become a better place to live and work, making illegal immigration to the US a lot less appealing.

I think it’s reasonable to say that the chart from the previous post only tells part of the story. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that as border enforcement increases, prospective immigrants will go to greater and more risky lengths to get past the border patrol. Four or five decades ago the scope of the border patrol was much less than it is today, we had illegal immigration like we do today, but it was much less risky – and yet, in spite of its lower risk, we were not overrun with Hispanic migrants. For that matter, we’re not overrun by immigrants now. I’d say that immigration is not a net loss to American workers, however. We talk about immigration as though each job filled by a Mexican immigrant is one job less for an American worker – but it’s not that simple. New workers create new demand, they contribute to the economy as a whole. Far from some net loss, in many ways the influx of workers actually creates more opportunities for job growth in other sectors.

What we have is a serious problem with violent crime associated with the drug war. While violent crime has plummeted across the country since the early 1990’s, much of the remaining crime is due in large part to the war on drugs. In Mexico the recent uptick in crime is a direct result of the Calderone government taking on the drug cartels.

On the one hand, I really can’t fault Calderone. The PRI were in power for seventy years. Under their leadership, the cartels and police and many other government institutions basically were all on the same side. Corruption was rampant. Calderone is doing battle as much against a corrupt bureaucracy as he is against the cartels, and there’s something to be said for weeding out corruption. But I think he’s up against too much. The best way to break the cartels is to end the war on drugs and decriminalize or legalize drugs in Mexico. Of course, for this to truly be effective, we would also have to at the very least end the war on marijuana domestically.

In any case, my point is not that we should have entirely open borders – maybe we should just like we should have entirely free markets – but these are not practical propositions. Politics is the business of compromise. Besides, we can’t really tackle immigration without first tackling the drug war. Every other immigration reform will be an effort to curb the symptoms rather than the cause. We should focus on traffickers of both people and drugs rather than on the immigrants themselves. We should incentivize hiring legal workers and incentivize Americans to work even at the largely crappy jobs that illegal immigrants typically take. When tackling symptoms results in more human hardship and more wasted money, I generally believe that we should focus our efforts elsewhere. Right now the real obstacle to meaningful immigration reform is political – it’s a fight that will take place in congress and in the realm of public opinion, not in the Arizona desert.

P.S. Here is another of Sam’s comments worth re-posting:

The more you look into the post, the more you begin to see the ridiculous and absurd. But maybe not on the side you expect.

First, the researcher and author of the report is not some objective observer. It’s not even an immigration advocate at the ACLU. It’s a long-time immigration activist. Fair enough, suppose. But read the report. It says that the number of illegal immigrants who died in border crossings since 1994 is between 3861 and 5607. Guess which number is used in the press release? Yeah, 5600.

But again, fair enough. Let’s look at how many of these deaths they attribute to increased enforcement on the border rather than the inherent danger of walking throug a desert. Ten percent? Twenty? Nope.

"The current policies in place on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have created a humanitarian crisis that has led to the deaths of more than 5,000 people."
So basically, they are saying that any and all deaths experienced along the border during these 15 years are due to these horrible enforcement policies. Not even one is attributable to the fact that it’s a bad idea to walk through a desert in July.

Also, I am not sure how many people have crossed that desert since 1994, but the report says estimates that there are 8.4 million to 11.9 million people living in the US illegally. Let’s go with the lower number. (See, that’s possible.) Assuming SOME of the people who crossed went back, or maybe crossed a few times, I think it’s safe to assume at LEAST 10 million illegal border crossings over that 15 year period. So five thousand deaths over 15 years comes to about 333 deaths per year, from a "population" of at least 660,000 illegal crossers per year. That means one death for every every 2000 crossers. Meaning about 50 deaths per 100,000.

The murder rate in Detroit is 37.5 per 100,000. So living in Detroit is less dangerous than crossing the border illegally. But not THAT much less dangerous.  (The murder rate for residents of the Bronx in 1990: 54.7 per 100,000.) Also, the rate of deaths per crosser is almost surely inflated by my undercounting of crossers and using the maximum estimate of actual deaths.

None of this is to say we should not make every effort to minimize these deaths. But it seems to me that the danger of crossing the border is not all that much more "grim" than living in an American city. And it might be a lot LESS grim, depending on who’s doing the counting.

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19 thoughts on “Immigration & the War on Drugs

  1. I also think there are serious concerns about assimilating newly-arrived immigrants. I don’t find the economic arguments against immigration terribly persuasive, but I do worry that an overwhelming number of new arrivals won’t be able to adapt to American cultural, political, and social norms.

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    • @Will, I find myself far more concerned with the economic ramifications of immigration than the cultural. I think our good track record on assimilation remains will continue. American society is too seductive (and flexible) to live here for too long without immigrants “losing their children” to American culture, for better and worse. Economically, though, in these hard times I find myself increasingly concerned with unemployment numbers and the prospect of low-skill wages being depressed further by a glut in labor supply.

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  2. Thanks for the lengthy response. And for the record, I agree with you 100 percent about the Drug War. Although I think that certainty on my own side colors that debate as well. I often hear my libertarian friends talk about this utopia where drugs are legalized but people don’t use any more of them. I disagree. Lower the price of something (in terms of risk and/or price) and people will buy more of t. I think legalization is the right thing to do anyway.

    As for immigration, I see some of those parallels, but not as many as you do. I don’t think checking citizenship status of workers would require the same level of invasiveness that the Drug War requires. I don’t regularly file paperwork with the federal government telling me what I do on Saturday nights. But companies do file paperwork about whom they hire, for taxes and other purposes.

    And finally, for what it’s worth, I think that workplace enforcement would be a FAR more effective means of immigration policing than a border fence.

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    • @Sam M, I think you are correct it noting that legalizing drugs will not create some sort of non-drug using utopia. My ex lives in the Netherlands. As i’m sure we all know they have quite different drug laws. But they also have crime problems in some places due to people from other countries coming to buy drugs and significant addiction problems. I support legalization of most drugs but that would create its own problems.

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      • @gregiank, Montana has medicinal marijuana and it’s causing quite a few problems out that way. Of course, it’s one of those rorschach things where people see in it what they want to see. Pro-legalizers blame the fact that it’s not completely legal while prohibitionists blame the fact that it’s even kinda-sorta legal.

        One of the reasons that I am sympathetic towards state power is that I would love to see different states try different things and see what causes the most and the least in the way of problems.

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        • @Trumwill, here in Alaska pot has a quasi legal status where you are allowed to posses some but can’t buy it. Most people really don’t what the law is. In fact i work in court house and have asked some judicial officials and they aren’t always clear.

          I think the state by state police would be a raging fustercluck. There would be endless conflicts and problems over people transporting over state lines. There would be just as many raids to see if people in North West statesilvania had drugs they got in South East statesilvania. North Dakota would blame those damn South Dakotans for all their problems.

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  3. Right now the real obstacle to meaningful immigration reform is political – it’s a fight that will take place in congress and in the realm of public opinion, not in the Arizona desert.

    I really agree with this. We (by which I mean basically pro-immigration people) have really done a lousy job on the public opinion front. I think we’ve been far too dismissive of border hawk concerns and far too likely to question the motives of the opposition rather than recognize that there is a mixture of motivations and some of them quite legitimate.

    Regarding the War on Drugs, I favor the legalization of pot and experimenting with the decriminalization of other substances with pilot programs to see what happens. I think that Sam is right that demand is an elastic thing and I’m not sure how much you can base policy around the demand that exists with such limited supply. The drugs that are most in demand are the legal ones and I think that the availability (you can buy them without worrying about getting arrested) and contribute significantly to that.

    I think that calling off the drug war (which I mostly support doing – even if we keep a lot of it illegal I have serious problems with how we go about combating it) would be a benefit, largely, but it wouldn’t necessarily come without costs. People who know more about it than I do can chime in… but wouldn’t taking away such a substantial portion of their economic output put an economic strain on the country and make the relative prosperity of the US more attractive? I understand the argument that without the drug cartels Mexico would have a better chance of rebuilding their economy, but that doesn’t strike me as a given that they will. While the decreased violence would be a boon to Mexican way-of-life, I’m not sure how many people are risking their lives to come here as second-class cohabitants and work for safety reasons and non-material standard-of-life.

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  4. Regarding Sam M’s second comment – nearly half of the guesstimated number of people present illegally in the US entered on a visa or visa waiver and simply never left. So 10 million over a 15 year period is probably a huge overestimate of the number of people who try to walk across the desert. Many of those illegally present who don’t sneak across the border are not Latino, and not hanging around outside Home Depot looking for day labour jobs. They are however far more likely to be “stealing American jobs”, since they’re likely to be doing jobs Americans actually want to do.

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    • @Simon K,

      Simon K,

      Fair enough. I tried to find numbers about how many are crossing the border, but that’s even harder to find than estimates of the number of illegals living here. The best estimate I could find was something like 850,000 a year entering illegally since 2000. But that seems low, no? If there are 11 million illegals here, it would require more crossing than that to maintain such a population.

      If you have a better number, fine by me. But it would have to be pretty low to make “crossing the border” profoundly more dangerous than “living in New Orleans.”

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      • @Sam M,

        This article says that in 2004, right around the time the linked study started counting bodies, the Border Patrol was detaining about 113,000 people PER MONTH.

        http://legacy.signonsandiego.com/news/state/20040323-1500-cnsillegal.html

        I have seen estimates that maybe one-in-four people who try to cross get caught. So maybe 500,000 per month? Let’s be conservative and reduce that by 3/4, and say 125 illegal crossers per month. Or even just 100,000. That means 1.2 million per year, about twicw what I used to make my estimate.

        This makes sense. There are a lot of people who cross illegally to do seasonal work, then cross back over. So a lot of people are jumping whatever fence exists. So many, I would still argue, that a death toll of 5,000, while tragic, is hardly out of line with what you would expect. And you would certainly expect more if enforcement measures were in fact draconian.

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      • @Sam M, Agreed it probably isn’t all that dangerous relatively speaking. The point I was driving at really is that I think the border is generally a distraction from sensible immigration reform. Actual numbers of course are impossible to come by, but I don’t think they really have much impact on anyone’s thinking either. Given that crossing the border in general is quite expensive and risky (albeit not that risky) it ought to be pretty easy to deter people from doing it if we firstly made it easier to hire Americans to do the kinds of jobs illegal immigrants tend to do, and secondly made it easier for people to move to the US to take the jobs Americans won’t do.

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  5. So, in other words, border enforcement per se is not the cause of increased deaths, but rather fundamental problems related to statism, like drug laws and the war on drugs and failure to enforce laws which make it illegal to employ illegal immigrants. We will still have a problem have the border, even if empoyers are raided and drugs are legalized, because Mexico is imploding — so unless there is strong border control, immigrants will still take the risk of finding something better here, especially if they can form an influential voting block for the Democrats. Mabe not, but it seems so.

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  6. There are a few comments that touch on this but I think the holistic view of problem solving is more helpful. One of the things overlooked by the let ’em all in, there are jobs aplenty advocates is the way that affects the economies of the Americas.

    It can’t be healthy for economic development and growth in Latin America to continually send millions to the US to work and to become increasingly reliant on money shipped home from those who do. Immigration is good for us but not at the expense of independent, stronger economies south of us, economies that would undoubtedly improve if they didn’t have to shoulder the burden of fighting our war on drugs.

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