Viewpoint: GOP’s immigration stance contradicts belief in free trade

By Daniel Houston
Staff writer

Watching Republican presidential candidates wax indignant over the federal government’s inability to enforce its own immigration laws makes one wonder. Which, if any, fundamental principles does the party faithful base its timid support for free markets and private property rights?

There’s a powerful tension between the “law-and-order” philosophy, proponents of which tend to favor stricter enforcement of federal immigration laws, and the GOP’s supposed commitment to private property ownership.

This issue of intellectual consistency is important because every major GOP candidate endorses some policy of immigration restriction while paying lip service to a free-market economic program, and voter frustration with a stagnant economy may very well lead to a GOP victory in the 2012 presidential election.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry lambasted his competitor for the nomination, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, at Oct. 28’s GOP debate in Las Vegas for hiring a company that employed illegal immigrants to work on Romney’s property. Romney supports erecting a border fence between the United States and Mexico, and Herman Cain, now surging in the polls, hinted such a fence might need to be electrified. Even the self-proclaimed libertarian, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, calls for “securing the border,” although he and Perry stop short of advocating for a border fence.

To expose the inconsistency in their beliefs, let’s begin with the relatively uncontroversial proposition that all people are born self-owners.

In other words, they have the right to determine how to live their lives free of violence and interference unless they act in such a way as to divest themselves of that right, like committing a violent crime against an innocent person.

Most self-identified conservatives would agree with this concept when extended to private property. Individuals, they say, have a right to own property and enter into mutually beneficial contracts and exchanges free from government interference.

At the very least, the conservative typically believes a pretty compelling government interest has to be at stake to justify state intrusion into economic exchanges and private property ownership.

But this is where it gets tricky for the conservative, and particularly tricky for the mainstream GOP candidate. Take the case of a person – let’s call him John – living on a riverfront property on the Brazos River. John wants to reach a piece of land on the other side. The person whose land John wants to reach can rightfully deny him access to the property, or he could allow John to come across like he would any welcome guest.

In the first case, if John crossed the river and reached the other side without the property owner’s consent, his is a criminal trespasser whose lawbreaking can be handled simply by enforcing the property rights of the landowner. In the latter case, John and the landowner are engaging in a completely legitimate activity on the landowner’s rightfully owned property.

But in the similar case of another person – let’s call him Juan – crossing the Rio Grande River, the federal government steps in and disregards the rights of Juan and the property owner on the other side. Both the act of criminal trespass and that of legitimate visitation are punished equally under federal immigration law, all for crossing a rather arbitrary territorial boundary.

The federal government’s intrusion into private enterprise, however, doesn’t stop at the border. Undocumented immigrants can cross the border legitimately (albeit illegally), purchase property legitimately, sell their labor to an employer legitimately, never commit an act of violence and still be considered as much a criminal as the trespasser.

In fact, the basic operating principle behind immigration restrictions is that undocumented immigrants are constantly trespassing on “American” land without the government’s consent. But this principle implies government ownership of all the land in the territorial area over which it claims sovereignty. Rather than existing to protect pre-existing property rights, the purpose of government under this view is to parcel out conditional titles to land, which would theoretically give it the right to place any restrictions it pleases on private property “ownership.”

That’s right; the principle justifying restrictions on immigration could be used to justify any degree of state socialism, and it’s astounding that supposed free-market advocates so often fail to see the implications of the “secure-the-border” mentality.

This mentality also blinds the major GOP candidates to the economic harm associated with placing government restrictions on the labor market. By outlawing free migration, the government serves as a hindrance to the natural reallocation of scarce labor resources to those areas of production most valued by consumers. A basic understanding of economics renders the fear that “they’ll take our jobs” unwarranted.

American society is poorer, not wealthier, because many willing workers are unable to relocate and contribute to the structure of production.

A more legitimate claim Republicans have against illegal immigration is that many immigrants pay few taxes but are still eligible for government subsidies in the form of welfare or access to government services. But this complaint, if legitimate, only justifies retracting their access to government services, not forced apprehension or deportation.

Once again, the conservative argument must fall back on the principle that the government owns the land, not the individual. If the government constrained itself to merely enforcing property rights on the border rather than restricting immigration itself, then society would be wealthier and the GOP might be able to say with a straighter face that it is the defender of private property and free trade.

Daniel Houston is a senior journalism and philosophy major from Fort Worth and is a staff writer for the Lariat.