The Department of Homeland Security estimated that in 2015 there were about 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. The Pew Research Council says 10.6 million in 2016. Either way, that’s a lot of people. Well, whatever. Poof! They’re gone!
A good part of the country would feel little direct effect. But agricultural communities from Texas to Washington to Maine would be severely affected. East Tennessee, too. Like it or not, illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America provide a large and hard-working part of the farming labor force. Meat packing would be particularly hard hit, as would vegetable and fruit farms.
Replacing these workers wouldn’t happen overnight. Crops would rot in the fields and wages would have to rise significantly before enough people could be attracted to do this hard and unpleasant work. Some farmers would simply quit or switch to less-labor-intensive crops. A few might even move their operations to other countries. Imports would increase. And for consumers, prices would necessarily rise. So no direct effect, perhaps, but the entire country would still feel it in the pocketbook, to the tune of many billions of dollars a year.
Construction would be hard hit, with similar results. Manufacturers, less so, but all sorts of service industries from landscaping to hotels to fast food would be scrambling. Some businesses wouldn’t survive it, and for those that did, higher costs would have to be passed on to customers.
But all those criminals! Poof! They’d be gone, too. Yes, but don’t expect the police to be overjoyed. Trump’s rants notwithstanding, they’re a small part of the overall problem except in areas with large immigrant populations. And their absence would only open opportunities into which other lowlifes would quickly ooze. Sadly, real life is like that.
And, Poof! Landlords would find millions of properties empty with no prospects of filling them, and forget the back rent. Real estate values would fall. Stores of all types would have fewer customers — perhaps not noticeable here, but some places would take a hard hit, and, here and there, whole neighborhoods would be devastated.
But the strain on public services — schools, emergency rooms, and the like. Well … emergency rooms and other public welfare services, there’s little doubt that they would see significant and badly-needed relief. But schools are usually funded on the basis of attendance. For them, it’s a mixed bag. Fewer students with fewer special requirements, perhaps, but also less money for those who remain. And don’t forget that illegal aliens pay billions in income taxes but don’t file tax returns, and pay billions more into bogus Social Security accounts from which they’ll never collect. An argument has raged for decades about whether there is a net benefit or a net cost, with no clear winner. That in itself argues for caution rather than magic wands.
Don’t forget that a very large part of the problem is with people who entered legally — students, for example — and then overstay their visas. Many of these people aren’t manual laborers, either. They’re often well-educated and highly-valued employees; in fact, the vast majority of these people are working at way-above-minimum-wage jobs and would be hard to replace at any price. But Poof! They’re gone, regardless of the consequences.
Well, you say, the economic impact is one thing, but that will eventually work itself out. OK, if you’ll acknowledge the damage that will be done by magically disappearing over 3% of the country’s population, I’ll acknowledge that it will be repaired over a decade or so. But what about the rule of law, you ask? Now there’s the real rub, and one that’s far more concerning. Countries in which the rule of law is flouted are in big trouble, a fact so obvious it needs no example.
Well, there’s this: The law without humane application is tyranny. Nor is the law a suicide pact. And even the law must acknowledge reality. In a system of ordered liberty, the three principles of justice, order and freedom are in tension and must be balanced against one another. We can’t ignore the reality that we are dealing with human beings who, here legally or not, we must treat humanely, if for no other reason than the sake of our own humanity.
A knotty problem, and one that won’t be solved with magical thinking by either side.
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is a semiretired businessman and conservative political activist.