Missing the Big Picture

Writing in the New York Times, law professor Kris Kobach promises to rebut all the major objections to Arizona’s new anti-immigration law and proceeds to ignore all the major objections. Professor Kobach’s idea of a major objection is “It’s unfair to demand that aliens carry their documents with them”, whereas my idea of a major objection is “It’s idiotic, hateful and destructive to put obstacles in the way of productive activity.”

The number of “unauthorized aliens” in Arizona at any given moment is estimated as just under a half million—about the same as the number of Jews in New Jersey. Over half the text of the Arizona law is devoted to penalizing employers who hire these people. Now suppose for a moment that the New Jersey legislature were to pass a bill penalizing anyone who hires a Jew. Would Professor Kobach defend this law, as he does Arizona’s, by pointing out that it doesn’t require anyone to carry a driver’s license?

The anti-immigration hysterics keep warning us that foreigners want to come over here and exploit our welfare system. The insincerity of that stance is exposed whenever, as in Arizona, its proponents set out to prevent those very same foreigners from coming here and working.

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32 Responses to “Missing the Big Picture”

  1. 1 1 Bennett Haselton

    The link to the Kobach article is broken; the fixed link is:

  2. 2 2 Harold

    Gordon Brown in the UK got into trouble for refering to a woman who raised the issue of immigration as a bigot – he had forgoten he still had a microphone on.

  3. 3 3 John Faben

    Harold, yes – from what I can tell (it’s actually hard to get any details from most of the news sources I’ve looked at) the woman in question was complaining about the number of immigrants in this country – commonplace bigotry, but bigotry nonetheless. I wish we lived in a world where it would have been acceptable for Gordon Brown to say ‘yes, I did call her a bigot, but that’s because she was being bigoted’. Instead we’ve had backtracking, half-hearted apologies and a media frenzy.

  4. 4 4 Nichlemn

    Your beef seems to be with immigration law in general, not this specific law. I thought it was characteristic of economists to encourage focus on the roots of problems (e.g. considering the merit of medical subsidies rather than whether cigarettes should be taxed for their effect on them). It’s about as constructive as evaluating all sorts of new legislation and declaring them all immoral because they are funded by taxation – why not just write about taxation by itself?

    So then, why not discuss how hard we should enforce [i]given[/i] that the law restricts immigration? If you think there should be restrictions but they’re not at all enforced, why have the restrictions in the first place? If you think there shouldn’t be any restrictions at all, isn’t that just like inserting “Taxation is theft!” into a debate about any new policy? You’re making an argument about something different, keep it there.

  5. 5 5 Harold

    This sort of law exposes the dichotomy within us. I think that Steve’s basic premise is that “aliens” and Nationals have equal value, that free movement of labour will generate the greatest good through efficiencies of the market. Benefit to a Mexican counts as much as benefit to an American. (Of course, Mexicans are Americans too, but here I will use it to mean USA citizen)

    Now I think that most people would agree with a vague assertion that a “foreign” life was not intrinsically worth less than an American life. I am also pretty sure that if given a choice, most would choose an American life over a foriegn one (substitue nationality as applicable). If there was a kidnap, a foreigner and an American, and the kidnappers were going to kill one of them, how many would not be rooting for the American to survive? I suspect that most Americans would think this entirely reasonable.

    We also have a selfish interest, we are quite willing for the total good to be reduced if our personal good is increased. Each of us has a different threshold of the differential, some happy to accept more unhappiness in others for the same personal gain. Most of us think this is reasonable.

    So whilst we may intellectually think that all lives are equal, we don’t really believe it. We are happy to accept restrictions on others to increase our happiness, and also to increase the happiness of other Americans.

    Most also do not believe that the economic benefits of the increassed labor supply will benefit them. They do not believe that a reduction in wages will be accompanied by a larger decrease in prices, making them personally better off. A simple model may predict this, but does this asssume that labour is the only limit? Taken to extremes, would an infinite pool of potential starving immigrants drop wages to subsistence? This might be the greatest good, as lots of starving immigrants can now eat, but it is not making current Americans better off. I may be completely wrong here – what happens in this situation?.

    So there is a perception that immigration makes current Americans worse off, and an agreed position that it is OK to restrict others to make ourselves better off. We also sort of feel that we should value all human life equally, so we come up with compromises. We don’t execute illegal immigrants as we value their life to some extent. We don’t actively attack other countries to steal their goods. We suggest “amnesties” for current illegals, at which point they become of greater value, but deny any further immigration to lower value froeigners. It all comes down to whether it is acceptable to value your own compatriots more than foreigners.

  6. 6 6 Steve Landsburg

    Bennett: Thanks. Fixing this.

  7. 7 7 Pat

    Working and welfare aren’t mutually exclusive these days.

    There is some upper limit on the number of people we want in our country. Why should people from Mexico get that wondrous opportunity just because they’re lucky enough to be nearby? If we wanted to dole out spots based on charity and not proximity, we’d need to control the borders and expand legal immigration.

    If we feel that it’s up to the immigrants to cover their own expenses to get here (which discriminates against the distant poor), why not auction off the spots to the highest bidder? We’re discriminating against the distant poor anyway – we might as well bring in people with a high expected lifetime income to help pay for our bloated government budgets.

  8. 8 8 Al V.

    @Harold, you make some terrific points. To extend them, there are obviously some significant costs to illegal immigrants in coming to work in the U.S. at a minimum, it costs quite a bit of money to get here, plus they are leaving behind family and a society they are presumably comfortable in. We have to assume that the fact that they are coming here means the benefits significantly outweigh the costs. Assuming we collectively want to reduce the flow of illegal immigration (and Steve for one, does not believe we should), the approaches we have tried have sought to increase the cost of coming here. Perhaps we should be reducing the benefit, by making the countries that provide immigrants more desirable places to live. Raising the standard of living in places like Mexico, Honduras, and Colombia will probably do more to reduce immigration than seeking to block it at the borders.

    Back to Steve’s point re. the benefits of immigration. Where I live most of the Latino immigrants, documented and undocumented, come from Colombia. As an example, many of them work in residential construction. I suspect that keeping them out of the U.S. would raise the cost of homes in my area somewhat. I wonder what the effects of the loss of a pool of skilled labor would mean to the home construction industry.

  9. 9 9 TjD

    Hah! What ‘welfare system’ ? If any one wants to work illegally, maybe even contribute taxes, and not get much in return ( except obviously living in a stable country ), I think that is a pretty sweet deal.


  10. 10 10 Cos

    Funny – yesterday someone sent that very same Kris Kobach link around to a list I’m on and asked what, if anything, Kobach is wrong about; I responded with a long tirade saying Kobach’s piece is all about misdirection, and he fails to rebut most of the significant complaints against this law. Yet I gave completely different examples from you! :)

    I think your main point here is “why do we even want to restrict these immigrants in the first place?” and while I agree with that, I think it’s not entirely a fair objection to make to his op-ed. He’s working under the assumption that we *do* want to enforce the immigration restrictions we have in place now, and is writing to an audience that he assumes share that basic underlying assumption. Since a majority of Americans do share that assumption, even though you and I (and others) disagree with it, I think it’s a fair one to build his Op-Ed on top of. He’s not arguing “here’s why we should want to prevent these immigrants from coming here”, he’s arguing “given that we want to prevent these immigrants from coming here, here’s why this law is a reasonable component of that.”

    Despite that, your last sentence is brilliant. It’s a great point, succinctly stated, that applies regardless of whether one assumes we want to have & enforce immigration restrictions or not.

  11. 11 11 Cos

    @AI V:
    >> Raising the standard of living in places like Mexico, Honduras, and Colombia will probably do more to reduce immigration than seeking to block it at the borders. <<

    Not only are you right, but this is one of the reasons why I think this sort of immigration is good. By connecting us more to the people and situations in other countries, it makes clearer to us our responsibility to help rather than hurt them. Our policies have had severe economic consequences on Mexico, and some of those consequences should come here, so that we take them into greater consideration when we make policy here. We shouldn't feel free to sit quietly by while Mexico falters, just as we shouldn't sit quietly by while Detroit or Louisiana falter. Having people from Detroit, or Mexico, move to your block, because you live in a place that's doing better, makes this more salient, and that's a good thing.

  12. 12 12 Roger Schlafly

    Kobach does not answer your arguments because you have extreme views that are not shared by any mainstream politicians. He is answering the arguments that people might have actually heard.

  13. 13 13 Ken


    You seem to be assuming the people crossing the border are honest hard working people looking for work. While this is undoubtedly true for a large percentage, there is a significant percentage that is criminal. Legal immigration should be easier to allow those hardworking people to take advantage of the opportunities here, but this doesn’t change the fact that many come here to abuse our citizens. I understand much of this violence is caused by the foolish drug war, but you are talking past people when you give your argument. What do you propose to do to keep out violent criminals?

    From what I’ve read (granted it’s not that much since I don’t live in a border state anymore) about the recent immigration problem in the southwest, it’s not that people are upset that Mexicans stream across the border. Many welcome the low wage workers that do solid work. Many let these immigrants squat temporarily on their land. The problem is that many of these immigrants forcefully squat on private land. Then kill farmers that challenge them for squatting on their land. This is a recent and bad turn of events which you seem to be ignoring.

    What about the freedoms, liberty, and property rights of US citizens that are being violated by these illegal immigrants? Mexico has done nothing but encourage their own citizens by basically saying they have a right to cross the border because the US stole that land from Mexico. There is no surprise then that belligerant Mexicans cross the border with violence in their hearts.

    Now you are saying that the US, in particular, Arizona is somehow in the wrong for wanting to protect their citizens from this violence. You’ve brought up a good point about letting free people freely trade with each other. Maybe this is a bad law, but you seem to not understand the law is designed, possibly poorly, to protect US and Arizona citizens. Now, what’s your solution to the international relations problem between the US and Mexico, where many of Mexicans crossing the border don’t share the ideas of liberty and freedom and actively reject US citizens rights to own large ares of the southwest as well as American culture? Even many of those hardworking people come to the US as staunch Mexican nationalists with little love for the US.


  14. 14 14 Steve Landsburg

    Ken: Then why is the bulk of the Arizona law devoted to preventing immigrants from holding honest jobs?

  15. 15 15 S.V.

    America should not enforce the coming of immigrants. Otherwise it will not be America anymore.

  16. 16 16 Alex Martelli

    @Harold, the woman Brown was (unwisely) commenting on was specifically whining about immigrants to the UK from other EU countries — which is a notch *beyond* US people whining against Mexicans: it’s much closer to, say, Californians whining against internal immigration from Oklahoma (free movement of workers, as well as capital, goods, and services, is at the heart of the compact among EU countries no less than that among US states). “Bigot” doesn’t even start to do it justice;-).

    And, she was complaining about foreign college students “making it harder for her grandkids to go to college”, which quite apart from bigotry simply shows enormous ignorance: UK colleges court foreign students because they pay much higher tuition than locals (and tuition that’s higher than the incremental cost to the college of having one more student), just like US state colleges court students from other states and abroad, for exactly the same reason.

    The foreigners/out-of-staters are thus “subsidizing” the college, allowing it to have _more_ resources for local students than if it had to rely only on public money from taxes and locals’ tuitions (for any given level of public expenditure on colleges and locals’ tuitions, as long as the nonlocals’ tuition is higher than the incremental cost of having one more student): so, far from making it _harder_ for the woman’s grandkids to get into a local college, they’re provably making it _easier_ (probably not easy enough if they’ve inherited her smarts, I guess;-).

    Brown could easily have made these points and shown the woman to be the (expletive deleted) she was, rather than basically trying to avoid confrontation — bigotry surely mattered here, but sheer ignorance of undisputed facts (in the students’ case for sure, and probably in the “EU immigrants” case as well) could easily have been proven.

    Meanwhile, I was toying with the idea of buying a vacation home in Flagstaff (a delightful part of the world), and I’ve of course scratched the idea — I’m a (legal) immigrant from Italy, my skin color and facial features may suggest that, so I’m surely not going to spend money to get to a State where police is _supposed_ to hassle me with continuous demands to prove my residency here is legal; similarly, my next vacation will be to Shasta or Yosemite instead of Grand Canyon &c, pity, but when, for once!, California’s being less crazy, it deserves me to spend my vacation money here;-).

    Similarly, though less extremely, a few years ago I scrapped the idea of getting a vacation home in Lucca (one of my favorite spots in Italy) because that town’s council passed regulations forbidding the granting of operating licenses to any restaurants that aren’t based on local cuisine — they’re trying to hassle mostly immigrants from around the Mediterranean, horrified by the growing number of places where you can eat excellent and cheap couscous or falafel, but, much as I love northern-Tuscan cuisine, I just wouldn’t enjoy a place where having (e.g.) a pizza or a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara (both originating from Italian places far away from Lucca) is deliberately made harder for me. Southern France, yet another of my favorite spots in the world, may, alas, be going the same way…:-(.

    Worst case, if the nativists prevail, I can always go back to my hometown, Bologna, where foreign scholars and merchants have been welcome for a thousand years, after all;-).

  17. 17 17 JLA


    Immigrants are incarcerated at a far lower rate than natives. Arguing that “those Mexcians” are violent criminal offenders may be emotionally satisfying, but is just plain false.



    I don’t think it is true that many are “quite willing for the total good to be reduced if our personal good is increased.” As just one example, the biggest competition that Landsburg and other American economists face is from international economists. Yet, American economists overwhelmingly support an increase in both skilled and unskilled immigration.

  18. 18 18 Ken


    I admitted as much that the Arizona law could be a poor law; I haven’t read it. I asked you what YOUR solution is to keep out criminals, while allowing people who want to work work. Is it simply an open border where anyone could enter the US at any time without being inspected by border security? If so, how do you plan to handle the problems with jurisdiction when you have a Mexican criminal cross into the US commit a crime, then slip back across the border? The Mexican government has all ready proved to be too corrupt or incompetant to help with this.

    Glenn Reynolds, also, received an interesting email from a border officer arguing that this internal security is ALSO necessary to shore up border security:


    Have you ever considered that it would be easier to find a US citizen rather than an illegal immigrant, i.e., someone who entered this country by evading the police and one who has to live in the US by evading the police? Also, it looks like the violence has escalated recently.

  19. 19 19 Doctor Memory

    Ken: are you seriously asserting that it’s easier for a non-english-speaking, undocumented immigrant to hide from the police than for a native? Can you produce any evidence, ideally from law enforcement, to back up that assertion?

  20. 20 20 Jonathan Kariv

    The USA does make it administratively hard to get legal visa’s.
    I’m in the USA on a student visa. When I went through the application it was and and far as I know still is alot more complicated/difficult than it needs to be. For a fairly trivial example I needed to go an in person interview at the US consulate. Now there where 3 of these in my home country (south africa), which is rather a big place, I was lucky to live in a major city where there was one.

    Now for me the whole process was simply an nuisance but I can imagine it could very easily be alot more than that for someone less fortunate. If you want to reduce illegal immigration, then it might be constructive to make legal immegration less difficult.

  21. 21 21 Jim

    A couple of questions: 1) Do you recognize the right (responsibility perhaps?) of the US to have an immigration policy? (This is a yes/no question.) 2) If we have the right as a sovereign nation to decide who gets to come here, and by extension who doesn’t, what exactly exactly is a state supposed to do when the entity (in this case the Federal Government that made the policy in the first place) utterly fails FOR YEARS to enforce that policy? (Whether you agree with the policy/law or not is irrelevant since none of us gets to pick and choose which laws we obey.)

    For the record, in my ideal world the US would open it’s borders to all and sundry, regardless of skill sets, education, or any other criteria. Just so long as they wanted to come here and work, and so long as we know who they are; i.e. we were fairly sure in advance based on their record in their home country that they are not criminals or terrorists. The overwhelming majority of immigrants do come here for good reasons, but as always, 10% can cause %90 of the problems. We need to weed out that 10% as best as possible.

  22. 22 22 Ken

    Doctor Memory,

    Having lived in Texas for three years, I can tell you that not being able to speak English is no real hinderance. This also goes both ways. Mexicans will close ranks when questioned by the police and will all of the sudden hable no ingles. Also, native US citizens typically live in places where they have ties and people know them. They have legal documentation and are in some database that the police can access. So yes, I’m saying that illegal immigrants, people who by there natur HAVE to avoid scrutiny, will be harder to catch than the average American criminal.


    See my first post, where I make it clear that legal immigration needs to be made easier.

  23. 23 23 Funny Guy

    As an Arizona resident, I am really getting tired of being portrayed as a racist because I am in favor of SB1070. I hope this legislation leads to reform on the current immigration laws. It’s a travesty that more illegals aren’t even given an option to enter the country legally. However this law isn’t going to “legalize profiling.” The law is going to require officers to obtain proof of citizenship only in situations where a crime has taken place.

  24. 24 24 Political Junkie

    The law is designed to protect the citizen of Arizona as well as the undocumented immigrants. If an illegal reports a crime or requests police help they will not be prosecuted under this law.

  25. 25 25 Jonathan Kariv

    Ken, somehow missed that line the first time, see it now, sorry.

  26. 26 26 Tom Dougherty


    You seem to be allergic to the word illegal. The law is not an anti-immigration law. It is about criminals who have broken the law and are here illegally. It is also about employers who are trying to obtain a competitive advantage by breaking the law over those employers who play by the rules. Let’s see, if I hire an illegal alien I can pay below the minimum wage, I don’t have to pay the employer’s share of payroll taxes, no medical plan, no retirement plan. While, on the other hand, if you are an employer who follows the rules you certainly are at a competitive disadvantage. Employers who break the law to receive a competitive advantage should be penalized. Just as an employer who dumped its toxic chemicals in a nearby creek to receive a competitive advantage should be penalized.

  27. 27 27 Cos

    I see several commenters asserting that hard-line efforts to fight immigration violations are somehow about “protecting” residents. These commenters seem to take it as axiomatic that immigration increases crime, but present no evidence. Since we actually know that no such evidence exists, I consider that position racist, even if it’s not intended to be so. What it boils down to is “if any person who violated immigration law also commits some crimes in the place where they’ve moved to, then we should fight crime by putting more resources into deporting all people who have violated immigration law.” To that I say, “if any person who was born in Arizona commits some crimes in Arizona, we should fight crime working to pass laws to force all native-born Arizonians to leave the state.” It makes just as much sense.

  28. 28 28 Cos

    Addendum: I realize that some people may object, “hey, violating immigration law is a crime”. Some of these people probably believe they have an actual point, and that their objection actually means something about the substance of my analogy.

    To those people, I will amend my proposal: Instead of applying to *all* native-born Arizonians, these efforts to force them out of state should be limited only to those Arizonians who have violated copyright law by sharing things such as music files, movies, or computer software without paying for them.

  29. 29 29 Tom Dougherty


    I can’t vouch for the immigration status of those on the list below. But I’m sure it is just my mistaken perception that 90% of them are hispanic.


    Or how about the Pima County, Arizona most wanted.


    On second thought Cos. You better not look at those links. Ignorance is bliss.

  30. 30 30 dave

    more or less governance reduces crime?
    rules are made to be broken. best thread evar. ;]

    p.s. grats doc.

  31. 31 31 BigNate

    I may not so eloquent with big words, but it seems to me that those that are opposed to this immigration law forget that it’s to enforce laws that are set by the federal government. I live in Tucson, AZ, and used to be a juvenile corrections officer. While I was working there at any given point there were at least 10 young men there that were illegal border crossers. They were there til they were taken back across the border, and wouldn’t you know it they would be back in the facility within 3 weeks. They would come back and commit the same crimes they committed to get in there in the first place. They thought it was fun to do. They placed a burden on the tax payers in AZ to care for them, and for what? This law is to keep those out that come here illegally. I am all for those that want to come to America to live, work, and enjoy the freedoms we share. But to come here illegally to enjoy that is wrong no matter how you look at it. America without any immigration law is saying that it’s ok to break the law and not have to pay for your consequences. While those that live here as American citizens have to pay the consequences for the crimes we commit. Where is the fairness in that?
    I see a lot of you saying where is the crime that is happening from illegal crossers? How about the law enforcement officer that was shot just a day ago? Or the farmer that was murdered on hos property near the border? Many of you don’t have to live with that. Is it wrong for the state government to care for the safety of it’s citizens? Where is the federal government to protect those that are in harms way like that farmer? So don’t go throwing out the terms racist, or discrimination. I am neither, but I do care for the safety of all.
    I welcome those that come here properly and legally. I say hurray for them. Welcome to the land of opportunity. I do have to ask those that oppose this. What would you do to solve this? How will you find a way to protect us from those that seek to do harm? Yes I know not everyone who crosses are dangerous threats, but how can you tell one who is and one who isn’t? It’s not as easy to make everyone happy is it? So until a better solution arises this will have to work. So say what you want about this post, because I don’t care if you like it or not. This is my belief.

  32. 32 32 Cos

    Tim Dougherty: You’ve really got to learn something about statistics, if you want to make sense here.

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