I have heard this claim, or similar versions thereof, many times in the recent immigration debates. It sounds so uncontroversial. Who is against enforcing the law? The law is, after all…the law. It was passed by lawmakers. Our country is built upon the law. We also hear "let us first secure our border" before proceeding with other immigration reforms.
The economist is more likely to think in terms of the margin. We enforce laws up to some point. After that point we let transgressions slide, if only probabilistically. This is true for every law on the books.
Many murders and robberies are committed each year. No one says "let us first enforce the law" before proceeding with, say, tax reform and other beneficial improvements. We can’t nail every tax cheat, or even most of them. To truly enforce the law — in the sense of bringing transgressions to their minimum or zero level — would bankrupt us, turn us into a totalitarian state, or most likely both. The true question is not one of whether we should enforce the law, but rather of how much. Whether we admit it or not, we are all willing to allow some amount of illegal immigration.
Similarly, no rational business firm would vow to stamp out all employee theft before proceeding with a beneficial organizational change.
Most or perhaps all critics of illegal immigration think that open borders would be a bad idea. I agree. But their portrait of open borders betrays their other view that we are not enforcing immigration law right now. Critics paint a picture, perhaps a justified one, of untold millions swarming suddenly into the United States under open borders. It is evident to me that plenty of the Indians in Hyderabad, my current locale, would love to come.
But think what this implies. It means that current levels of law enforcement are in fact keeping out most of the people who would like to enter the country. It means we are enforcing the law, for better or worse, more than not.
Simply repeating the mantra that "we should enforce the law" is not itself a good argument for a tougher immigration policy.