It's Silly to Oppose a 'Path to Citizenship' Because It's 'Unfair'

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Do you know what's much less fair? People born into a rich country, by sheer luck, deporting unlucky people born into a poor country.

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Senator Ted Cruz isn't a fan of the "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants already in the United States. His remarks on the subject were a response to a new immigration proposal in Congress. "There are some good elements in this proposal, especially increasing the resources and manpower to secure our border and also improving and streamlining legal immigration," he said. "I have deep concerns with the proposed path to citizenship. To allow those who came here illegally to be placed on such a path is both inconsistent with the rule of law and profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who waited years, if not decades, to come to America legally."

Over the years, I've grown increasingly skeptical of that argument.

The typical illegal immigrant is born, through no fault of his own, into an impoverished country with low standards of living, endemic corruption, and few economic opportunities for bettering his lot. There are richer countries where he could live a much better life. But the people born into those richer countries, owing to nothing but dumb luck, have enacted restrictive immigration laws that make it effectively impossible for someone of his stature to immigrate legally.

In one of those rich countries, the United States, most people who made the restrictive laws wouldn't even be here but for the unrestricted immigration policy that prevailed when their ancestors arrived.

But back to the typical illegal immigrant.

In his impoverished land, he faces a choice: severely limit his life opportunities by staying in his home country; play the lottery of immigrating legally, which almost always consigns him to the same fate; or bid his family goodbye, sneak across the border, get a job, send much-needed money home to his loved ones, and radically improve his own life prospects by performing honest labor for people who want to buy it. His sneaking in doesn't take anyone else's "spot." No legal immigrant was slowed down by his illegal entry. But he did break a duly codified law.

Is that unfair? Let's say that it is.

Here he is in the United States seven years later. He's been regularly employed. He hasn't committed any crimes. He's better off. His family back home is better off. His employer is better off. There may be people without high-school diplomas who are slightly worse off due to lower wages.
 
Am I to understand that fairness demands that the people born into the rich country through sheer luck forcibly repatriate the man to the poor country where he was born through no fault of his own?

That's counterintuitive!

In fact, it's among the worst of the arguments against a path to citizenship. And it isn't improved by invoking supposedly wronged legal immigrants. There's a tiny subset of people from other countries so unusually lucky that they win the immigration lottery -- they get to come here legally, without sneaking across a dangerous border, because of luck. You're telling me that fairness is advanced if, for those lucky few, we deport the guy who lost the immigration lottery?  

When he is arrested, jailed for a few months, flown to a city not his own in his home country, and returns to the place of his birth, an impoverished village where he has no friends or prospects, I'm supposed to look at that outcome and think, Well, good, the fair thing happened!?

There may be good arguments for opposing a "path to citizenship." Fairness is not one of them.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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