Is anything as polarizing as illegal immigration? Yorba Linda City Council members voted last week to support Arizona’s tough immigration law, a position akin to Costa Mesa City Council’s declaration that illegal immigrants are unwelcome there. Meanwhile, Santa Ana took a 180-degree opposite position, condemning Arizona’s law.

Someone’s got to say it. What’s missing amid the impassioned fervor surrounding illegal immigration is common sense.

Ideally, people should be permitted to do whatever doesn’t infringe on another’s God-given rights. Usually, this results in greater benefits for everyone. Not always. It’s an imperfect world.

Ideally, employers should be free to hire whomever they choose. Employees should be free to seek work anywhere. National borders impede this mutually beneficial arrangement by regulating immigration, consequently distorting job markets by perverting supply and demand. Even so, that’s not the central problem of illegal immigration.

Rather, the problem is rooted in well-intentioned institutional evils. As Milton Friedman said: “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.”

It follows that you can’t build a fence high enough, or deport enough illegal immigrants, or punish businesses enough to completely discourage people from seeking to substantially better their lives, especially if what they stand to gain is free to them, and particularly if they don’t have much to begin with.

If jobs were the only issue, the market would largely self-correct whatever problems are posed by illegal immigration. But it’s not just jobs. Most of the world lives in conditions that make “poverty” in the contemporary United States look extravagant.

About 43 percent of America’s “poor” own their homes, which, on average, is a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath with garage, says the Census Bureau. About 80 percent of U.S. poor have air conditioning. It was only 1970 when merely 36 percent of the entire population enjoyed air conditioning. In the 1940s, my parents slept on the porch to cope with Illinois’ stifling summer nights.

The Heritage Foundation tells us the typical poor American has more living space than the average person – not the average poor person – in Paris, London and other European cities.

About three-fourths of poor Americans own a car, and almost a third have two. A whopping 97 percent of U.S. poor households have color TV, and more than half own two or more. Three-fourths have a VCR or DVD player, and 62 percent get cable or satellite TV. That’s poor in America today.

Haven’t quite got the picture yet? Try this. The Pacific Research Institute tells us that last year, taxpayers spent on average $11,600 per pupil in California public schools, and as much as $22,000 for each child in districts receiving “small schools allowance.” There’s no entry fee to receive that education. Just walk in the door.

Then there’s the fact that no one is turned away from health care in America for lack of ability to pay. Hungry? Food stamps. Can’t pay the rent? Subsidized housing and free shelters.

Before you send hate mail, understand that this is not to say there isn’t poverty, suffering, hunger and need in America. It’s to say that, relatively speaking, the U.S. looks like paradise to substantially poorer people around the world.

What father of four wouldn’t do whatever he could to provide his children the equivalent of $46,400 to $88,000 in annual public school tuition each, completely free, rather than see them grow up poor without the hope that comes with education?

Add up everything the U.S. provides at no cost to recipients – health, education, welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, etc. We’re fortunate to be insulated by two oceans, or else many, many more desperate poor would flood across our borders to take advantage.

And none of that even takes into consideration the lure of jobs, vastly more plentiful and better paying here than in impoverished nations.

The point is not whether we should turn these people away. The point is they have every reason to want to come. And you would, too. As long as we provide such stuff for free, people who don’t have it will come to get it. The more vital the free stuff, the greater the attraction. The more generous we are in doling it out, the more entitled they will feel.

When I raised this issue on the Register’s OrangePunch blog, a caller lambasted me, insisting we can’t afford to permit open borders because it would attract millions of Third World poor to our communities.

He’s probably right, although some of my colleagues would argue there is no evidence the increase in immigration would be vast. Whether immigration would increase a little or a lot, the fact remains we can’t afford open borders while we operate a welfare state. Neither can we afford to dangle free benefits before a desperate world that regards being poor in America as having arrived in paradise.

We are nearing the time to choose. We must dramatically scale back the overall welfare state to reduce the lure, or else resort to Draconian police-state measures to cope with the overflowing demand. Do we really want a cop, a clerk or a bureaucrat demanding to see our papers on the most contrived excuses? Ask any refugee from a totalitarian state. In an imperfect world, inevitable abuse is built into such systems.

As long as we live in an imperfect world, some regulation of the border is necessary to prevent easy access by those who would kill us, including requiring a criminal background check, a health check and a job waiting for the immigrant. The influx can be reduced from a torrent to a trickle, making reasonable border controls manageable.

If, however, we don’t remove the lure, the truly dangerous terrorist will be much more difficult to sift from the immigrants coming to get, apart from work, their free U.S. entitlements.

There are solutions – for employers who need workers, we need to raise immigration quotas and find a way for those needed to work legally. To address entitlements, the only permanent solution is to permanently end the welfare state in all of its incarnations, for everyone. Otherwise, the growing demand for our “free” public benefits will crush our already over-strained system. There will be even more clamoring for nurses and teachers to become de facto immigration enforcers, and for punishing employers for doing what employers are supposed to do, hire workers.

Finally, lest I’m mistaken for a cold-hearted scoundrel oblivious to my fellow man’s needs, let me say I’m in full agreement with the words inscribed at Ellis Island, our nation’s historic immigration gateway: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

We are not to oppress foreigners living among us, in part because we are a land of immigrants. In that spirit, the Statue of Liberty’s inscription invited the “wretched” and “poor,” not just the properly credentialed.

But that invitation was extended long before we began providing many of life’s necessities as entitlements, which erodes our own sense of personal responsibility here at home, and looks to the rest of the world like a free ticket to the lap of luxury.

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