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It is less evident at the federal level, where immigrants are typically net contributors. Overall, however, illegal immigrants are undoubtedly a fiscal drain in the short run and, according to Hanson, in the long run as well. Yet focusing too narrowly on such fiscal and economic effects has impoverished our understanding of the broader set of motivations driving illegal immigrants here in the first place.

The EU and illegal immigration: unsatisfactory achievements

As numerous studies reveal, illegals are often "target earners" who come to the U. To maximize income, they work at several jobs; to minimize expenses, they live in spartan, often substandard conditions. To meet their earnings targets, illegals endure long hours in unpleasant, sometimes dangerous conditions.

Over time, their goals of returning home often get pushed off into the future and, as we know, many illegal immigrants end up remaining in the U. Yet the notion of someday enjoying wealth earned in the U.


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Employers understand these dynamics. They avoid investing time and money training workers who might leave or get deported. Yet employers also regard illegals as ideal for occasional or undesirable jobs where high turnover is the norm. But as Hanson points out, even on the books, undocumented workers are valuable to employers precisely because they are more flexible and responsive to market forces than are other workers. Labor organizers have learned this the hard way. Activist lawyer Jennifer Gordon has chronicled her ultimately unsuccessful efforts to organize undocumented day laborers in suburban Long Island.

She succinctly identifies one obstacle she could not overcome: The workers were "settlers in fact but sojourners in attitude.


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  • The EU and illegal immigration: unsatisfactory achievements?
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  • The employers are too small and too varied to make organizing them practical. Not surprisingly, such transience is not confined to the workplace. Young people detached from the constraints as well as the supports of families back home exhibit what one sociologist refers to as "instrumental sociability," characterized by transitory friendships, casual sexual encounters, and excessive drinking to a degree uncommon back home.

    Such atomism helps explain why immigrant communities often lack strong leadership and organizations. In their study of four Chicago neighborhoods, Richard Taub and William Julius Wilson quote a parochial-school principal: "Mexicans don't think they're going to be living here a long time. That makes them not invest much in their neighborhood.

    Illegal Immigration

    So the instability that characterizes life among the undocumented does not result simply from their legal status, but reflects their own priorities and goals. For all these reasons, illegals can be seen as entrepreneurs whose pursuit of opportunity can and does result in big gains.

    Undocumented immigrants struggle in Trump's America

    In the continuing debate over immigration, however, there is little understanding or even acknowledgment of these social and communal consequences. Among policy elites, the focus is on analyzing concrete especially economic costs and benefits. Meanwhile, popular energy and fervor are fixated on legalities. Among those most inflamed by this issue, the chief concern is typically not the cost of illegal immigration or its social consequences, but the fact that illegal immigrants are flouting our laws and showing contempt for our society.

    It is perhaps no surprise that the anger and deep anxiety aroused by illegal immigration are so frequently expressed in the legalistic terms of our liberal, contractarian society. In this sense, the debate is an extension of the divide between populists and elites that characterizes our politics more generally. Yet this disagreement also presents an opportunity to clarify our complicated immigration problem and to find our way to a solution.

    Splitting the Difference on Illegal Immigration

    By contrast, cosmopolitan elites regard law as malleable and contingent. For the well off, well connected, and well lawyered, it often is. In the elites' "flexible" view, laws shaped by narrow, parochial interests are unfortunate and ill-advised. Yet both perspectives misapprehend the role of law in American society. The cosmopolitan view is alternately too complacent about the law's malleability and too cynical about its reflecting the arbitrary needs of powerful but narrow interests. Among academic and policy elites concerned with immigration issues, the only fixed star appears to be the needs of powerless immigrants, on whose behalf they invoke human-rights arguments.

    But it is seldom clear what these rights mean, in part because they reflect cosmopolitan values that minimize the prerogatives of nation-states that could afford them real substance. By contrast, the populist perspective on illegal immigration is overly rigid and unyielding. It begins with the reasonable premise that immigration policy should advance the national interest. But it then assumes that the national interest is self-evident and unchanging, rather than the outcome of continuing discussion and debate, shaped by shifting geopolitical and economic circumstances.

    Populists upset about undocumented immigrants regard the law as an unambiguous set of rules to be applied uniformly and consistently with minimal consideration of the consequences. Americans voicing this view would be surprised to hear that it resonates more with European civil law than with our own common-law tradition. In Europe, the law is indeed authoritative, reflecting the workings of shielded, hierarchical institutions. These institutions are staffed by lifelong jurists, trained to impartially apply a logically coherent set of principles and rules. And though these powerful jurists do not operate within a regime of formally separated powers, they are nevertheless insulated from politics by their professional stature and authority.

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    By contrast, in America, the legal system is open and adversarial. Judges often begin their careers in politics, with many judicial positions across the country filled through elections. Our legal system is thus heavily influenced by demands for democratic accountability. More to the point, judges and their courts are relatively passive before lawyers, who are accorded the initiative not in pursuit of any expert or objective findings, but on behalf of the interests of their clients.

    Legal decisions are typically open to subsequent challenges and ongoing disputation. As legal scholar Robert Kagan has noted, in America, "[l]egal conflict and uncertainty vitiate legal authority. Because our judges are not narrow specialists insulated from societal and political forces, they resolve legal disputes in light of precedent, historical context, and the concerns of the wider community.

    As Bickel argued:. For the basis of all law We are willing, and ought to be willing, to pay only a limited price in coercing minorities. Whenever a minority is sufficiently large or determined or We must then generate a greater measure of consent, or reconsider our stance on the minority's position. We must, in such circumstances, resort to methods other than coercive law; methods of persuasion and inducement, appeal to reason and shared values, appeal to interest, and not only material but political interest.

    We act on the realization that the law needs to be established before it can be effectively enforced, that it is, in a quite real sense, still provisional. Law, then, is not the exclusive purview of the courts or the legislatures. As social theorist Philip Selznick has put it:. A responsive legal order is not set over society The vitality of a social order comes from below, that is, from the necessities of cooperation in everyday life.

    All of this suggests that the challenge posed by illegal immigration is social and political as much as it is legal in nature. Illegal immigrants break the informal rules of neighborhood and civic life as much as the formal rules of legislatures and courts.

    But because the resulting strains are not felt evenly across society, and indeed because many Americans see themselves benefiting from illegal immigration, responses to these strains vary greatly. The ensuing debate has been cast in terms that not only reflect different reactions to illegal immigrants but divergent understandings of the law.

    The way forward requires an approach less burdened by legalisms and more attuned to the balancing of political interests. We need to move beyond viewing the undocumented merely as criminals or victims. Some of us need to acknowledge that most of the 11 million illegals in our midst are here to stay. All of us should stop to appreciate that America is a remarkably open and absorptive society, where newcomers and their children put down roots and develop ties rapidly.

    Indeed, these forces are so powerful that they overcome much of the indecision and ambivalence of illegals who typically do not arrive planning to stay here. We should allow ourselves to feel good about this, and use such positive sentiments to help us address a dilemma that, in its intractability, does not reflect well on any of us. And while we should criticize politicians who pander to not irrational but nevertheless highly volatile fears about illegals, we must not lose sight of the need to sanction those same illegals.

    As President Obama put it at American University in , "We have to demand responsibility from people living here illegally. Yet holding them accountable for their decisions need not be done in a punitive or vindictive spirit.