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How About Amnesty for the Market?

By Daniel Henninger

Several years ago, a think tank called the Migration Policy Institute produced a digital map of all the counties in the U.S., depicting where the foreign-born population lives. In other words, the immigrants, not only Hispanic but all ethnicities. The map is color-coded--with deep purple and navy blue counties holding the largest raw numbers of foreign-born people, from 23% to 50% of total county population (the U.S. county average then was 11.1%).

When your eyes fall on the map, they are drawn immediately to a long strip of deep blue and purple counties running from the southern tip of Texas and northwest along the border and deep into California. Undeniably, it is difficult to go nearly anywhere in California--its cities or its smaller farming communities--without realizing that the state is under pressure from the influx of Latin American migrants. Then more deep blue spreads into Nevada and Arizona. And of course southern Florida.

The map also shows the swath of immigrant-dense areas around New York City and northern New Jersey and, less publicized, around Chicago on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. Though heavy with Hispanics in their midst, neither New York nor Chicago produce the nightmarish accounts of social destruction from this in-migration.

In raw numbers, according to MPI's tables, six states over time have held far and away the largest number of foreign-born people, with California's 9.6 million as of 2005 overwhelming runner-up New York at almost 4 million. Texas and Florida each hold more than 3 million with Illinois and New Jersey at about 1.6 million.

However, the percentage increase from 2000 to 2005 shows a different picture. California's growth rate, at 9.1%, ranks 40th. In fact save for Florida (ranked 25th by growth rate), all the other states with large immigrant populations experienced growth below the national average of 16%.

The state with the highest percentage growth of immigrants in those five years was South Carolina, at 47.8%. Rounding out the top 10 high-growth immigrant states, all up more than 30%, are New Hampshire, Tennessee, Arkansas, Delaware, Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska, Kentucky and North Carolina. (If you really want to get away from it all, head to Wyoming--dead last with about 11,000 foreign-born and 49th in growth with a -5% rate.)

What that list of states with high rates of in-migration tells me is that immigrants, legal or illegal, go where there's work. They constitute what in one of the few felicitous phrases in economics is called "labor-force participation."

A study last September by the Pew Hispanic Center tracked migration flows back to 1990 and found that the most notable factor affecting the rise and fall of total migration numbers was the state of the U.S. economy.

What this in turn suggests is that the best way to stanch the flow of illegal immigration would be to drive the growth rate of U.S. GDP back toward zero.

But of course no serious person would propose any such thing. Labor-force participation is as American as apple pie. This country, as the saying goes, was built on work. And that may be precisely why Congress is having a hard time passing an immigration bill.

Notwithstanding all the calls for enforcing the borders and obeying our laws--unassailable as ideas--one is still left with the legislative challenge of transforming several million people who are going to work every day into a national "problem." Not for nothing has this congressional effort turned into the most amazing Rube Goldberg contraption--a point system to measure a worker's worth, a $5,000 fine for working here, a go-home requirement and a system whereby the boss has to conclusively prove that José and Maria are kosher.

No wonder it's hard to pass a bill. It's hard because Congress is trying to elevate one American value, respect for the law, by demoting an American value that up to now has been an unambiguous, uncontested ideal--respect for work, for labor. The tension here is especially difficult for conservatives.

Conservatives and liberals will fight unto eternity over whose notions of the law, society and justice are right. But the one idea owned by conservatives is the market.

For many Democrats in politics, the market--the daily machinery of the private economy--is a semi-abstraction. It's a barely understood thing that mainly sends revenue to the government, without which the nation is incapable of achieving social good. Liberals happily concede the idea of salutary "market forces" to their opposition. For them, markets are for taming.

Why, then, would Republican politicians and conservative writers want to run the risk of undermining, perhaps for a long time, their core belief in the broad benefits of free-market economic forces in return for a law that hammers these illegal Mexicans?

If I'm a liberal or progressive Democrat, I'm gleeful to see conservative foes who have preached "the market" at me since the days of FDR now arguing that these millions of workers are an artificial, "unskilled" labor force whose presence merely prevents "the market" from replacing them with machines.

Conservatives also argue, with considerable force, that any conceivable path to citizenship or guest-worker status for these workers--no matter how long or arduous--would be "amnesty" and so make a mockery of the rule of law. But so massively setting aside years of principled, market-based argument--the environment, pharmaceuticals, labor, antitrust--to thwart these movements of immigrants is a risky proposition.

The massive migrant flows across the states described earlier--into the private industries of construction, restaurants, agriculture, food-packaging, hotels, health and landscaping--is irrefutably the result of powerful, lava-like free-market economic forces.

No matter how principled conservatives may think themselves on this issue, the fact remains that at crunch time they sent the market to the back of the southbound bus. Sounds much like the extra-market case their opponents make for the Kyoto Treaty. It also sounds like an argument for sending a $2,000 contribution to Hillary Clinton, so the country can be run by people who truly believe in managed economies.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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