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TGIF: Reverse Scapegoating in the Immigration Debate

by | Mar 15, 2024

TGIF: Reverse Scapegoating in the Immigration Debate

by | Mar 15, 2024

scapegoat leaves

In the controversy over immigration we can spot a phenomenon I call “reverse scapegoating.” According to Merriam-Webster, the scapegoat is “one that bears the blame for others.” With reverse scapegoating, others bear the blame for one. Both are unjust.

Reverse scapegoating is clear in the demagoguery about “migrant crime,” occasioned most recently with the murder Laken Riley. As the Associated Press shouted in a recent headline, “Killing of Laken Riley is now front and center of US immigration debate and 2024 presidential race.” The 22-year-old Georgia nursing student’s body was found after she had been beaten during a morning run. Very sad indeed.

Based on surveillance-camera footage, the AP reported, the police arrested “Jose Ibarra, 26, a Venezuelan citizen. Immigration officials say Ibarra entered the U.S. illegally and was allowed to stay. He unlawfully crossed into the U.S. in 2022, authorities said.” Ibarra faces murder and other major charges.

Opponents of immigration are having a field day, none more than Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. Even people who would have nothing to do with Trump echo his words. Trump reacted by saying, according to the AP roundup, “Crooked Joe Biden’s Border INVASION is destroying our country and killing our citizens! The horrible murder of 22-year-old Laken Riley at the University of Georgia should have NEVER happened! [Ibarra is] an animal that came in.” Naturally, Trump believes Ibara wouldn’t have entered had Trump been in charge of the border.

In other words, the murder of this innocent woman allegedly by a migrant who entered the country without government permission papers proves that what’s going on at the Mexican border is an existential threat to America and must be stopped by any means necessary.

The problems here should be obvious. First, it’s not an invasion. Everyone knows that the word refers to a foreign military entering a country uninvited — you know, as the U.S. military did in Iraq and Afghanistan or Russia in Ukraine.

Moreover, why should a horrific act allegedly committed by one person without papers tar others who had nothing to do with the crime? We know that most people who enter the country with or without papers commit no crimes. Rather, they produce value in the marketplace, benefitting us all, and strive for better lives. Why should the U.S. government condemn them to life sentences in the poorest, most war-torn, and least free countries when they could make up to 20 times as much money here? Of course, criminal suspects should not be immune from prosecution because of their immigration status.

Some statistics show that legal and illegal immigrants commit proportionately less crime than native-born Americans. I know many people won’t believe it, but it seems to be true. (See, for example, Bryan Caplan’s Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, pp. 91-92. And Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh’s discussion here.)

We all know from historical experience that most immigrants are a net plus to us as they help themselves. A few commit harm, but native-born Americans harm innocent people every day. Some Americans, who freely travel from state to state and city to city without papers, commit horrific crimes. Should we ban or closely monitor interstate migration? How about freedom of reproduction? After all, some couples will produce future criminals.

A response might be, “If we can save one life….” But they don’t mean it because if they did, they’d propose licensing reproduction, restricting domestic travel, reducing the speed limit to 10 miles an hour, and outlawing left turns. Many other intolerable ways of saving lives can be imagined. “But that would be extreme!” someone might say. And sentencing innocent people to lives of poverty, war, and tyranny is not?

As economist Benjamin Powell points out, as long as America is a magnet for those seeking better lives, and as long as legal immigration is virtually ruled out for all but a few, a border problem will exist — complete with traffickers’ vicious exploitation. The source of the problem, however, is not immigration but bad policy. Again, as Powell says, this is like the prohibition of booze and drugs. When people want to do something peaceful that’s against the law, they’ll find a way to do it — even if it’s with the help of bad people who otherwise never would have gotten involved. Prohibition creates the crisis that politicians and voters are then determined to stop by any means, no matter how cruel.

You don’t like illegal immigration? Legalize it! End reverse scapegoating!

(For more, watch Bryan Caplan’s excellent video presentation of the case for open borders.)

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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