Informal vs. Illegal

Immigrants and Crime: Time for a Sensible Debate is a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Francis Fukuyama with the subhead, The gardeners and maids who cross the border illegally are very different from the tattooed Salvatrucha gang member who lives by extortion and drug-dealing.

Here’s the gist:

There is indeed a huge problem of crime originating in Latin America and spilling into the United States. This is almost wholly driven by the enormous demand for drugs from the U.S. There are many things we can and should do to mitigate this problem, but it will persist as long as that demand remains high.

But the problem of gangs and drug violence should not be confounded with the behavior of the vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S., who by and large are seeking the same thing that every immigrant to America has wanted since the time of the Mayflower: to better their condition and that of their families. They are not criminals in the sense of people who make a living by breaking the law. They would be happy to live legally, but they come from societies in which legal rules were never quite extended to them. They are therefore better described as “informal” rather than “illegal.”

Understanding this distinction requires knowing something about the social order in Latin America or, for that matter, in many other developing countries. These societies are often characterized by sharp class distinctions between a relatively small, well-educated elite and a much broader and poorer population.

Note how this re-framings the problem.

Fukuyama goes on to unpack what he means by “informal”:

The rule of law exists in places like Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador; the problem is that access to the legal system tends to be a privilege of the well-to-do. The vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S. come from poor rural areas, or shantytowns in large cities, where the state — in the form of courts, government agencies and the like — is often absent. Registering a small business, or seeking help from the police, or negotiating a contract requires money, time and political influence that the poor do not possess. In many Latin American countries, as much as 70%-80% of the population lives and works in the informal sector.

The lack of legal access does not make everyone in these regions criminals. It simply means that they get by as best they can through informal institutions they themselves create. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has written extensively about the lack of formal property rights, not just in his own country but throughout the developing world. The poor do not hold legal title to their homes, despite having lived in them for years, because of the insuperable barriers the system throws up to formal registration. So they squat in their homes, constantly insecure and unable to use their property as collateral.

The poor are entrepreneurial and form businesses like restaurants and bus companies, but they are unlicensed and don’t conform to official safety rules. They and everyone else would be much better off if they could be brought into the formal legal system, but it is a dysfunctional political system that prevents that from happening.

This is a beautiful linguistic hack, right out of the George Lakoff rulebook. Fukuyama pays respect to bedrock concepts of conservative thinking: rule of law, property rights, entrepreneurship, self-reliance… and disdain for dysfunctional political systems. But he also borrows another rightward concept — formal (a cousin to law), and pulls all wannabe law-abiding imigrants into that frame, but as informal. Subtract the in and your problem is solved.

This artful play by Fukuhama is especially interesting to me, because I think we have been having the wrong debates about the Internet and how to improve it. Carriers vs. Neutralists only amps up the politics. Hand-wringing about lack of rural broadband only plays on the left. The idea of re-classifying the Net as a breed of telecom is a clever regulatory hack by the FCC, but it has shifted debate back into lobby politics, which the agency’s friends and enemies of the moment — Google and the carriers — are good at playing. Jonathan Zittrain’s arguments favoring generativity are good ones, and he’s right that hope lies with users; but the pro-business case isn’t quite there.

I want to make that case. This piece by Francis Fukuyama is a good model for How It’s Done.

Now what I want to see is if his strategy works. If we’re talking about “informal immigrants” in a year, the answer will be yes.

Bonus link.

6 comments

  1. Roland’s avatar

    “The War on Drugs is about a lot of things, but only rarely is it really about drugs.”–Smoke & Mirrors, Dan Baum, 1996. In this case it’s social control and scapegoating, via propaganda. In the US (and almost everywhere) the informal economy is growing as the ‘net makes govts. increasingly irrelevant.

  2. Nicolas Ward’s avatar

    Sad paywall is sad. Thanks for the excerpts… I’ll have to see if I can get the full piece somewhere.

  3. Skip Malette’s avatar

    Interesting! I’m in the second half of “Trickster Makes This World” by Lewis Hyde and am reading about Frederick Douglass. Douglass shifted the debate on slavery by being Black, articulate and using a similar method of argument. It worked. As far as hope with users is concerned, I’m still a few months away, Doc.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Nicolas, I think the full piece is somewhere outside the paywall. I’ll look around.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Skip, Lewis rocks, and I’m being a bad fellow Berkman fellow by not having read that book yet. Going to get it now…

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