There is nothing quite like a flowing river. Given enough water and slope for it to drain, it is unstoppable. As much as humans have tried, we can never fully defeat a river. At best, we can direct its flow in a direction that is mutually beneficial. At worst, our attempts at control can be swept downstream like driftwood.
During the last election cycle, a ballot initiative in Nevada calling for the legalization of marijuana made a similar argument.
The proponents argued that the free will of humans cannot be stopped, that if they desired a relatively harmless drug, then nothing would stop its flow into the marketplace. The free market was a better way to control drug use than outright prohibition, they said. Legalize it, then tax it to pay for the costs.
When it comes to illegal immigration, maybe we should take a page from the marijuana proponents' playbook, and just legalize it.
Now, before you all go looking for a rope and a tall tree to hang me from, hear me out.
Like drugs, illegal immigration is similar to a flowing river. You can try to dam it up, but if there is enough water (workers) and slope (jobs), it will find a way downstream.
Unlike drugs, the flow of immigrant labor contributes to our economy. If you could send all of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants back to their home countries, there would be a huge economic hit. Thousands of businesses would close, from meatpacking plants in the Midwest to casinos in Las Vegas to restaurants in New York.
Some would argue that getting rid of the undocumented workers would give jobs to unemployed Americans. But there are more undocumented workers than unemployed Americans, and you can't just plug them into the types of jobs the immigrants do.
Illegal immigration has a cost that is passed down to all Americans. They take up resources from social services, education and medical care, more than the taxes that they pay, if they pay at all.
But there is a better way.
First, you have to stop the black market for labor. You do that by giving work permits to any immigrant who is not a felon.
Then you institute an immigration tax, where businesses would pay, say, 20 percent of any immigrant worker's salary to the government (split between federal, state and local) to help offset the costs of supporting these non-citizens.
Legalizing immigrant labor has many benefits. Immigrants who are not felons will not risk sneaking across the border - or paying smugglers - if they can come across legally, get their new free work permits, and be off on their merry way.
That means the way we patrol the border can change. Since the only ones trying to sneak across will be felons, drug smugglers and possibly terrorists, more aggressive means can be deployed to deal with them.
By creating a legal market to meet the need for labor, it makes it easier to enforce the laws. One of the main problems with enforcing the current law is that employers do not have a sure-fire way to tell if a potential employee is legal or not. If you give everyone a work permit, that problem goes away. All workers would be part of the legal workforce, and paying taxes.
Because there is a legal avenue to follow, those caught cheating - both workers and employers - can and should be dealt with more harshly, giving added incentive for everyone to follow the law.
An immigration tax would have two other added benefits. One, it would push down the wages of immigrant workers, making the jobs less appealing to those across the border. At the same time, it would raise the wages for American workers, since hiring immigrants would be made more expensive.
Both benefits would serve as a valve to control the flow of immigrants across the border. If there are more workers than jobs that need filling, the tax rate can be increased, and the market can do the rest.
Nature abhors a vacuum. When you have a line drawn between jobs on one side and hungry workers on the other, there is little you can do to stop that flow. But we can direct it, and turn a damaging flood of illegal labor into a stream that can benefit the majority.
• Kirk Caraway is editor of http://nevadapolitics.com, and also writes a blog on national issues at http://kirkcaraway.com.