Bryan Caplan  

Opposition to Immigration: Get Your Story Straight

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Who Wants More Kids?, Part II... The Demographic Transition...

Some opponents of immigration think it benefits the poor at the expense of the rich by increasing support for the welfare state.

Other opponents of immigration think it benefits the rich at the expense of the poor by reducing the wages of low-skilled workers.

Question for opponents of immigration: Which of these two stories do you think is right?

Discuss amongst yourselves, we're listening. Anyone got a fancy way to reconcile the stories?


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
DJH writes:

Those only read as contradictory positions because they're oversimplified reductions. In the latter "poor" is clearly intended to be the non-immigrant poor.

The former can't be read that way. Or at least, if anyone is seriously proposing that the use of social services by immigrants is a boon to poor citizens, I haven't read it.

TIm of Angle writes:

Both.
Number 1 is the long-term effect.
Number 2 is the short-term effect.
Both are Bad Things.

Mike writes:

I am not sure who you are referring to as "opponents of immigration" but I will give a shot at why I came around to opposing a comprehensive immigration plan.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I am a supporter of legalizing and bringing existing illegals out of the shadows. I am not a nativist using Amnesty as cover for a hidden agenda as I believe is the case with many opponents.

I came around to the position that we must get control over the border before we move to the next step, i.e., a comprehensive immigration plan is not going to work. If we were to pass comprehensive legislation you would find chaos as illegals rush to get in under the wire. We would not be able to close the border in a timely manner (if at all) and the implementation of the plan would not be well synchronized. The Amnesty experience in the 1980s saw illegals grow from about 3 million to 11 to 12 million. I don't think this country can afford to make the same mistake again as we would have difficulty absorbing a growth from 11 million to say 20 or 30 million illegals.

The bottom line is we have lost faith in our government's ability to execute on such a complicated program as comprehensive immigration reform. We even had to "temporarily" abandon the issuance of passports for Canadian travel so what is the likelihood we can successfully close both the northern and southern borders while administering a plan to integrate 12 million illegals into the economy.

I am of the opinion (like Harry Truman) that the government should "show me" they can secure the borders before we move to the next step. As they say "if you have dug yourself into a hole the first thing you do is stop digging."

After the borders are secured we need to create secure identification that is linked to a database where employers and law enforcement officers can verify the legality of everyone with a simple telephone call to an automated system. Then have ICE concentrate on enforcing at the employer site rather than at the border. This would shut down the work related magnet for illegals and reduce the mass invasion from the south so ICE can concentrate on non-work related illegal immigration (potential terrorist movement).

This is a rich and capable country. We can make this happen. We need low skilled labor just like we did in the immigrations from Europe in the early 1900s. However, we can't afford to let this get away from us

Shamus writes:

The illegal immigration of Mexicans to the US benefits rich monopolists in Mexico because it allows them to collect money earned in the US and add it to their fortune. It's no surprise that Carlos Slim is set to surpass Bill Gates as the richest man in the world (who is, by no coincidence, another monopolist). Mexico is able dump social welfare costs onto US taxpayers by sending illegals across the border and having them send wages home while making free use of US social services (education, hospitals, etc). Illegal Mexican immigration thus benefits both poor Mexicans and rich Mexicans. Rich Americans are able to get cheap labor, so they also benefit. Poor Americans are the big losers because they must compete with illegal Mexican laborers for depressed wages.

Alex J. writes:

I favor increased immigration in part because I believe it would reduce the popularity of subsidized goverment services such as education, welfare and emergency room medicine. There might be more poor immigrants who favor welfare, but the bulk of the populace would start to oppose it if they saw that many people were coming to this country in order to get on various kinds of welfare.

John S Bolton writes:

Mass immigration of low-literates and others on to net public subsidy does something for several distinct groups: 1-the power-greedy of all classes and descriptions
2-those of the rich whose share of income is raised more than their taxes go up to cover net public subsidies of immigrants
3-some middle class elements who can do the same e.g. landscaping contractors, restaurant owners using illegals, but whose rent does not just go up sufficiently to cover the additional costs associated with the presence of illegals, etc.
4-social service professionals of whatever income class, who need clients
5-ethnic activists who need to be seen as the natural leaders of a growing and needy population, who can be treated as voiceless vehicles of power-seeking
On the losers side:
1-Most of the rich-insofar as they are net taxpayers
and not deriving their income largely from low wages of immigrants, or high rents from them
2-The middle class with few exceptions
3- the low income who pay higher rent and get lower wages than otherwise
4- all those who lose by productivity being lower than it would be without the mass immigration

losses from destruction of community of values, paralysis of politics into ethnoracial zero-sum conflicts which can never be resolved to the satisfaction of the parties, the importation
of the war of religion, of crime families, and much else which can be attributed to immigration itself.

John S Bolton writes:

Ill-fare malefits do not 'benefit the poor' at the expense of the rich; they aggrandize the power-seeker at the expense of those who value freedom-from-aggression. 'Increasing support for the welfare state' doesn't benefit the poor, and if one were to say that the poor would gain from a larger net public subsidy, having to share it with foreigners is not to their 'benefit'.
Mass immigration into welfarist societies means losses to almost all the rich, poor and middle ranks of the citizenry.
Loyalty is owed to the citizenry, though, and not to the foreigner who increases the level of aggression. If economics becomes known as a vector of foreign aggression, through its openness to mass immigration, people will become more and more
dismissive of its recommendations, even when the economists are right. The disloyalty causes them to fall under a general suspicion; why do they prioritize the transmission of disadvantage on to successful societies?

quadrupole writes:

I tend to see immigration this way:

1) If you accept that there is some upper bound on the number of immigrants we can absorb and assimilate over a period of time.
and
2) You accept that different immigrants contribute different amounts of value to our society (with some actually being net consumers)

Then it only seems logical, no matter how pro-immigrant you are, to select the highest value immigrants first, until you hit your upper bound.

It seems clear to me that high-skilled high-education immigrants contribute more (and consume less of government services) than low-skilled immigrants, and so I tend to favor letting them in first.

Or to put it differently, I've no apriori objection to letting in low skilled mexican farm labor to pick lettuce, but not until the day we can't find any doctors, nurses, engineers, etc to fill the slot.

So which of my two propositions do you disagree with?

quadrupole writes:

Please note, even more preferable to me than skills based immigration would be to auction off visas and set up a market for their resale... let the market decide what constitutes 'high-value'.

But on the flip side, an immigrant presenting for welfare of any sort clearly wouldn't qualify since they have a high value asset they can sell: their visa.

TGGP writes:

Come on, Bryan. You are modeling immigrants as self-interested and rational when your research focuses on people (especially the less educated/lower in IQ) being irrational. What will happen is that the United States will become more like Mexico, except with a large urban lumpen underclass rather than rural peasantry. That would not be good for the rich or the poor or the middle class.

Hei Lun Chan writes:

Some opponents of immigration think it benefits SOME OF the poor at the expense of SOME OF the rich by increasing support for the welfare state.

Other opponents of immigration think it benefits SOME OF the rich at the expense of SOME OF the poor by reducing the wages of low-skilled workers.

That wasn't that hard at all ...

shecky writes:

It's difficult to argue that the rich or the poor have been terribly hurt by immigration, as both are well off by historical standards. I suspect most of us would rather be poor today than poor fifty years ago.

To the extent the US is a welfare state, it has grown with the full complicity of it's voters, not only it's rich, or it's immigrants. Interestingly, there's a healthy supply of immigrants despite the few welfare benefits available to even the legal. Could this be an indication that immigrants aren't terribly interested in state sponsored welfare, but rather their own upward mobility?

What gets me is how many self proclaimed libertarians can rant forever how the government can do no good meddling in the marketplace, and then turn around 180 degrees, insisting the government is somehow competent to dictate the market for labor. Such little faith in free markets!

David Thomson writes:

My only concern is that illegal immigration ends as quickly as possible. That is the beginning and end of the matter. The United States must regain control of its borders. All of these other issues are of secondary importance.

DCM writes:

This is the first time I’ve heard that some opponents of immigration think it benefits the poor at the expense of the rich by increasing support for the welfare state. I think most believe (but not necessarily admit) that increasing the welfare state hurts the working rich, the working middle class and the working and non-working poor and benefits the politicians and the social services middle class - the welfare program administrators, the social workers, the counselors, etc.

It seems like just about every commentator “got his story straight”, but it doesn’t seem like anyone met Brian’s challenge to come up with a “fancy way to reconcile the stories”. It seems like everyone just cleared up Brian’s apparent quandary without having to get “fancy”.

TGGP writes:

shecky, why do I think the government is competent enough to engage in border enforcement? Because they did so before the 1965 immigration act. It's not terribly hard to build a wall either.

Steve Sailer writes:

What a weak posting...

Mensarefugee writes:

At least TRY to hide your bias better, Bryan.

Gary Rogers writes:

Let me start with a few disclaimers. First, I lean toward opening up immigration rather than opposing it, so I am not in the group that Bryan targets for responses. I totally distrust the government’s ability to determine either levels of immigration, the education mix of immigrants or the number of immigrants that should be allowed in for various job classifications. These are best left to market forces. Second, I reject outright any assertions based on one class benefiting at the expense of another. These arguments ignore the unexpected consequences of policy decisions in a dynamic system and lead to Marxist style arguments that fail to reach a rational understanding of the problem or anything other than an emotional argument. On the other hand, this is a topic that I am trying hard to understand and on which I have formulated a few opinions, so I cannot resist adding a few comments.

On the issue of immigration promoting the welfare state, there would be no issue if our government were not already out of control. There have been several 14th amendment decisions that make government benefits available to everyone regardless of immigration status, but I am not convinced that these decisions are correct. Surprisingly, our government seems very motivated to follow popular demand to keep illegal aliens from working for a living but feels obliged to provide welfare benefits. This is backward. As far as favoring one class over the other, I think the welfare state hurts the poor much more than the rich because it cuts off the best path to a better life for the poor while only costing the rich a little bit more in taxes.

On the issue of immigrants driving down wages, there is the obvious increase in the supply of labor that will cause wages to go down. I am convinced that this is the number one concern for most people who oppose increases in immigration. As in any dynamic system, though, changes lead to other changes and the initial change is not the final determinant for the system. While the obvious increase in labor supply is taking place, there are also less obvious and immeasurable changes in labor demand. Empirical evidence leads me to believe that open markets for both products and labor lead to more than enough labor demand to offset the increase in supply. Several people have mentioned some of the unintended consequences of restricting immigrant labor. One is that when we do not bring the labor to the United States, economics will cause the jobs to move where the labor is either through imports or off shoring. Another is that laws preventing illegal aliens from working in this country contribute to worker exploitation. It is much more difficult to exploit a worker that can go down the street and get a better job but easy when immigration status can be held over the workers head. This can lead not only to exploitation, but to driving wages even lower than they otherwise would be because the employer assumes additional risks and the employee has less bargaining power, both driving wages down.

Here are some additional comments:

I think the primary issue with immigration legislation is protecting jobs, but the politics involved only allows this to be discussed in non politically correct forums. Instead the discussion moves to side issues like border security, H1-B quotas, education levels, assimilation, etc. We will not reach a consensus on immigration until the primary issue is resolved. I do not expect this any time soon.

Border security is a separate issue and needs to be dealt with on its own. We should know who is coming in to the United States and who is here, especially with our current security situation. We certainly will not run a security check on everyone, but we can make it easier to stop known criminals and terrorists. We cannot do this when there is a steady stream of people bypassing our border security.

I believe the right to earn a living and feed a family is included in the pursuit of happiness clause of our Declaration of Independence and affirmed by the 14th amendment of our Constitution, while the right to receive welfare is not. I think we have things upside down when we try to use employment as the means to discourage illegal aliens from remaining in this country but insist that the government provide welfare benefits while they are here. I see the government having the right to deport any illegal immigrant but think it is dangerous to allow them to tell employers who they can or cannot hire.

I think the best idea I have heard for limiting the number of immigrants is to place a tax on visas or work permits. The number of immigrants can be regulated by varying the tax and the market will self select the skills and number that come in.

Mark Seecof writes:

Whaddya mean, "THE poor?"

Oh, you mean "poor FOREIGNERS," not poor Americans!

Once we clarify the vague terms in your statements, we find no conflict to reconcile. Uncontrolled immigration benefits poor foreigners by enabling them to benefit from USA social spending. Immigration benefits rich Americans by supplying them with cheap, obsequious labor.

Of course, immigration is bad for poor Americans, because immigrants drive down their wages and snatch up part of the American social spending intended to benefit citizens. (Yes, just look at emergency-room waiting times or overcrowded elementary school classrooms in California. If not for millions of illegal aliens, natives would get much better service. Although the influx of poor foreigners undoubtedly pushes up social spending over time, that spending is nearly fixed in the short run, so arriving illegal aliens take bread straight from the mouths of natives.)

Low-skilled immigration is bad for the American middle class because it pushes up taxes and decreases quality of living--as well as disrupting the American political enconomy.

(Please note: if the Administration did the job it's on oath to do by enforcing immigration law, American voters might countenance "foreign aid" spending on impecunious aliens comparable to the sums now diverted from domestic social spending by unwanted immigrants. That way, people (like you, perhaps?) who gain "utils" by spending other folks' money on poor foreigners could feel smug, and the rest of us wouldn't have to suffer so many externalities. In fact, foreign aid could help more foreigners than immigration does, with lower transaction costs--we could feed foreign paupers in their homes so they could avoid the costs and dangers of travel!)

Honestly, Prof. Caplan, do you believe the stuff you post about immigration, or do you just get a laugh from baiting people?

Ryan Fazio writes:

It depends.

If the immigrant workers are able to obtain massive amounts of welfare and social benefits, as well as eventually becoming a constituency for more socialist economic policies, then the immigration obviously occurs at the expense of the rich.

But if the cruel nanny state mentioned above does not exist then everyone will benefit becuase the immigrants will increase the economy's aggregate productivity both in the short term by virtue of sheer number and in the long term by virtue of great ability to specialize and divide labor.

Im not sure which answer that the present influx of mexican immigrants would currently fall under. It is certainly difficult to answer now, but in the future the answer will probably be somewhere inbetween.

drobviousso writes:

The simple answer is that "immigration opponents" are as homogeneous a group as, say, Christans, or tall people.

There's a large section of us that get pained with immigrant opponent brush, when all we want is an immigration policy that mirrors the real world. We have a policy of family unification and 'don't ask, don't tell' when it comes to job seekers. This policy is at odds with the reality of immigration demands. Wanting to rectify this makes me a 'immigration opponent'.

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