Bryan Caplan  

The Immigrant in My Basement

PRINT
Crowding Out or Crowding In?... Tuesday, December 9 on Capitol...
When I advocate open borders (and I mean truly open borders, not the 95% closed borders of the U.S.), critics often respond like EconLog reader Carter did:

[Caplan] said: "But there are literally billions of lower-skilled workers who would love to move to the First World"

There are hobos who would love to move into your basement.

No doubt there are.  And if the hobos were willing to pay me high enough rent, I would be happy to have them as tenants, and U.S. law would not object.  In contrast, if a low-skilled foreigner offers me a suitable rent for my basement, and I accept his offer, U.S. law still refuses to let my willing tenant move in.

Now you might say that I'm just being difficult.  Of course immigrants aren't going to move into people's basements without their consent; the point is that Americans shouldn't have to live in the same country with people they don't like. 

If that's your point, though, I'm just going to be more difficult.  It's reasonable to insist that people get your permission to come to your home.  It's absurd to insist that people get your permission to live in your neighbor's house* - much less than people get your permission to live in a hundred-mile radius of you.  That's on par with the schoolyard bully's grievance that "You're breathing my air."  We should see it for what it is - a flimsy pretext for naked aggression.

* Unless your neighbor contractually agreed to such restrictions, of course.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (52 to date)
8 writes:

What if the foreigners want to use the state to commit naked aggression against me? You're not just changing my neighbor, you're changing the government as well.

Gavin Andresen writes:

Has Bryan advocated immediate citizenship for all immigrants? Or voting rights for permanent residents?

Under our current system, it takes at least a decade to become a citizen (you've gotta be a permanent resident for 7 years, and then you wait several years for the bureaucrats to process your application).

So those foreigners who want to come here to use the state for their own nefarious purposes will have to have quite a lot of patience before they carry out their dastardly plans.

(seriously: I've seen zero credible evidence that immigrants are more likely to want to use government to get what they want than native-born people; is there any such evidence?)

PJens writes:

Bryan,

I think you are making the assumption that all immigrants will follow the established laws and rules already in place.

I too am eager to see more hard working people come to this country. I get very ticked off though when some (admittedly a minority) people come and have no intention of assimilating into our society. But it is those few who cause the problems and thus the current public perception of immigration.

Scott Ferguson writes:

PJens,

I think you are making the assumption that all American citizens will follow the established laws and rules already in place.

Zac writes:

The idea that immigration harms us because the immigrants are a drain on our treasury due to their high use of social services, or that they are wholesale bringing socialism to the US, or that they bring vast amounts of crime and chaos, is racist and has all the factual basis of "dey tuk er jerbs!"

I think that anti-foreign bias is probably the most prominent bias suffered by libertarians. Can't we just embrace the free market for labor? Perhaps people just don't want to open their eyes to the fact that their so-called native brothers have done more wrong to them than any third-world immigrant seeking to make a decent wage for his family in what has traditionally been, thankfully and in spite of its shortcomings, a land of opportunity and meritocracy.

Alex J. writes:

I'd like to be rid of fellow citizens who want to use the state to commit naked aggression against me.

Welfare, crime, voting and occasionally congestion seem to be the big complaints about immigrants that aren't naked chauvinism. All those issues are either created by the government or their management is arrogated by the government.

Maniel writes:

Great topic. All immigrants, legal or illegal, are despised by many of us who already live here, and rightly so: they speak English with an accent, if they speak it at all; they dress strangely; they work too hard; and they have too many children. Admittedly, they are risk-takers, willing to bet it all for a better life. And so many of their children seem to find a way to assimilate and succeed (and have children who hate immigrants).

Unobstructed, workers flow towards jobs and vice versa. This seems to me to be an argument for open borders, in both directions. With the "minor tweak" of ending drug prohibition (a topic for another time), a freer flow of business, home purchase, and investment into Mexico would have a beneficial effect on both countries.

Noel Grandin writes:

Hmmm, what you're not saying is how to prevent several million Asian and African immigrants from flooding your country and overwhelming your social services.

I suspect that you'd be in favour of some kind of "self-support" test i.e. an immigrant must prove that he/she will not be a burden on the community i.e. he/she must have a chunk of cash and some ability to work.

Which is pretty how immigration law worked a century ago, but that kind of "discrimination" has little chance of being passed into law these days.

Paul Byrne writes:

Bryan,

The US government spends about $20,000 per household and State & Local Governments average $21,000 per household (Tax Foundation.) I am assuming that there is some double counting in the numbers through federal and state transfers, but nonetheless those living in the US are effectively guaranteed a significant level of consumption. This is never taken into account in the models showing low-skilled immigration as being Pareto Improving. If the value of an immigrant household's labor is not enough to generate this level of consumption for itself than it will be receiving a subsidy by the rest of society.

The US should view itself as a club restricting residency to new (non-US born) members whose entry is pareto-improving. So open the borders for the world's doctors, engineers and computer scientist and close them for the dishwashers, food processors and ag workers (and economists of course) until the wages rise above the guaranteed consumption level.

ben writes:

Bryan,
I am always flabbergasted when you talk about immigration, and I can't believe how you consistently avoid the real issues. When you say that its absurd to prevent people from moving within a 100 mile radius, are you talking about 1 family or are you talking about 1 million people? Because no amount of immigration has any effect on the native population, we're all just bullies.

If you know how to get rid of the welfare state, please explain? You might have noticed that Ca is essentially going bankrupt. This article relates some of Ca budget problems to the costs of immigration. Maybe you don't believe the sources, but I believe it a lot more than low skilled immigrants are worth the costs.

student writes:

To those who worry about government services--
my guess is that that services would stop pretty promptly if the cost of each immigrant surpassed the value gained from each immigrant, and U.S. voters would probably vote against most forms of welfare as a way of venting their anger and racism towards the immigrants.


Another possibility is that the net economic gain of the increased immigration would mean that the cost of each immigrant was lower than the value added by that immigrant.
In that case the services could continue on and there'd be no problem.

I really don't see how we could have a situation where immigrants bankrupt our nation (particularly if it takes 10+ years to naturalize and our citizenry is racist and xenophobic).

shecky writes:

PJens,
Why is it bad for individuals to come and refuse to assimilate, when one of the most cherished freedoms Americans have is the ability to dissimilate themselves as they see fit?

One of the assumptions made against open borders is that folks will simply wash ashore with nothing to do but hold out their hand. The experience with out high levels of illegal immigration suggests that this really is not the case. People are generally following jobs. Recently, indicators seem to show that they're still following jobs... out of the US. Yet another reason to advocate open borders.

ben writes:

@ student

Why should we trust your guess? Maybe we would would just borrow our selves into bankruptcy before we figured it out? How are you going to deny services to US born children of immigrants?

What if immigrants can 'cash flow' their existence in the US by not saving anything for retirement and not paying for medical insurance. I'm sure Social Security will have some extra dollars to spare in 30 years after they have become full fledged citizens.

bjk writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

8 writes:

The jump to shout racism and xenophobia does not refute the arguments about political change, particularly since Vermont, New Hampshire, North Carolina and "Californication" are all domestic examples of a political and cultural change caused by migration.

Assimilation is also besides the point. If you only want foreigners who assimilate, then you are making the same argument as those who are for closed borders. "You can't come here because you're not like me", versus "you can come here but you should become like me".

Mark Seecof writes:

Prof. Caplan, would you care to add a bit more?

Please, explain why the "first world" would still be the first world after any substantial fraction of those billions (your number) of lower-skilled workers were to move in.

What's the difference between, say, the USA and Mexico? It's not a matter of natural resources. The only significant difference is the character of the people. Even if you think the USA has wonderful "institutions," you still have no basis to suggest those institutions can be rapidly transmitted to immigrants.

Really, I think what you call "naked aggression" (excluding billions of low-skilled immigrants) I would call "collective self-defense" (by first-worlders).

However, I am fully prepared to change my mind if you provide some empirically-based reason to do so. (Note: I would permit "high-skilled" immigration.)

Mike writes:

First, I'm not sure if you are just being obtuse with your straw-man arguments or if you really don't understand the anti open borders side.

I have never heard anyone say they don't want immigrants breathing their air (or anyone make the case on racist or xenophobic grounds for that matter). But I always hear the pro open borders arguments bring up other people's assumed racism and xenophobia (really just makes me wonder about what's in their own heart of hearts).

There is an economic argument to be made to allow unlimited immigration - just as there is an economic argument to be made against unlimited immigration. Strangely, no one makes either here.

My own personal views are that we should limit immigration in some way while increasing the number who legally enter the US. My view is based entirely on the fact that I believe the US should strive to maintain it's unique culture because there is value in Americanism.

LostinCyberspace writes:

Maybe the immigrants who come will not have the same view as Caplan, and think like non-caplanian americans do.

So, eventually, they will throw Caplan out of the United States.

Kurbla writes:

Imagine Hong Kong opens its borders somewhere in 1967. Mao closes his borders - except for 10 millions young males willing to die for ... something. Would you wait 1968. in Hong Kong? Do you think the problem disappeared if immigrants live in the neighbor's house and not yours?

The Snob writes:

Milton Friedman was famous for saying something about the Swedes in Sweden and the Swedes in the US.

Friedman also wondered about how our favored economic arrangement worked better in the English-speaking countries than elsewhere. Without Great Britain, it's not clear that Hong Kong or Singapore would be much different from Myanmar or Bhutan. Even the French and Germans have misgivings about this, let alone the Spanish or their colonial heirs.

Nations as they exist today are something more than a set of accounts. Is there any room in your analysis for the issue of culture, or is that domain solely the concern of knuckle-draggers?

David writes:

I'd be for open borders - as one of the *last* steps in the libertarian reform of the country. Once you can persuade enough Americans that they shouldn't use force, governmental or otherwise, against me, then I'll believe that you can persuade immigrants, too.

Plus, there's a selection effect - the presence of a welfare state is likely to disproportionately attract the bullies and thieves of the world, while a libertarian society ought to disproportionately attract peaceful people who are just looking for a better economic life.

Paul Byrne writes:

To those concerned about assimilation and retaining US culture, I would point out that within high achieveing immigrant groups when a student stops studying and starts goofing off friends will often label the student as "becoming American."

I would assume that an immigrant either skilled or unskilled will often have desireable "American" attributes that exceed those of native born. An if the immigrants were just looking for a handout, there are plenty of other Western countries which are far more generous than the US. Discussions of assimilation and accents plays into the hands of those painting opponents of open borders as xenophobic.

While I bemoan the level of indivual freedom and free markets allowed in the US, I have a hard time seeing a much better alternative. And apparently millions of non-Americans view the US as their best alternative as well. Since there is some limit on the number of additional residents we want to add to our society, it is reasonable to allow those in that yield society the greatest Net Benefit.

Our current policy seems to have it backwards.

guthrie writes:

Hey, Mike, would you care to define ‘Americanism’ for me please? I lived in LA for 10 years and was a hard, fast, border guy, but I find myself being swayed by the arguments presented by Bryan et al.

Even considering hospitals closing or increased traffic (my personal pet issues after living there)… these things could be explained by mismanagement as much by immigration.

I think what I’m stuck on is this idea of sovereignty, of NATIONHOOD. Does it have an intrinsic value as Mike and others here suggest, or is it merely an 18th century concept, the goal of which includes territory/trade hegemony, but whose course has run? I’m not sure if I have a firm answer on this one. Open borders make libertarian sense, but I’m not sure if that sense is reaching my internal bent toward having a ‘Nation’.

Do ‘open borders’ mean we lose our identity or culture? If so, how? If not, what is to stop bullies (drug dealers, mafia, IRA, terrorists, dictators, Russia, etc) from other places entering and trying to impose their will?

Zac writes:

First of all, I hate this talk of "legal" immigration. Our government is corrupt and inept - simply because someone has decided what it means to be a "citizen" should have no effect on the discussion of whether or not foreign-born people should be able to work in the US. The idea that if the government says its good, it is good, is asinine.

guthrie I think is starting to see the light and has hit on an important point. The idea of "nationhood" is really the enemy of progress - geographical jurisdictions controlled by tyrants, set against each other for more pieces of a fixed pie. Nationalism, patriotism, tribalism.. whatever you call it, it is an idea worthy of extreme contempt.

To the people claiming the problem with open borders is that "ferners" are a bunch of commies, remember that black Americans are much more statist than white Americans, so should they be disenfranchised? Should blacks be stripped of not only political rights like voting, but the right to work where there are jobs that they are qualified for? This isn't a straw man, it is the exact argument being put forth except replacing black with foreign-born latino. Just like Bryan's example isn't a straw man - if you are against open borders, you are for telling people where they can and can't live, where they can and can't work, what are they can and cannot breathe. Its not hyperbole, its just calling it what it is.

If I run a landscaping business, and I want to hire some able-bodied men to help with today's workload, I should be able to do so without interference with Uncle Sam, and they should be able to work for me, no matter where they were born. Through trade, we all benefit. If you take free trade seriously, you have to recognize the benefits of a free market for labor, which means you must be for open borders. There is no room to "agree to disagree" on this, and I find libertarians are much too lax in their tolerance for xenophobia, as a general rule.

America has many lazy citizens looking for handouts, feeling entitled because they were born in this country. Immigrants who risk life and limb to come to America are chasing work, not coming to our doorsteps asking for charity. Who is more worthy of contempt? I don't think that anyone should be given charity financed by taxation (theft), but really there is no reason we should give it to some and not to others who need it much more.

What does it mean to be "American" ? The answer should be, nothing more than it means to say "I was born in October".

Carter writes:

Opening the borders irrevocably alters America. Putting a single hobo in your basement affects only you and that hobo. On the one hand American soil is of no consequence, but somehow the sanctity of your basement must be preserved.

“It's absurd to insist that people get your permission to live in your neighbor's house* - much less than people get your permission to live in a hundred-mile radius of you.”

What’s absurd is your pretending not to care who your neighbors are. It’s a pose. It matters who our neighbors and who our fellow citizens are.

Lord writes:

Now your presence in this country admits you have contractually agreed to abide by its governance, even if native rather than immigrant, and even if law changed rather than enduring timelessly. (No one would expect a business to operate unchangingly either.) You don't have to live here. Feel free to exhort your preferences as I feel free to reject them, but if you can't live with it, then walk.

Steve Sailer writes:

Actually, it's against the law in my neighborhood to rent my basement to a hobo. If I want to convert my garage into living space, I legally need to get my neighbor's signed permission. The reasons are obvious -- white I might profit, introducing hobos to a pleasant neighborhood harms the social environment, just as setting up a smelter in my backyard harms the chemical environment.

Ajay writes:

Isn't the argument whether they should be here moot as illegal immigration runs rampant anyway, which the authorities are either powerless or uninterested in stopping? The real issue is whether there should be more scope for legal immigration and naturalizing illegal immigrants eventually (can illegals naturalize after some time period now?). I doubt these legal endeavors will get anywhere as the coalition of the xenophobes and those who profit off of illegal immigrants is too large and directed, while the rest of us who want some measure of legalization- I'm for open borders but realize that such extreme freedom is politically infeasible with the rest of the dimwit electorate- don't much care about the issue enough to do anything.

Now your presence in this country admits you have contractually agreed to abide by its governance

Funny, I don't recall signing such a contract.

Do ‘open borders’ mean we lose our identity or culture?

We effectively had open borders until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Did we lose our culture as a result? Was the 100+ years from 1776 to 1882 a time of misery and crime?

To my mind, the question is not whether we should have "open borders" vs. "closed borders". The question is whether national borders should take precedence over the borders of private property. Would you let Steve Sailor decide who you can invite to your house for dinner? If not, then why would you give his ilk the power to decide not just for you, but everyone in the country?

Pete writes:

Zac

"The idea that immigration harms us because the immigrants are a drain on our treasury due to their high use of social services, or that they are wholesale bringing socialism to the US, or that they bring vast amounts of crime and chaos"

is actaully TRUE for most immigrants below a certain level of intelligence, this is not a racist issue it is a skill/intelligence issue.

Arnold,

Your analogy is ridiculous.

We don't live in a true libertarian state and never will. Some costs are always born by the public and every resident imposes massive external costs. It just that the majority of first world residents put enough back through taxes and community work to outweigh those costs.

If we had open borders the majority of people who would show up would be a net drain. Thats why skilled immigration is great but free immigration would be disasterous

Pete

ben writes:

@ Christopher Rasch

We effectively had open borders until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Did we lose our culture as a result? Was the 100+ years from 1776 to 1882 a time of misery and crime?

This is nonsensical. Did any non European groups try to immigrate in large numbers during this period? But let's play the game 'what's changed since then' anyway. The US total population, US native birthrate, social welfare state, exaltation of 'diversity' in the workforce, the relative value unskilled labor, cheap telecommunications, cheap travel...
Its easy to play along!

Would you let Steve Sailor [sic] decide who you can invite to your house for dinner?

I don't understand this analogy, are all these immigrants going to go back to their own country after dinner?

guthrie writes:

Guys, I’m struggling with this issue here… I can’t reconcile my desire for free markets with my fear of a borderless state.

Mark Seecof… what exactly is ‘character of the people’ and what is the difference in this character between those born in Mexico, those born in any other overseas country, and those born here in the US? How would we not continue to be ‘first world’ if those billions moved here?

Snob, you said, ‘Nations as they exist today are something more than a set of accounts’… what is that ‘something more’? I’m not disagreeing with you, but I’m struggling to find a rational explanation for this description. You mention culture… what about culture are you referring to, and how would ours in the US be affected by opening the borders? (Frankly, there are portions of the culture I would discard wholesale, but I really can’t arbitrate such things!)

David… how does a libertarian society attract peaceful people as opposed to bullies? Don’t bullies go wherever the hell they see fit and that’s part of what makes them bullies?

I thank you Zac for your comments… to be fair I am still uncomfortable with the idea of ‘open borders’ but I recognize that, for me, this feeling is irrational. I know this because I also believe in free markets and as such, I have no arguments for the situations you and others present. If the market is really free (and I know it’s not, but follow me here!), why the hell shouldn’t I pay whomever whatever to do this or that? While I don’t automatically think every ‘ferner’ is a commie, replace that with whatever other unsavory character and we find plenty of home grown examples… terrorists? Tim McVey and the Unabomber were red-blooded Americans (and not much difference between them except for ideology)… most drug dealers were born here… much of organized crime is US born…

However, here’s my friendly challenge to you, Zac , in the interest of dialogue… where does the rule of law apply in the libertarian worldview, if at all? One of the arguments against open borders is ‘if they’re willing to skirt this law, than what other laws are they willing to break?’ What say you?

Carter (the infamous!)… How would open borders ‘alter America’? And so altered, is that a bad thing? Why? And yes, it matters who my neighbors are. But if they’re good neighbors in every other sense (quiet at night, lawn mowed, at least somewhat genial), how does it matter where they’re from or what their status is?

Steve… the picture of a hobo is rather unsavory, so it’s understandable how the neighbors might object. What about a clean cut, blue or white collar worker who happens to be from somewhere else? How would such a person’s immigration status ‘harm the social environment’? How does that work, because I can’t see the connection between said status and how they behave in society?

Very nice, Lord! The old ‘love it or leave it’ maxim is back and turned on its head, so it seems!

Christopher… I like how you re-frame the question! Here’s my question, though… I’m still struggling with this idea of sovereignty… if private property takes precedence over national borders, then does your property become sovereign? Does a lack of national borders make property lines sovereign limits? And how do we define those limits?

Pete makes a good point here… some costs are always public and always will be. How can we open the borders if we can’t keep from having to pay public costs and those unskilled who come here use more than they pay for? Or can the unskilled laborer bring enough benefit to offset the public cost? If so, how?

Though Pete, I’m uncomfortable with using intelligence as a plumb of human value. My experience is that anyone can improve who wants to.

Great discussion folks!

I don't understand this analogy, are all these immigrants going to go back to their own country after dinner?

No, but so what? Do you think that you have the right to dictate whether I can invite my black girlfriend to my house because you fear that she might commit a crime or go on welfare?

Zac writes:

In response to guthrie, I will say that no one has a moral responsibility to follow a "law" that is unjust, just because the government says you should follow it. And I don't think that by breaking an unjust law you lose any moral capital - in this case I think you gain it. The fact that many immigrants are willing to risk capture, deportment, imprisonment, not to mention discrimination and being separated from their families, shows me just how much worse their conditions must have been otherwise (a lot of this also applies to the argument for so-called sweatshops in the third world) and also shows me just how much they value being able to live and work here. So that is what I say to your question about the rule of law.

As to the discussion about immigrants draining our tax reserves, it just doesn't hold up to the facts. Illegal immigrants paid at least 428 billion into the economy in 2006, often under false identities. They also pay sales tax. The 1996 welfare reform bill disqualified illegal immigrants from nearly all means-tested government programs including food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare-funded hospitalization. The only services that illegals can still get are emergency medical care and K-12 education. Want to take that away? I certainly won't stop you - but I think we should abolish public education and I think emergency medical care is essentially a basic human right and think it appalling that anyone would be denied, say, gunshot wound treatment based on the fact that they were in this country "illegally".

Also, there seem to be a lot of people complaining about the strain immigrants impose on border communities. I don't think this concern is ridiculous since many immigrants are poor, especially new ones who show up with no job. But the humane, and efficient, solution is not to send them packing back to their country of origin - a good start would be to set up a guest worker program that matches workers with employees before they immigrate. Not many of us would move to a new country or even city without first securing a job there, unless we were very desperate.

ben writes:

No, but so what? Do you think that you have the right to dictate whether I can invite my black girlfriend to my house because you fear that she might commit a crime or go on welfare?

Christopher, who is saying she can't? If you are going to set up a straw man, at least make it somewhat relevant.

ben writes:

@Zac
Illegal immigrants paid at least 428 billion into the economy in 2006, often under false identities. They also pay sales tax.

Are you sure they didn't pay at least 429 billion? Do you have any evidence? You know contributing to GDP (about 3% by your number using 13.1 Trillion total GDP) isn't quite the same thing as paying taxes. Does the fact that committed document fraud make things better or worse?

If low skill illegal immigrants are net tax payers for their entire family (including US born children who are classified as citizens) over their lifetime how could we have a budget deficit? Who earns less than them?

About 5 of the 15 million taxes returns in Ca paid no federal income tax. Source. That doesn't include all the illegal immigrants who didn't file a return. BTW, I would hope people living in the US would want to pay their portion of roads, prisons, fire, etc... Not just services that were direct transfers to them.

johnleemk writes:

The thing is, even skilled immigration is extremely stunted by American immigration policy. Seriously guys - Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain all have programs which prioritize immigration for workers with potential. You get a certain number of points for anything that boosts your ability to contribute to the economy. Being of a young age helps; having a graduate degree helps; so on and so forth. The US has a green card lottery and a stupid professional immigration visa program run on quotas that are maxed out the first day that applications are open.

I think a lot of Americans are so paranoid about the problems of Latin American immigration that they generalize their fears to immigration as a whole. This is certainly an area where the elite have not gotten their way, considering how many CEOs and other major players counting on intelligent immigrants have gone before Congress asking them to raise the H1B quotas.

I would prefer a straight tax on immigration - we can quibble about how much it would be, but it would ultimately be fairer and more transparent than American quotas or Commonwealth points. If you can really contribute to the economy - say Microsoft or Goldman Sachs wants to hire you - then your employer can sponsor your immigration tax. Otherwise, you can still come - you just need to pay up. It's unquestionable that immigrants impose external costs on society - but that doesn't call for restrictions on immigration (especially those as stupid as quotas). A straight tax would work best and allocate things more efficiently.

Another thing about social cohesion, however, is that we forget how dynamic economies and societies are. There is no way the US will be swamped by immigration from Latin America if it has completely open borders. At the worst, it will be swamped by just Mexicans. The UK had effectively open borders with the Commonwealth for a few decades and they certainly weren't overrun by immigrants - if anything, some of the most prominent Brits today (Leona Lewis, Lewis Hamilton - and that's just starting with L's) trace their ancestry to people who migrated in the era of open borders. The EU has something close to open borders now and though a lot of people whine about them, no country has been completely overrun by immigrants - and most have benefited. (Germany soccer/football fans would note that most of their team at the last World Cup was really Polish; French fans would note the dominance of Africans on the French team.) Moreover, remittances and greater economic integration spurred development in the homelands of many migrants, now leading to a reverse brain drain as migrants return home.

I don't think 100% open borders is necessarily an ideal policy. I do think 100% closed borders is an atrocious policy, one probably worse than 100% open borders. America has a horrid immigration policy at the moment - it's probably harder for an Indian PhD to settle here than it is for a Mexican manual laborer. I think America should welcome both kinds of people, and if it really has to turn away anyone, it should turn away the one with less economic potential. America is doing neither right now.

Christopher, who is saying she can't? If you are going to set up a straw man, at least make it somewhat relevant.

You are! Immigration law severely restricts who can immigrate to the U.S. As a result, women whom I would've otherwise met are prevented from entering the U.S., thereby preventing me from dating them. Or hiring them, selling to them, renting to them, or otherwise associating with them. At least some of those women are likely to have been black.

Zac writes:

Since I was questioned on a source, which I find somewhat strange on a blog discussion board, here is my source. The fact that illegal immigrants are paying taxes - a lot of taxes - and receive very few benefits is well documented and well known. Google "do illegal immigrants pay taxes" and you'll see thousands of sources. And think about it - even if illegal aliens only paid 25% of the taxes that a native citizen earning the same pays, how much do you think emergency medical care and K-12 education for their children is really using up? Wake up, you're a xenophobe and you (not to pick on you, I am talking to all the xenophobes here) are, in Bryan's words, just using their country of origin as a pretext for naked aggression.

The fact that they commit document fraud, or simply sign up using the tax identification number set up specifically for undocumented workers, is proof that while they pay into programs like medicare and social security, they generally harbor no pretense at ever benefiting from these programs so long as they are noncitizens (you can't claim social security with an tax identification number set up for non citizens).

There is a budget deficit because the government spends more money than it collects. Poor, native-born Americans consume nearly all of our social services - very few, as I said, are given to illegal immigrants. So it is not a matter of "who earns less than them" - as if the people who actually earn less are getting the most of our money. The big chunks of government spending go to things like defense, not social services for the illegal poor.

I am reminded of a poll I saw that suggested the American public believes that foreign aid is one of the largest government expenditures and that we should drastically cut down on foreign aid, when in fact it is a pittance. What we all have to admit here is that immigrants are not robbing the government - it is distinctly the opposite. And the hard working illegal immigrant is not what we have to fear, its the low-skilled workers of America with a serious entitlement problem.

guthrie writes:

Thanks for your response Zac! Although I could say your statement begs the question ‘who decides which laws are unjust’, but that would go off topic a bit too far I think and we can save it for another discussion! :)

Check that link, though… when I pulled it up, there was no article, just a headline. Is it working for you or is it my computer?

And great point on the means-tested programs… I know that whenever you go to ask for assistance there is always a demand for a state-approved ID which proves citizenship. And you’re right, we can’t really lay state and federal budget problems at the feet of the undocumented. Again, I have no rational argument against your points and for our current or stronger immigration enforcement.

Btw, I happen to agree with you on the points of medical care and schooling (and sweat-shops for that matter… $1.50/hr may seem criminal here but it beats $0/hr!)

Thank you johnleemk for your insight. I was unaware of how other western countries deal with immigration. Taxing immigration is a novel approach! Would there be deferments for unskilled laborers who would ‘pay as they go’, or would it be an up-front cost? If it’s up-front, how would you deal with those who go ahead and enter anyway and start working without paying the tax? How different is that from the situation as it stands now?

Let me ask you also, since you seem to have some awareness of what’s going on over there… Wasn’t there a lot of flack in both France and the UK over Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants gathering in what sounded like refugee camps near the French side of the Chunnel? How big a deal was that, and is it still an issue? If the borders are ‘basically open’ in the EU why did there seem to be such a flap? Or was it miss-reported here?

This reminds me of a question I forgot to pose Bryan…

Hey Bryan! What is the immigration policy of Singapore?

Doubt he’s read this far down, but what the hey, right?!

Ben, I understand your perspective, I do. But I can’t help coming to the conclusion that, given the arguments for a free market, including the labor market, the argument for limited immigration, and strong borders is irrational. Can you give me a rational reconciliation between the ideas of the free market and those for closed or even semi-permeable borders?

Mark H writes:

Just because you have open borders does not necessarily mean a flood of immigrants.

Imagine if Australia opened its borders. Would millions of Americans rush to go live there? Some would; but many would not, because they love their country, they would miss their friends and family, and they think American culture is the best of all cultures and they couldn't possibly give it up.

Surprise surprise, that's what people all over the world think about their own countries, societies, and cultures (no matter how irrational that might appear to us, nor how bad their day-to-day lives might seem to our eyes). And when people think about moving, those factors often outweigh the uncertain benefits of emigration. It's not always about the money.

Open borders also allow people to leave. Recent news reports in the U.K. suggest that tens of thousands of Polish immigrants are heading back to Poland, having lived and worked in Britain for years subsequent to Poland's accession to the E.U.

Here's the thing: even though they had the opportunity, not every single Pole in Poland emigrated to Britain. In fact it seems like only a quarter of a million Poles made the move, and the vast majority of them got jobs or started businesses.

Yes, many people complained about the strain placed on social services by these immigrants, particularly on the public school system. The answer to that one is obvious: let people set up and pay for their own schools.

But that's another discussion.

PJens writes:

I have gotten used to pushing 1 for English (at least it is still #1) and I really don't care who is living in my neighbor's basement. What bothers me is when the illegal immigrant starts telling me what I can not eat.

My view of assimilation is living under the same rules and working towards the same goals.

Countries in Europe have serious problems with immigrants. I believe America does not have nearly the same scale of immigration problems because; 1) there is so much opportunity here, 2) We do eventually force people to live by the established rules. Yes, some American citizens do not always follow these same laws and rules.

I welcome hard working people who come here to better themselves and take part in the great American society. But there are rules; no female circumcision, no foot binding, speech is free but no one is required to listen.

Good grief, does anyone realize that if my ancestors had their way after coming here, we would all be eating lutefisk on Fridays.

ben writes:

@Zac

The fact that illegal immigrants are paying taxes - a lot of taxes - and receive very few benefits is well documented and well known.

That illegal immigrants pay some taxes is trivial. That they pay 'a lot' or 'their share' is not well documented because its completely false. Illegal immigrants have low skill and don't make very much money. How can they pay very much in taxes? Their US born children are more than eligible for a host of social services.

Here's an article showing the fiscal drain of illegal immigrants at just the federal level. If immigration is so great why are states like Ca are going bankrupt?

Moreover, as I said previously, I would hope people living in the US would pay their portion of roads, prisons, fire, etc... Not just services that were direct transfers to them. Do you really think illegal immigrants are contributing enough into social security to cover their own retirement?

If you know how to change the welfare state, please let me know.

PS If you can't win an argument, start calling people names like xenophobe.

ben writes:

@ Mark H

Just because you have open borders does not necessarily mean a flood of immigrants.

Imagine if Australia opened its borders. Would millions of Americans rush to go live there?

Your example is hilarious! Why don't you substitute India, Bangladesh or some other poor Asian country instead of America in your example? Or do you only want open borders between first world countries?

Frank writes:

Bryan would be absolutely correct for a country (a) with a true free-market system and (b) a businessman-king (or other CEO) that ran it strictly as a business.

Unfortunately, there is no such country; perhaps Dubai in the UAE, which is almost (but not quite) the Maktoum family corporation, comes closest. The US, with its one-person, one vote democracy, is very far from this, and low-income, low-skill, low-IQ, low-education people coming here in bulk would, together with their descendants, eventually vote and shift this country towards even more socialism. What Bryan recommends would give short-run benefits but longer-run problems.

guthrie writes:

PJens… that’s interesting! I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of an immigrant of any stripe telling me what not to eat. Can you provide an example? Do you have any experience with this issue?

I think I understand your context of rules… some cultures allow or require female circumcision etc… but we don’t. So, provided that someone immigrates here complies with these kinds of rules, and drops some of the aspects of their home culture that we don’t allow, we can consider them assimilated? Am I close? And we can then let in anyone who agrees to these tenants?

Mmm! Lutefisk! Almost as appetizing as haggis!

Whoa, ben! No need to throw down gauntlets or call names! Please understand the skepticism here. There seems to be a lot of numbers bandied about on both sides, but which side does the free market stand on? In a free market, as far as I understand it, there’s no requirement on your citizenship other than you contribute and follow the rules, right? Can we have an honest free market otherwise? If so, how?

Frank, I don’t think Bryan or anyone here harbors any illusion that we have a true free market, and that democracy is efficient. But can’t we aspire here? Can’t we posit, support, and recommend those things which would be consistent with a more free market? It sounds like you would want a freer market for the country, right? So, setting aside politics for a moment, can we support closed borders and a free market at the same time? Is it consistent to advocate the removal of government control over every market but labor?

And what is this obsession with IQ? Intelligence, income, skill level, and education are all fluid! They can expand and contract through time. People can better themselves, people can improve, people can change over time.

And aren’t there plenty of home-grown folks with low this-or-that that vote?

If we’re to stand against socialism, which I’m all for, shouldn’t we work on presenting a persuasive, cohesive philosophy upon which people can hang their hats upon, no matter where their from?

Zac writes:

@ben - If I can't win an argument? Who has judged that I have lost? And do you really think that the argument over open borders can be won or lost on an econlog message board by armchair economists? And xenophobe isn't name-calling, its a perfectly appropriate description of someone with your opinions on the matter of immigration. Sorry if I'm not PC enough for you.

I have a hard time thinking this is an argument about facts considering even a cursory review of the data discredits the idea that illegal immigrants are a drain on our federal coffers. But let's say hypothetically you're right and that illegal immigrants are a major drain on the welfare state, because they are very poor on average and the very poor are generally not net taxpayers. The question becomes: who cares? The problem is with the welfare state, not immigration. If 20 million destitute Mexicans immigrated to Texas en masse, why should they be denied the right to work? In what way are native Texans more important than the immigrants, especially if they demand higher wages for inferior work?

I am reminded of a quote by Bryan - are low skilled Americans the master race, in whose name any crime is justified?

ben writes:

@guthrie

Whoa, ben! No need to throw down gauntlets or call names!

Who did I call a name and what name did I call them?

Please understand the skepticism here. There seems to be a lot of numbers bandied about on both sides, but which side does the free market stand on?

Shouldn't we try to agree on the numbers before we have the debate? Or at least understand what numbers the other side uses. If you agree that the US doesn't have a free market, why does it matter so much what side the free market is on?

So, setting aside politics for a moment, can we support closed borders and a free market at the same time? Is it consistent to advocate the removal of government control over every market but labor?

I can respect that, but please understand that you need a complete 'free market', almost no communal government owned resources (roads, water, land, schools, social safety net) and no progressive taxation. If people can't afford to reproduce, they need a price signal to tell them they can't. This is very unpleasant when talking about human beings.

And what is this obsession with IQ? Intelligence, income, skill level, and education are all fluid! They can expand and contract through time. People can better themselves, people can improve, people can change over time.

Unfortunately this is not true. IQ is not fluid. It does matter. It is heritable. Just because some people under perform their abilities and turn it around, does not mean that everyone has the ability to be productive in a modern economy. IQ also gets more predictive when you talk about groups.

And aren’t there plenty of home-grown folks with low this-or-that that vote?

Absolutely, why import more into advance 1st world welfare state?

johnleemk writes:

I would like to see every person staking a claim in this debate put forth a policy proposal. We know where almost everyone stands as far as the desirability of immigration. But how does that translate into policy? Is anyone really interested in defending the status quo, which almost everyone seems upset with?

My proposal is to get rid of most restrictions on immigration, and replace them with a straight tax on entering the US for work or residency. We can quibble about what the tax should be, but it's more transparent and allocatively efficient than the stupid quota system the US presently has in place. And of course this tax should be enforced rigorously - those who do not pay it and enter illegally must either pay it up with interest, or face deportation. This is also fairer to those who have actually contributed to American society - those with steady jobs and ties to their community will better be able to raise the money for back taxes owed than someone relying on the dole to survive. Present immigration policy draws no distinction between the two types of immigrants, and as we've seen in this debate, the dominant assumption is that we should punish an indeterminate number of contributors for the sins of an indeterminate number of welfare leeches, when there is no need to actually do that.

The problem with the status quo is that it is inefficient, and inefficiently enforced. Those who try to immigrate legally face almost insurmountable roadblocks. Those who try to immigrate illegally face almost equally insurmountable roadblocks, but are so desperate that they will risk life and limb for it. We can and will save lives and make the system both more efficient and equitable by transparently taxing immigration at its cost to society.

Those assuming America will be flooded by immigrants seem to assume that border controls must always be lax and that immigration law must always be full of loopholes. While both assumptions have some basis in reality (you can't realistically keep out everyone who wants to cross the Mexican border, and any law will always have loopholes), the fact is that a lot of sentiment agitating against stronger border protection and tougher enforcement of the law is grounded in how unjust the present situation is. You have an opaque legal system screwing over thousands if not millions who want to immigrate legally and bring their skills and capital into your economy, while at the same time also screwing over thousands who either die trying to cross the Mexican border, or live in fear of deportation regardless of how much they can contribute to American society.

(That brings up the related issue of perverse incentives - there is no path to legalization for illegals who have out down roots in America. What stake do they have in American society? Why would you pay taxes or be a good citizen when you will always live in fear of deportation and being torn away from your community and livelihood?)

If you actually made the immigration system transparent and fair so anyone who can compensate America for the costs of his immigration can enter the country, I'm willing to bet much of the opposition to strict enforcement of the law and border protection would fall.

If bleeding hearts really value the lives of illegal immigrants that much, then they can pay for them to stay in America, instead of grandstanding about the need to not enforce the law. And to put a Coasian twist on it, if "xenophobes" value a white America more than bleeding hearts value a plural America, then they can also put their money where their mouth is and pay off the bleeding hearts. A more transparent system benefits everyone with a stake in this issue, and illuminates the socioeconomic impact of immigration.

In response to guthrie's question about the French chunnel issue, I actually have not heard of that, and I've spent much of the last year in the US. It does make sense to me, however - the UK is not integrated with the rest of the EU in terms of border protection (it is not party to the Schengen Agreement), and it does maintain border controls.

I can answer part of the question about Singapore too - I'm actually from Asia and lived for some years in Singapore. I do not know what the exact requirements are for legal immigration, but I do know that my family encountered hardly any problems obtaining permanent resident status in Singapore. There is some concern at the moment that Singaporean policy is too lax, and that the island state may be overrun by Chinese nationals taking up citizenship/permanent residency. I think this is probably an exaggeration but I don't know enough to comment.

As someone with family in the US, France, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia, I have to say that American immigration policy is still some of the most ridiculously boneheaded foolishness I have ever encountered. A member of my extended family who is now a US citizen petitioned the INS to admit my parents - both graduate degree holders - over 15 years ago. We got word that the application was approved in principle about five years ago, only to find out that there was another long waiting list (about another ten years' worth, in fact) just to advance to the next stage. My parents applied for permanent residency in New Zealand two years ago, got their visas approved earlier this year, and now reside in Auckland. That's capital and talent the US is missing out on, because of its unfounded paranoia about welfare queens.

This story is not by any means unusual - look at applications for work permits (H1B visas): the quota is filled the first day applications open. I personally know Harvard graduates who were hired by top American firms and yet could not stay because of the quota - they now of course work elsewhere. For all this blathering about markets and freedom and opportunity in America, you guys sure do a great job of not practicing what you preach.

guthrie writes:

Thank you, ben, for your response! And sorry, I don’t know how to italicize your comments… I don’t mean to confuse!

Who did I call a name and what name did I call them?

This was not an accusation, but a balance to ‘… throw down gauntlets’. You suggested name calling as the last resort of your vanquished foe. I don’t know that such postures are absolutely necessary here IMHO.

Shouldn't we try to agree on the numbers before we have the debate? Or at least understand what numbers the other side uses.

I thought to approach the topic philosophically. I still have a visceral, irrational, negative reaction to the idea of open borders and free labor market, and I can’t reconcile that with my embracing the concepts of free market economics. Numbers are useless to me, because part of my struggle is irrational.

If you agree that the US doesn't have a free market, why does it matter so much what side the free market is on?

If what we aspire to is free markets, then it matters what this particular philosophy demands. If we are after free markets, then philosophically we ought to be consistent, right? Yes, we don’t have a completely free market here, but I am philosophically opposed to the welfare and nanny state… immigration is secondary! I’m seeing the problems associated with immigration as a welfare issue in general. So to point out fiscal problems associated with illegal immigration, or to point out their skill or IQ or whatever, I don’t think that’s a proof against open borders, again in general. It just means we can’t open our borders ‘yet’. And on that point I might agree with you.

I can respect that…

It would seem you might agree with a free labor market given the right circumstances, then perhaps?

If people can't afford to reproduce, they need a price signal to tell them they can't.

Yeah, I can see that! Unpleasant but it makes sense. I wonder what you might think of johnleemk’s idea of charging people to settle here?

Unfortunately this is not true. IQ is not fluid. It does matter. It is heritable.

Sorry, but I can’t agree with you here. In my own experience I have seen my intelligence grow as well as that of others. The human brain is so intricate and complex and flexible, that no single ‘standard’ can encompass its ability. The brain… that’s what we’ve inherited. Scientists can’t even describe what consciousness is, how can we presume to ‘know’ what one’s ultimate aptitude is? Sorry, but primates can be taught sign language and even dogs can have a vocabulary in the multiple thousands. Humans all have the same brain matter, if they don’t have the opportunity to access it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s a matter of training, not of biology. I suppose this was a little off topic, but it’s an issue I’m passionate about. I didn’t mean to de-rail the conversation… or to rail for that matter!

Johnleemk, in looking at your policy proposal, I’m not sure I can come up with anything better! The price of charging settlers could be set to mitigate any initial infrastructure strain, and then they can be taxed normally for their ongoing use of public resources (roads, schooling, et al). Anyone who bucks this system is dealt with accordingly. It takes into account our current free market limitations, and provides incentive for immigrants to contribute… can’t do better myself, I’ll admit! Takes a lot of subjectivity out of the system too, it would seem.

The Chunnel thing was apparently big around the time of the London bus bombings, or perhaps a little before the French riots (I can’t remember at the moment). But because the problem wasn’t an ‘American’ issue, I’m sure all we got were snippets from our news media. Just wondering…!

And thanx again for your insight! It is sad that professionals who could add a lot to our economy and culture, and who are trying to do the right thing, are turned away almost arbitrarily (or is ‘almost’ too generous?). The deck seems stacked against ‘high skill, high IQ’ applicants, so those who might be currently lacking in these qualities are indeed screwed. You’re right… incentives matter.

And it’s not all blather… that’s why people come here. But our policies (and not just immigration) are grossly inconsistent. A little consistency would go a long way, I’d think!

Mark H writes:

Hi Ben - I used Australia as an example precisely because it is a first world country with a high standard of living; Americans could reasonably expect to experience no significant economic penalty as a result of a move there, thus neutralising the economic pros and cons (for the sake of my argument) and putting the emphasis on the other factors (social, cultural, etc). I apologise for not having made this clearer.

Brian Macker writes:

"the point is that Americans shouldn't have to live in the same country with people they don't like."

If that's the point then why are those who are against illegal immigration just skipping that notion and moving directly to forced emigration?

There are plenty of people who are already citizens of this country that I don't like yet I'm not trying to force them out of the country. I don't like Alan Greenspan right now, for one. It never occured to me that I should have to live in the same country with him.

I think you are imputing motivations to others they don't hold. I'm against illegal immigration and I can tell you right now it has nothing to do with keeping out people "I don't like". I'm sure there are plenty of legal immigrants that once I got to know them I wouldn't like.

How about trying to argue against the actual positions of the other side instead of trying to use the Marxist gambit of labeling the opposition evil and therefore unworthy of consideration.

I don't recall anyone arguing that they wanted immigration controlled to make sure they didn't have to live in the same country with people they didn't like. The idea is actually preposterous on it's face. Immigration laws couldn't possibly accomplish the stated goal.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top