David R. Henderson  

Questions on Immigration

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While I agree with co-blogger Bryan that it would be desirable to let way more people into the United States, I haven't seen him answer in a satisfactory way some of the arguments against completely open borders.

Assume that the U.S. government decided to let anyone in who wanted to come, unless the person had a criminal record or carried a dangerous communicable disease. I would bet that these latter two disqualifiers would DQ under 10 percent of the relevant population. I could imagine that leading to an additional 300 million people coming into the United States within a couple of years. My impression is that Bryan could imagine it too.

That would effectively double the U.S. population. Now, under my scheme, the U.S. government would couple open borders with a 20-year residency requirement for U.S. citizenship and a requirement that one be a citizen in order to get any kind of welfare, including government schooling. That way, people wouldn't come here for welfare (I think most of them don't anyway) and we wouldn't worry about their voting away the very economic system that made this country attractive to them.

But Bryan and I both know that you can't always get what you want. The government is not some entity that he and I control. So what if the government did not couple open borders with this 20-year residency requirement or even a 10-year residency requirement? Would Bryan still advocate open borders? And would he worry at all that the new residents would vote away the goose that lays the golden eggs? And if he wouldn't worry about that, why wouldn't he worry? Inquiring minds would like to know.


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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Damien writes:

I wonder to what extent such as a system would be feasible anyway. Has it ever successfully been tried on a large scale or even a small scale?

It is at least conceivable that it'd lead to tensions as those who have been here long enough to feel part of the community but not long enough to get the full benefits start to resent their inferior status. If they are required to pay the same taxes as natives, I can picture them demanding the exact same rights, including that of sending their children to public school.

How long until community activists start drawing parallels with segregation?

I favor open borders (at least much more open than they are now), but I'm pretty certain that having a large population of a) poor b) second-class citizens c) from countries where political violence is widespread is a recipe for disaster.

eccdogg writes:

While I agree with your policy ideas, I think your forecast is off.

300MM seems like way to big of a number.

The highest immigration rate ever was 1.4% of the population per year from 1847-1854. A time period with pretty much the policy you advocate.

US immigration would have to be over 5 times that rate to have 300MM immigrants come to the country over a 10 year period.

Granted that it is cheaper to immigrate now, but there would be substantial feedbacks lowering wages and thus the incentive to move that would keep it well under that number.

Lewis writes:

Bryan would still completely embrace open borders.

How much worse could the average voter get?

MikeP writes:

I have to agree with eccdogg.

When I'm pressed on this, I predict 10 to 20 million per year. That's two decades to double the population.

Of course, it is required that the US obviously commit to the open borders for the long term. If it looks like a window that will close, that will raise the immigration rates beyond market levels.

David C writes:

I'd suggest a baseline assumption of 5 years of residence for considering such issues since that's the current policy.

Chinese parent's child writes:

"And if he wouldn't worry about that, why wouldn't he worry?"

Because he doesn't care whether things get worse for the US citizens, since to him, other Americans are mere "strangers" just like everyone else on the planet. So, a sufficient benefit to immigrants or foreign nationals can in principle offset even a grave damage done to the US citizens.

Psychologically speaking, Bryan is not an American.

Michael Wiebe writes:

One thing to keep in mind in discussions of immigration and second-class citizens:

It's better to treat foreigners as second-class citizens than not to treat them as humans at all. Which is precisely what immigration restrictions do, by forcing them to suffer the poverty and oppression of the Third World.

Jonathan writes:

Aren't most of these issues discussed in http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/10/caplan_on_immig.html?

Jonathon B writes:

My issue with immigration has never been the fact that it is restricted. I take issue with the fact that we restrict the wrong kind of immigrant. I would much rather increase legal immigration - especially those with education - and attempt to decrease illegal immigration.

The current system penalizes those who can and desire to contribute to American society, while promoting those who degrade it.

Kevin Waterman writes:

David C writes:

I'd suggest a baseline assumption of 5 years of residence for considering such issues since that's the current policy.
Actually, it's 5 years from the granting of permanent residency to citizenship (and that's not counting the delays and bureaucratic inefficiencies of USCIS).

Unless you have immediate family or a spouse that are U.S. citizens there's also another 5-10 years of legal presence in the U.S. before you can qualify for permanent residency.

Finch writes:

> It's better to treat foreigners as second-class
> citizens than not to treat them as humans at
> all.

It's fine to say that, but it's just not on the table as an option. Nor is eliminating the welfare state. If both things were possible, I think I'd agree with Bryan about opening the gates. But they aren't and there's no realistic prospect of them becoming fact.

Arguments about immigration ought to be based in facts. They ought to use numbers. I'm very sympathetic to the pro-immigration argument - I want it to be true because it closely matches principles I find useful, like a preference for letting people make their own decisions - but most of the "pro-" arguments are pure hand-waving about a world that doesn't exist.

Mr Econotarian writes:

Before nationalist immigration quotas began in 1921, there was basically no limitation to immigration into the US, and citizenship was acquired after just a few years of residency.

(the one exeption was Asian immigration which was restricted on and off before the 1920's)

Evan writes:

I know one big reason why I am not particularly bothered by large amounts of low-IQ immigrants from Mexico gaining citizenship is because I don't see such people as particularly politically active. According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics are far less politically active than whites. In particular, the total percentage of Hispanics who voted was 31.6%, versus 64.8% for whites. You might just say that that's because most Hispanic immigrants are young and young people vote less, but even controlling for that 27.4 of Hispanics aged 18-24 voted versus 48.3% of Whites aged 18-24.

Another study I found that backs this up is this one, which points out that even in 2040 in California the white population who is registered to vote will still outnumber the Hispanic one by nearly double. The authors seem to think that is a bad thing, but I'm not sure I agree.

Of course, these numbers would change if we greatly increased immigration and citizenship, but it would have to be a pretty large increase, unless I messed up my math you'd have to let in 284 million Hispanics to get an amount that would equal the current amount of white voters. That's nearly 48% the population of all of Latin America combined!

The simple math I've done is also somewhat confounded by the fact that I didn't do any math regarding the voting of ethnic groups who aren't White or Hispanic, but since whites and Hispanics are the largest groups, and Hispanics are the one everyone is worried about, I thought that wouldn't be necessary.

So I don't feel terribly worried about low-IQ Mexicans coming in and taking over the country with their votes. We mustn't also forget that most of them settle in border states, so they will be disproportionately represented there and not be able to have too much influence on the Senate. Also don't forget that a lot of Hispanics became politically active out of anger at anti-immigration rhetoric, so the percent who voted would likely decrease if we opened borders.

Still, the nativist-type people who post here a lot have worried me enough that I'd be more supportive of a massive increase of guest workers than a massive increase in citizens, or of a policy like the one David proposes. Just to be safe. But even in an imperfect world, a large increase in immigration wrecking American politics doesn't look to be a horribly pressing concern.

Saracen writes:

"So I don't feel terribly worried about low-IQ Mexicans coming in and taking over the country with their votes. We mustn't also forget that most of them settle in border states, so they will be disproportionately represented there and not be able to have too much influence on the Senate. Also don't forget that a lot of Hispanics became politically active out of anger at anti-immigration rhetoric, so the percent who voted would likely decrease if we opened borders."

I don't worry about them taking over the country, either. My concern is that an America with a low population IQ is one that will

(i) no longer be able to have much influence on the rest of the world... and the countries most likely to exploit that, China and Russia, are currently a lot less generous than we are. I'm hoping that China will improve on this front, but I'd rather not gamble the world's future on that (cf. the recent Senkaku Islands/rare earths incident).
(ii) not innovate as much, as a greater fraction of our smartest people spend their time just managing everyone else.
(iii) eventually have lower quality of life for practically everyone (as compared to what would have happened if the border was enforced), partly thanks to (ii).

Evan writes:

@Saracen,

That's an understandable worry, but remember that low IQ doesn't mean retarded. I think most of the immigrants would be competent enough to manage their own lives, which would mean that high-IQ people would actually gain in productivity because of the Law of Comparative Advantage. I assume since you read this blog you know what that is, but just to elaborate, high IQ people could do more productive high IQ work because they could hire more low-IQ people to do the grunt work for them. As a concrete example, a high-IQ woman could focus more on her career because she could hire a cheap low-IQ nanny from Mexico to take care of her kids when she's working.

Don't forget that open borders would also mean a lot of high-IQ immigrants from Asia. Not as many would emigrate as Latinos would since they have an ocean to cross, but it would still be a large amount. I emphasized Latinos in my last post because everyone seems worried about them more, but Asia would definitely contribute a lot of people as well.

English Professor writes:

Why does no one in these strings on immigration ever bring up the issues of culture and institutions? It seems to me that a lot of the most interesting work currently being done on economic growth focuses on the importance of culture and institutions. IMHO, modern liberalism already undermines the culture and institutions on which American economic practice rests. If those institutions are already under attack from within, what makes anyone think that they can survive a major influx of people who do not embrace them? As for unrestricted immigration, does anyone really believe that we can double the population in a decade and still maintain the culture and institutions that have brought us our unparalleled prosperity?

Saracen writes:

That's an understandable worry, but remember that low IQ doesn't mean retarded. I think most of the immigrants would be competent enough to manage their own lives, which would mean that high-IQ people would actually gain in productivity because of the Law of Comparative Advantage. I assume since you read this blog you know what that is, but just to elaborate, high IQ people could do more productive high IQ work because they could hire more low-IQ people to do the grunt work for them. As a concrete example, a high-IQ woman could focus more on her career because she could hire a cheap low-IQ nanny from Mexico to take care of her kids when she's working.

This would be a great fix if the nannies didn't have kids.

As is, immigration to America (i) increases the fertility of Mexicans, and (ii) puts indirect but real price pressure on others to have fewer kids. The Law of Comparative Advantage does not say that having 10% fewer high-IQ people and 30% more low-IQ people is a net win. You are incorrectly treating the number of high-IQ people as a constant.

Now, I don't blame this on the Mexicans. Broadly speaking, they're doing the best they can with the hand they've been dealt in life, and they're following an evolutionarily successful strategy. There are also a few American groups well-adapted to a reproductive free-for-all: Mormons and Amish come to mind. Is this the kind of future you really want for America, though? I know that I'd much rather see America retain something closer to its existing demographic composition--and I say this as an East Asian.


Don't forget that open borders would also mean a lot of high-IQ immigrants from Asia. Not as many would emigrate as Latinos would since they have an ocean to cross, but it would still be a large amount. I emphasized Latinos in my last post because everyone seems worried about them more, but Asia would definitely contribute a lot of people as well.

I wouldn't count on it. How many Asians are interested in immigrating to Brazil?

Saracen writes:

To Bryan's credit, he does actively support high-IQ people having kids, to the point of even publishing a book encouraging it. I don't know many other economists who would dare to do that.

This makes his open borders advocacy (and, in particular, the fact that he hasn't properly engaged the likes of Steve Sailer) especially confusing.

Foobarista writes:

@EnglProf: by bringing culture and institutions into the discussion, you're destroying the underlying assumption that humans are "rational" econobots that fit nicely into cute equations and computer simulations.

We must have ideals! Reality is so messy.

To be more generous, I guess the libertarian near-utopia is open-borders countries competing with each other for populatino on the basis of good policies, institutions, etc. The problem with this idea is the "California effect", where "emigrants" from California move to lower-tax, more business-friendly places like Texas and start voting for the same policies that created the situation that caused them to leave California in the first place. The problem is they see the bad results of the policies in CA, but don't connect the bad results to the actual, often very nice-seeming and "compassionate" policies themselves.

Would international immigrants be any different?

Maniel writes:

Under the assumption that labor flows to capital and vice-versa, I favor borders (with Mexico) that are open in two directions. Americans should be free to invest in, move business to, repatriate profits from, and buy property and establish residence in Mexico. While this might appear to be a potential threat to Mexican sovereignty, I think that if their government was able to put proper protections in place, quickly enough, the cross-border flow of people and money would reach steady state. Our decriminalization of drug use would reduce funding to organized crime and make Mexico a safer place. At present, we export drug crime with impunity.
I also favor documenting everyone in either country. I agree that citizenship in the USA (and in Mexico, by the way) should be earned over time and that rights to the great liberal welfare state should come with citizenship. The concept of undocumented aliens is ridiculous.
As to immigration from overseas, my grandparents and "grandparents-in-law" arrived here with no other qualifications than that they were poor and seeking a better life. Nobody measured their IQs but nobody provided them any welfare. As baby boomers go on Social Security and Medicare, we may need a few willing hands.

shecky writes:

Does open borders minus xx year residency requirement necessarily mean instant new voters? Instant new citizens? I'm always a bit curious about this line of handwringing. Natives are to a large degree apathetic about politics and don't even vote. I wonder if immigrants facing such a low entry bar would be any more passionate about politics.

The closest thing we have to a free market in labor is illegal immigration. And it really doesn't seem to cause all that much trouble. I'll venture that most don't give a rat's ass about politics as long as they're left alone. Where have I heard that sentiment before?

Foobarista writes:

Actually, illegal immigration causes a lot of trouble. Just try to operate a legitimate business in a local market where most players are hiring illegals; since their lower costs define the market price, you'll be killed. (And their customers _do_ benefit from lower prices)

But since I'm basically a libertarian, my solution to the problem would be to make it easier in terms of reporting, regulation, and other government overhead to hire casual and lower-end legal workers, which is where a lot of the savings of hiring illegals comes from. The base pay of most illegals isn't actually much lower (if at all) than comparable legal workers, but since there's no payroll tax or other withholding, no unemployment insurance, no workman's comp insurance, no wrongful termination suits, etc to deal with, they're lots cheaper to employ.

For low-end restaurant workers, these overhead costs can raise employment costs by 50% or more, even if the base pay is the same.

TimG writes:

I wish Mr. Henderson had been more clear in his hypothetical. Would his proposal exclude children of immigrants born on US soil from public education. If no, then I imagine a lot immigrants would come here for that benefit alone. Another point, suppose there is 20 year residency requirement, what happens in 40 years? US citizen's currently feel pretty entitled to vote themselves a share of the wealth, I don't see why immigrants who had lived in the US 20+ years wouldn't feel the same way.

That said, I give Mr. Henderson a lot of credit for throwing out the 300 million number. Its confusing to talk about immigration without numbers.

TimG writes:

Mr Econotarian wrote:

Before nationalist immigration quotas began in 1921, there was basically no limitation to immigration into the US, and citizenship was acquired after just a few years of residency.

I think you mean legal limitations on immigration. There were a host of economic / social / cultural limitations. Without some contact in the US, how would an immigrant even know where to go? Let alone if they could even survive the trip, or not be killed on arrival. This pretty effectively excluded non Europeans. Can you imagine Africans immigrating in large numbers to the US south circa 1900?

Evan writes:
The problem is they see the bad results of the policies in CA, but don't connect the bad results to the actual, often very nice-seeming and "compassionate" policies themselves.
Does open borders minus xx year residency requirement necessarily mean instant new voters? Instant new citizens? I'm always a bit curious about this line of handwringing. Natives are to a large degree apathetic about politics and don't even vote. I wonder if immigrants facing such a low entry bar would be any more passionate about politics.

I already made a comment earlier up the page (Posted January 25, 2011 5:08 PM) where I did the math on this. Based on current Latino voting records, in order to equal the amount of white voters in the USA, 248 million Latinos would have to move here (Latinos are about 50% less likely to vote than whites). To put that in perspective, there are only about 580 million Latinos on the planet Earth.

Of course, people from other places than Latin America would come to the US, but Latinos are the ones everyone seems to worry about.

Ryan Vann writes:

Interesting that people only want to talk Mexican immigrants, when there is a host of other potential immigrants whose migration rates would probably increase at a much faster clip if open borders were the norm.

Moreover, a few people express concern that the welfare state might not be able to accommodate these new immigrants. I see that as a benefit of allowing open borders. The quicker these ill advised schemes crumble, the better.

Ryan Vann writes:

"I could imagine that leading to an additional 300 million people coming into the United States within a couple of years."

Seems you have an overactive imagination to me. Average immigration per year is about 2million. This means that immigration levels would have to increase 75 times that number to get 300 million in two years. No way that happens.

Finch writes:

@Evan
> I already made a comment earlier up the page
> (Posted January 25, 2011 5:08 PM) where I did
> the math on this.

That was a good post, and I agree with your general point.

I do think you're oversimplifying a bit. Elections don't require huge chunks of the population to turn them. Remember we're pretty closely balanced between the socialist party and the slightly-less-socialist party in the US, and it wouldn't take a lot to tip that balance.

Beyond that, it's not like white people vote as a block and hispanic people vote as an opposing block. Both groups lean politically, but it's not an overwhelming tendency.

So the math is a little more complicated than you made it out to be.

Ali writes:

Michael Wiebe writes:
One thing to keep in mind in discussions of immigration and second-class citizens:

It's better to treat foreigners as second-class citizens than not to treat them as humans at all. Which is precisely what immigration restrictions do, by forcing them to suffer the poverty and oppression of the Third World.

---------------
Oh, please. No way that the U.S. can take in the five billion people living in poverty in the rest of the world without turning into them. And why should we? Much of the poverty and oppression in the Third World is because of decisions by Third Worlders themselves--decisions to have more children than they can afford. Decisions to put up with corrupt governments. Decisions to oppress women and deprive themselves of the value that women can create in an economy. Decisions rooted in culture and which they'd bring with them to THIS country to our (and their) detriment.

Jaime L. Manzano writes:

Getting too complicated. As I see it, there really are several issues. The first is meeting the labor demands of the country to grow. Employers could put out help wanted adds with salaries. Failing recruitment of resident workers, they can then hire non-residents. Gaming the system could be monitored and discouraged by appropriate fines and, if necessary, imprisonment.

A second issue is residence. Permanence can be awarded based on one's record of self-sustenance and law abiding for an appropriate period of time.

A third is voting. Residence would logically be required, but I would consider knowledge of English, basic civics, and even a poll tax applicable to all voters to cover expenses of the system. I just don't cotton up to treating rights and privileges as if they were free without responsibilities.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

David,

You know that the idea of preventing immigrants to bringa communicable disease to the US is a little bit silly. There is plenty tourists that can come to the US without a VISA and can bring a communicable disease. There is no way for immigration agents to see if you can bring that communicable disease. So, saying we must test you before you immigrate to the US is silly. If you want to bring a communicable disease to the US, you don't really need to immigrate, you just need to come in vacations. If you are European, you have 90 days to do plenty harm; if you are Italian, you can come as long as you want.
I am not saying it's a good thing but if you think bringing communicable disease to the US is a reason for controlling borders, it means you will have to test every single individual coming to the US.
A second point, why only immigrants? Why not US citizens? Would you prevent US citizens to come back to their country if they carry a communicable disease they caught in a foreign country? You bet there is plenty Americans who go to foreign country and catch communicable disease and they don't even know they have it.
I don't see why a sick immigrant, tourist could not come to the US (to get treatment for example), and a US citizen could.
What about immigrants or tourists who caught a communicable disease in the US? You kick them out? They got it in the US. They didn't bring it to the US.
I think the communicable disease argument is weak.

Alex

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