David R. Henderson  

Thoughts on Immigration

PRINT
Paul Seabright on Free-Market ... A True Conversation on the Pol...

I don't have much to add to Bryan's thoughts on conservative "overlordship" re immigration. But I do want to reply to some points that his commenters raised.

. Commenter Tom Dougherty argues that even though landlords, employers, and grocers are delighted to have immigrants as tenants, employees, and customers, respectively, competing native renters and employees are not and do see these immigrants as intruders. Tom may well be right about how they see immigrants, but that doesn't mean that they see immigrants correctly. If I'm renting an apartment and someone else is competing for the same apartment, that person isn't intruding. To say he is is to say that I have a right to rent that apartment. Whence comes that right? Moreover, the immigrant is no more an intruder in that situation than a native-born competitor is. Ditto with the employment relationship: no one has a right to a job.

. Tom Dougherty adds that university professors don't have to compete with unskilled labor. True. But we do have to compete with skilled foreign academics, of whom there are many.

. ziel argues on Constitutional grounds. He writes:
In it [the Constitution] Congress is explicitly given the power to "establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization". So it's pretty clear that controlling who can become a citizen (and thus who is allowed to live in the country and under what conditions) is well within Congress's powers.
He's right that Congress has the power to set the rules for naturalization. This doesn't mean that it has the power to set the rules for immigration. One can immigrate and not be a citizen, as was true of me for the years from 1977 to 1986. Indeed, my understanding--and I'm willing to be corrected--is that for at least the first few decades of this country, the state governments set their own rules for immigration.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (19 to date)
Ella writes:

Re: Tom Dougherty's point on housing, he is very right about the affect of (illegal) immigration on housing prices in California. Illegals would have multiple families living in single-family residences. This drove up the prices of housing because of an expanded pool of buyers, and a flavor of PC kept code enforcement officers from enforcing single-family occupancy. For apartments, it's a simple thing of supply and demand. Increase demand more than you increase supply, and prices go up.

For his point on college professors, I think he is referring to ILLEGAL immigration. There are or were about 30 million illegal immigrants c. 2008. There's, what, about 3 million legal immigrants? College professors aren't coming here illegally, which means that they comply with all the long review processes and caps visas per countries and professions. Basically, they stand in line. This keeps their numbers down and keeps them from flooding the university job market. Illegals -- who take the low-skilled jobs that anyone can do -- simply jump over the turnstile. Reverse supply and demand: a massive increase in supply lowers the cost of low-skilled labor, combined with the 50% overhead that it takes to employ legal residents for SSN, OSHA, unemployment, etc. which makes legal hires even more undesirable.

MikeP writes:

Indeed, my understanding--and I'm willing to be corrected--is that for at least the first few decades of this country, the state governments set their own rules for immigration.

Indeed you are correct. The first federal immigration law was not enacted until 1875. And prior to 1890 states rather than the federal government were entirely responsible for regulating immigration.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, MikeP.

8 writes:

I think there's a bait-and-switch to use an argument for immigration in an argument for open borders. For instance, typical arguments about how immigrants don't take jobs or drive down wages work because of the restricted number of immigrants.

More importantly, under open borders, the employer, landlord and grocers do not need to want them, all that matters is that the immigrants want to come. If 10 million Chinese want to move to New Mexico and create "New China," they will have enough workers to create their own economy, using Chinese language.

MikeP writes:

For instance, typical arguments about how immigrants don't take jobs or drive down wages work because of the restricted number of immigrants.

Prior to any restriction on numbers of immigrants, both employment and wages consistently rose. Immigrants created jobs and raised wages for natives -- as one would expect.

I think the burden is on you to tell us how the open borders the US had for the first three centuries of American settlement would have caused a decline in employment or wages had they been been continued.

Interesting Connections writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of 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.]

D writes:

"True. But we do have to compete with skilled foreign academics, of whom there are many."

Skilled workers aren't the people conservatives are whining about. They whine about low IQ, low achieving, public school attending (and therefore negatively affecting standards and peer norms) Mexicans, whose numbers dwarf the high IQ, public school attending (and therefore positively affecting standards and peer norms), high tax paying future PhD's coming from China, India, etc.

MernaMoose writes:

Tom may well be right about how they see immigrants, but that doesn't mean that they see immigrants correctly.

And the fact that the "Wide Open Borders" crowd is so very certain that they do see immigrants correctly -- doesn't mean they are right.

I have met very, very few "Wide Open Borders" types who were not also anarchists. It's so much easier to "believe" in wide open borders, when you don't believe States should exist in the first place. Fortunately anarchism doesn't go over well with the American Mainstream which, for once, has gotten something right.


He's right that Congress has the power to set the rules for naturalization. This doesn't mean that it has the power to set the rules for immigration.

State governments, federal government, at this point we're splitting hairs. The real root of this whole debate is elsewhere.

So do let us cut to the part. The main immigrant problem we face is from Mexico, because everybody else we have the power to more or less allow or deny entry at will. It's Mexican immigrants that people are most at issue over.

Nobody debates the fact that we have a welfare state. But in spite of all attempts to deny it, Mexicans do soak benefits from the welfare state. Or can you deny them treatment if show up in emergency rooms? That's just for starters.

Didn't somebody once say "you cannot have a welfare state and open borders at the same time"? I think so. I think, that saying is right. Kill that beast (first) and I'll be a lot more open to the idea of letting in bigger crowds of migrants at least to work, though allowing them all to obtain voting rights is quite another issue.


The fact that Mexicans want to come here and work, doesn't mean they should be allowed to. The fact that there are employers who would rather hire them over native unskilled US workers (because wages are lower), doesn't mean they should be allowed to.

But whatever the American people may want -- and I contend that We The People do in fact have the right to decide whether or how many Mexican workers we want to allow into this country -- the fact is that we do not, and cannot cost effectively, control the border.

Mexican immigrants are predominantly Catholic, and they will vote predominantly for socialist policy. If it weren't for the Black and Mexican votes, the Democratic Party would implode. And all the predictions say that Hispanics will soon be a bigger minority than Blacks, if that hasn't happened already.


Without the Hispanic vote we wouldn't have gotten Obama. Without Obama, we wouldn't have ObamaCare. In the big picture and the long run, Mexican immigrants are a mixed bag in the best case. It is far from clear that we're "better off with them than without them", because they consistently vote for policies that are anathema to free market economics.

Evan writes:
Skilled workers aren't the people conservatives are whining about. They whine about low IQ, low achieving, public school attending (and therefore negatively affecting standards and peer norms) Mexicans, whose numbers dwarf the high IQ, public school attending (and therefore positively affecting standards and peer norms), high tax paying future PhD's coming from China, India, etc.
Conservatives would still whine even if the concept of IQ had never been discovered/invented, or if we didn't have public schools. That's because those are fake reasons. The real reason has always been that Mexican immigrants are Icky Yucky People and conservatives don't want Icky Yucky People anywhere near them.

Social conservatism is basically an out of control disgust reaction combined with an inability to distinguish disgust from immorality. The social conservative sees someone who disgusts or unsettles them for some reason, be it a foreign culture, poverty, unorthodox sexual practices, etc. and then concludes that because that person unsettles or disgusts them, they must be immoral. Immigration restrictions, anti-sodomy laws, the War on Drugs, etc. all these policies are basically ways to punish Icky Yucky people for the crime of being Icky and Yucky(of course, liberals occasionally do this too, except they find different things to be gross, fat people, smokers, and the rich all being current examples).

I think one of the biggest differences between libertarians and conservatives is that libertarians have a better handle on their disgust reaction. Right-leaning libertarians often still consider those people to be immoral, but recognize that what they do shouldn't be illegal, while left-leaning ones aren't disgusted by them at all.

Nobody debates the fact that we have a welfare state. But in spite of all attempts to deny it, Mexicans do soak benefits from the welfare state. Or can you deny them treatment if show up in emergency rooms? That's just for starters.

Didn't somebody once say "you cannot have a welfare state and open borders at the same time"? I think so. I think, that saying is right. Kill that beast (first) and I'll be a lot more open to the idea of letting in bigger crowds of migrants at least to work, though allowing them all to obtain voting rights is quite another issue.

It is not morally right to use an injustice caused by the State to expand the powers of the State. If we went that route we'd have to ban doing anything even remotely dangerous because the welfare state might foot the bill. In any case, if you're really against the welfare state on general principle, then you should consider giving money to natives and giving it to immigrants to both be equally immoral.

The welfare state argument actually illustrates my previous point quite well. Senior citizens are currently the biggest consumers of the welfare state, many many times larger than illegals, but conservatives complain about the welfare state they always focus on all the money going to the undeserving poor and illegal immigrants instead of seniors.

That's because the poor and illegals are Icky Yucky People whereas seniors as "Us." If you gave a conservative a choice between a welfare state ten times the size of the current one that only helped middle class natives, or a welfare state ten times smaller than our current one that could be exploited by illegals and "welfare queens" I'm sure a lot of them would pick the former.

The libertarian opposition to the welfare state is based on a principled support of property rights, whereas the conservative one is based on horror at the idea that people they don't like might get some tiny fraction of their money.

MernaMoose writes:

The real reason has always been that Mexican immigrants are Icky Yucky People and conservatives don't want Icky Yucky People anywhere near them.

Now I'm sure there's no possibility that the pot could be calling the kettle black here. None at all.

Because anybody who isn't on board with the Wide Open Borders plan is an icky-yucky "conservative". And as he says above, all "conservatives" have are "fake reasons".

As all good liberals (and anarchists) know, the best way to end any debate is to call your opponent a racist and go home.

Jody writes:

Because this has been debated many times in many forums...

  • Group selection matters, not just individual selection.
  • Culture matters and is influenced by makeup.
  • Apply your arguments to your favorite club.
  • Our institutions are not what they once were
  • This wave is different from earlier waves.

Evan writes:
Because anybody who isn't on board with the Wide Open Borders plan is an icky-yucky "conservative". And as he says above, all "conservatives" have are "fake reasons".

As all good liberals (and anarchists) know, the best way to end any debate is to call your opponent a racist and go home.


The majority of conservatives are not racist. While there are some who use the "low I.Q. people are dangerous" argument, the majority use the "they're taking our jobs," "they're using our welfare," and "they don't want to naturalize" arguments. These people, to their credit, would probably find the I.Q. argument horrifying.

I find it very suspicious, however, that so many people could come to agree on the same thing using so many different arguments. So I've come to suspect that these arguments are rationalizations for an out of control disgust reaction, especially since so many other groups that social conservatives don't like are "gross" groups (gays, etc.). This disgust is not a racist one mind you, it seems to be more about the immigrant's poverty and culture rather than their race.

I was hoping that if I attacked the underlying reasons for the arguments rather than the arguments themselves, I could achieve some sort of breakthrough instead of merely sending the signal "your argument has been attacked, find a new one or elaborate on your old one."

And of course, as I should have pointed out more clearly in my first post, disgust reactions seem to be a "social conservative" thing not necessarily shared by Burkean conservatives.

Jameson Burt writes:

What options (opportunity cost) has immigration?

1. Current 10 million self-selected largely unskilled Hispanics

2a. U.S. selected 10 million Hispanics with college education (like Mexican Miguel de Icaza, which MIT honored as world's most innovative programmer); this might depopulate Hispanic countries of their elite scientists

2b. 10 million foreign college students currently in the U.S. (grant them permanent immigration)

Given such options, while economists often say the U.S. would be better off with 10 million more workers,
I can't imagine anyone concluding the U.S. would be better off with 10 million unskilled workers than with 10 million college educated workers.
Only lazy indecision sees the U.S. with 10 million unskilled workers.

MikeP writes:

The US would be best off with all three.

MernaMoose writes:

Evan,

The fact that you were trying to get at the underlying arguments, I'm impressed with. But, you didn't get at them.

Am at work, checked quick in between meetings so I can't spell it better right now, but there are legit gripes. Many who oppose wide open borders just aren't good at articulating the reasons.

Peter writes:

David brings up the good point that is often overlooked in this argument which is naturalization != immigration. If you remove naturalization on birth requirements I think open border argument gets farther and more politically palatable. I don't think the majority's concern here is the person next door, I think the concern here is a loss of control (naturalization brings shifts in voting demographics that immigration doesn't) over ones perceived historic nationality identity and nation. Places like Qatar and the U.A.E do just fine with the majority of the population not being citizens with no hope of getting citizenship, I fail to see why this can't scale.

Of course the real issue here isn't immigration but naturalization; folk on both sides are intentionally misframing the argument to avoid talking about it though.

MikeP writes:

Peter,

To your point about framing the argument directly, here are my suggested reforms:

1) Issue a new unlimited visa that allows indefinite entry, exit, residence, and employment for anyone who passes a background check that they are not terrorists, foreign agents, violent felons, or public health risks.

2) Holders of this visa have no claims to any path to citizenship, though they can apply for other, citizenship-track visas while they hold the unlimited residence visa.

3) No immigrants get any targeted welfare.

4) Citizen children of immigrants are on the welfare schedule of their parents.

5) "Amnesty" means applying for and receiving this visa.

Peter writes:

MikeP: I think #4 would kill this bill. Infinite unrestricted immigration (1/2/3/5) with no birthright citizenship I think is the winning political combination here in the current environment.

I'm not saying I'm personally against birthright citizenship (my kid would not be an American if that was the case given my wife's is quasi-legal status) but I think this is the only way this debate moves forward short of keeping the status quo (only enforce immigration laws against non-Mexican illegals, give lip service, play jaw jaw) or general amenity in a couple years when the Dem's either control the entire government or the Republicans get desperate enough on Hispanic demographics to vote for it.

PiaR writes:

Many Americans believe that immigration is making our economy worst and Americans worse off. It is however evident that the majority of the jobs that immigrants obtain in the US are jobs that no one else wants to take like house keepers, cooks, and gardeners. Additionally, if illegal immigrants are willing to work for less than the minimum wage that the government regulated, isn't the situation similar to China's economy which has an improving economy? Many of China's labor are from sweatshops that are paying their workers low wages and long hours for their labor to produce items for American companies. Therefore, aren't immigrants willing to work for low wages similar to sweatshop workers in China that are helping their economy prosper?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top