Bryan Caplan  

"Low-Immigration, Pro-Immigrant" versus the Law of Return

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"Low-Immigration, Pro-Immigrant."  So reads the masthead of the Center for Immigration Studies.  I'm still trying to make sense of it.  If someone announced a "low-in-law visits, pro-in-law stance," we'd laugh.  If you like your in-laws, you'll welcome frequent visits.  If you like immigrants, you'll welcome immigration.  You could say, "We want to limit the quantity so we can savor each and every immigrant," but I doubt you could say it with a straight face.

Not convinced?  Imagine a group with the slogan, "No-Immigration, Pro-Immigrant."

But can't you hate the sin but love the sinner?  You can claim to, but actually feeling this way is almost psychologically impossible.  If you hate what someone habitually does, you're going to dislike them for doing it.  In any case, part and parcel of the "hate the sin, love the sinner" ethos is the idea that the sinner could live a fulfilling life without sinning.  For many immigrants, sadly, immigration is their only realistic path to a decent life.  If you oppose the immigration of such people, their well-being is not a high priority for you.

To see the full absurdity of the Center for Immigration Studies' masthead, contemplate Israel's Law of Return.  The law is simple: If you're Jewish, you can move to Israel.  The same holds if you have a Jewish parent, a Jewish grandparent, or a Jewish spouse.  The more the merrier. 

When you hear about this policy, what do you infer?  That Israel is really, truly, actually, pro-Jew.  The less you support a policy akin to the Law of Return for group X, the less pro-X you are.  If your mission is lobbying for the approximate opposite of the Law of Return for group X, you are anti-X.

Update: The first line (though not the title) originally had the typo "Low-Immigrant, Pro-Immigrant."  Sorry for any confusion.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Vipul Naik writes:

Your second word should read immigration, not immigrant.

Jeff Peterson writes:

Your post neglects the possibility of arguments that a number of immigrants above a "low" level (however defined) would efface or nullify the qualities that made the US a desirable immigrant destination. So if one thinks that US wage rates are a key benefit for immigrants, but that an influx of immigrants above X would depress wages significantly, one might argue for limiting immigrants to X out of concern for immigrant income. Or if an entrepreneurial ethos is crucial to US quality of life, but an immigrant population greater than X from countries with a strong corporatist tradition will bring that ethos with them and give it greater purchase, one might try to limit immigration from such countries so as to preserve a political culture that will allow immigrant entrepreneurs to thrive. Likewise if having English as the dominant language gives the US an advantage in international trade that benefits immigrant workers, but an immigrant population of X from non-English-speaking countries would dethrone English; or if a Protestant-cum-secular political culture is the key to American happiness and can benefit individual Catholic immigrants, but an immigrant population greater than X will inject too much Catholic influence into the mix. I don't know if CIS offers arguments of this type to make their case or justify their slogan, but I can imagine many possible variations.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Sure, if you don't want your in-laws living next door you don't really like them...

Steve Sailer writes:

The Israelis have thought a lot longer and harder about immigration policy than Bryan has, and they've come to absolutely opposite conclusions.


Richard A. writes:

Immigration policy determines who gets in. Immigrant policy is how immigrants are treated once in. Too many on the right seem to favor the free flow of indentured labor. I call that a pro-immigration but anti-immigrant policy.

Mark Krikorian:

Proponents of captive-worker immigration forget the first principle of a free society: all of us, including immigrants, are human beings, created in the image of God, not mere factors of production to be used and discarded. (After the failure of Germany's guest-worker program, one writer lamented, "We asked for workers, but they sent us men.") ... Conservatives cannot applaud the emerging consensus among GOP lawmakers: pro-immigration, anti-immigrant.

T.L. Winslow writes:

[Comment removed for policy violations.--Econlib Ed.]

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't think all that much of CIS (I don't like orgs where you know what their research is going to say before they do it), but this seems like an odd argument. It's reminiscent of anti-contraception advocates saying that people who engage in family planning don't support family values. I don't buy it. I got to talk at length with David North of CIS this past summer. I didn't get the impression he's any less pro-immigrant than you are.

David Friedman writes:

One could argue that someone is only an immigrant after he has immigrated, hence that a policy that keeps lots of people out but results in the few who get in doing well is anti-immigration but pro-immigrant.

MingoV writes:

Controlled immigration is not anti-immigration, just as controlled traffic is not anti-driving.

johnleemk writes:


Nice analogy. We don't call unlicensed, uninsured, or even criminally negligent drivers "illegal drivers", though. And only in certain extreme cases do we demand that these people be banned from ever operating a motor vehicle again. But overstay your visa? Good luck getting into the country again.

Likewise, even if speed limits and other rules of the road themselves are a bit arbitrary, actual thought goes into determining these things. Traffic engineers have procedures for determining the speed limit. And even then, law enforcement recognises that speed limits are still to some degree arbitrary and enforce them to varying degrees. In many jurisdictions, the law explicitly states you need to exceed the speed limit by a certain amount to face legal penalties. There's no finetuning in immigration restrictions.

What procedure went into determining immigration restrictions? The history of nearly every restriction on immigration leads us back to anti-immigrant sentiment. The US, Canada, Australia, and the UK all abolished their open borders directly because of Southern/Eastern European, African/Caribbean, and/or Asian immigration. You very rarely see an immigration statute adopted because actual thought went into determining "This is the right amount of immigration/type of immigrants to have." The thought process tends to be "Well we've had these laws on the books for a long time, arbitrarily restricting on immigration must be fine." (The one exception that comes to mind is the EEA/Schengen zone, where countries who restrict immigration from other EEA/Schengen countries are allowed to do so, but required to clearly state the reasons why -- they can't just arbitrarily do so.)

Immigration restrictions may be legitimate, but the burden is on the one claiming they are legitimate to prove so. The analogy of immigration controls to traffic controls falls apart almost immediately upon examination.

Paul writes:

I think that the mention of Israel's right of return is interesting, because it doesn't really give everyone considered Jewish a right to return. For example, within the past few years the New York Times ran an article about the fact that orthodox rabbis get to determine who is and isn't really Jewish. Hence someone who has recent non-Jewish ancestry and isn't an Orthodox Jew will have quite a difficult time obtaining legal permission to live in Israel. I am not sure how one can separate politics from immigration, as immigration assuredly has an impact on political outcomes. Anything that tips the balance of power between factions will be vigorously contested.

Ken B writes:

Bryan, I think this is a false contradiction based on misquoting the masthead. The masthead wording is presumably carefully chosen and implies a logical distinction between immigrants as persons and immigration as a flow, which your misquotation disguises. One can sensibly say " I really like my beer, but think it best to limit my beer intake." Flow versus item. Good or bad analogy to immigration, it's a coherent thought, and it is notreflected in the wording in your misquotation, which does indeed sound foolish.

James writes:

To echo Ken B, I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that there is an optimal level of immigration which is positive but low.

The problem is usually in the specification of the objective function. What are we maximizing? If the optimal level of immigration is low, do we get there by assigning a low weight to the welfare of potential immigrants? If so, we are definitely not pro immigrant.

Brian writes:


Good post. "Low-Immigrant, Pro-Immigrant" is similar to other anti-human movements, like population control and pro-choice/pro-abortion groups. I'm reminded of "every child a wanted child," which, upon deeper thought, is profoundly anti-child. And yet such positions are frequently justified by the notions advanced in some previous posts, namely that fewer people is somehow the humane approach. Contradictory indeed.

Ken B writes:

@Brian: Did you notice that pace Bryan "Low immigrant, pro-immigrant" appears nowhere on the linked site?

I see Vipul noticed the misquotation. Are he and I the only ones who did? I'm sure Bryan simply made an error, but argument based on parsing misquotations are just not convincing!

Brian writes:

Ken B,

After reading the title, which had the word "immigration" in it, I didn't notice the typo in the first line or in my copy/pasted quote. But my comments are aimed at the "Low immigration, pro-immigrant" masthead and not at the typo version.

Ken B writes:

To echo James, echoing me, I don't actually support that position. I think higher levels of immigration are a good thing. But as James notes, it's not incoherent or cantradictory to argue that the right level is low. And that belief is not contradictory to a belief that the immigrants we accept we value.

"Low marriage, pro-spouse" is a catch phrase I could propose for the Catholic Church's position on marriage. It's not mine, but does it deserve the kind of mockery Bryan indulges in here?

Brian writes:

Ken B,

Your marriage example is a non sequitor. "Low marriage" would imply few people getting married (just like low immigration implies few people immigrating), which is definitely not pro-spouse. What you intended, which is in reference to people getting married only once, would be like having immigrants immigrate only once. This generally happens anyway, without any policy, and is not what we mean by low immigration.

The low immigration, pro-immigrant notion is based on the idea that one should avoid "too much of a good thing." While this is sometimes true (e.g., too much good food makes us fat), it's faulty to employ this as a general principle. The same thing can be said of its cliched cousin "less is more." These bromides get our attention BECAUSE they seem contradictory, and they are only true as exceptions or in special cases. In reality, as Bryan says, you can't really claim to favor the do-er while decrying the act of do-ing.

Ken B writes:

@Brian: I think a catchy phrase for a familiar issue will be interpretable in many ways. People will figure out the intended meaning most of the time. "Morning in America" did not mean banning nightfall, "an apple a day" is not interpreted as creating a physician repelling force field. So I think most people will get exactly what I mean by characterizing the Catholic position as "low marriage".

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