Bryan Caplan  

Immigrants and Everest

Highs and Lows of the Republic... Incentives Matter for Politici...
Immigrants use less welfare than natives, holding income constant.  Immigrants are far less likely to be in jail than natives, holding high school graduation constant.*  On the surface, these seem like striking results.  But I've heard a couple of smart people demur with an old statistics joke: "Controlling for barometric pressure, Mount Everest has the same altitude as the Dead Sea."  Sometimes controls conceal the truth rather than laying it bare.

Who's right?  Does adjusted quality matter?  Or is it just a bait-and-switch?

It all depends on what your audience takes for granted.  If listeners falsely assume immigrants are just as welfare-dependent and criminally-inclined as comparable natives, the adjusted results provide new and valuable information.  If reasonable, they may not become pro-immigrant, but at least they should become less anti-immigrant. 

This point is even stronger, of course, if listeners falsely assume immigrants are more welfare-dependent and criminally-inclined than comparable natives.  As far as I can tell, 90% of native-born Americans angrily believe both negative generalizations.  If they would scrupulously face facts - adjusted facts - much of their anger and desire to "do something about immigrants" would dissolve.

Pointing out that immigrants are better than comparable natives is directly analogous to, say, pointing out that the much-maligned Ford Pinto was not unsafe for a compact car.  In both cases, false beliefs lead to foolish actions - scapegoating immigrants and Pintos when they're at least as good as comparable natives and comparable cars. 

* There is also good evidence that immigrants commit less crime, making no statistical adjustments at all.  But that's a separate point.

COMMENTS (15 to date)
mico writes:

Huh? People don't oppose immigration because they think immigrant underclass are worse than native underclass, but because immigration is rapidly expanding the total size of the underclass. And it seems you are saying that the facts support that view.

Dangerman writes:

There's also a difference between "immigrants" and "*these* immigrants."

Duncan Earley writes:

I think I agree with mico here... Maybe you are undermining your goal.

Saying "Immigrants are far less likely to be in jail than natives, holding high school graduation constant." may be true, but if most immigrants don't graduate high school then that negates this.

Thomas writes:

What's relevant isn't the rate at which immigrants use welfare, relative to natives, but the ratio W/T, where W = welfare received in dollars and T = taxes paid in dollars. If W/T is greater for immigrants than for natives, then immigrants add to the net welfare bill. And holding things constant is irrelevant. As for immigrants and crime, see this:

Emily writes:

"Comparable" is doing a lot of work here. It's not obvious to me that conditioning on high school graduation is the appropriate thing to adjust for, even if we are going to adjust for something. Why that and not age or sex? Why not AFQT scores? Also, "better" than comparable natives? For the jail measure, sure. But if you're eligible for welfare, I don't think it makes you "worse" to utilize it. And even if you think it does, at least some of the difference in this outcome is an eligibility issue, isn't it?

Thomas B writes:

So, can we agree that anyone who pays more than $X in taxes can now be relieved of all the immigration law run-around, and be allowed to just get on with it?

That would allow us to focus immigration resources on immigrants who are likely to become a burden.

Because right now, opposition to potential-burden-immigrants has resulted in immigration policies that keep out all the skilled foreigners who would be taxpayers, while the potential-burden-immigrants just sneak in anyway.

mico writes:

Bryan's case for immigration rests entirely on ignoring all the political externalities of immigration, but he doesn't attach his case for immigration to any explicit argument against those political externalities.

(yes, I know he argues against them elsewhere, but doesn't make his support for leftist open immigration conditional on them being ended)

Peter Gerdes writes:

It matters that high school graduation is a factor on which one can condition immigration decisions.

If your interlocutor is accurately reporting their beliefs and responding rationally to evidence such a fact should at least prompt them to endorse increased immigration on the condition that less immigrants without a high school education are admitted.


Of course this is all pretty academic. If someone remains unconvinced after being presented with the basic arguments you've previously made and the unconditioned evidence about immigrants this isn't going to change their mind.

The real opposition to immigration seems to be rooted in deep tribal us versus them thinking that is highly resistant to rational argumentation. As always when there is large public support for a position it creates a niche for academics and political players to offer sophisticated justifications for their view but it would be a mistake to assume that addressing those arguments will have any effect on public opinion.

Like racism resistance to immigration can't be argued away. It can, however, be ameliorated by bringing together native born Americans and immigrants in social situations (churches, book clubs etc..) and with sympathetic immigrant characters on television.


Yes, I'm sure that there are some principled opponents to immigration and no doubt some of them will read this post. However, if the desire is to affect policy outcomes these individuals are simply too few to matter so let's focus on productive means to that goal.

BH writes:

This is the kind of sleight of hand that is so annoying among immigration proponents.

Poor first generation immigrants may be relatively hardworking and law abiding, but their descendants are most certainly not. That's the problem, and not mentioning it makes you look dishonest.

Thomas B writes:

BH... you're Aboriginal American, or you're "most certainly not relatively hardworking law abiding"?

Me, I'm first generation.

AP writes:

Bryan, this is something that has been pointed out to you before. When people talk about disliking immigration, they mean Hispanic immigration. They don't mean immigration from Canada or Britain. They don't want to say "Hispanic" because they don't want to have the magic R-word deployed against them, but that's what they mean. If you're asking where the perception of crime-prone welfare-using immigrants comes from: Hispanics have higher welfare usage and much higher crime rates than the general population.

Mm writes:

More importantly does the adjustment hold for ILLEGAL immigrants? probably does, but the debate is mostly about illegals & they need to be factored seperatly.

Tek Tek writes:

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Krzys writes:

Immigration should redound to the benefit of citizens.
Consequently, the fact that adjusted for education immigrants consume welfare at lower rates or are less likely to be criminal is irrelevant.

mico writes:

"Like racism resistance to immigration can't be argued away."

If Bryan doesn't believe in racism, he comes close enough that most people could not tell.

"It can, however, be ameliorated by bringing together native born Americans and immigrants in social situations (churches, book clubs etc..) and with sympathetic immigrant characters on television."

Sympathetic immigrant characters on television are upper middle class whites played by non-white actors. Bringing upper middle class whites into book clubs with actual underclass immigrants would not ameliorate hostility between the two, but rather accentuate it.

As I understand, Bryan argues that in a free market voluntary segregation means that this doesn't matter, while the two can cooperate to mutual advantage at a distance. This is true given his assumptions.

However the US does not have a free market, and so more underclass immigrants in the US means more underclass immigrants in Section 8 housing, more underclass immigrants being shoe-horned into the civil service, police and fire departments, and tech companies, more underclass immigrants on the voter rolls and on juries.

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