David R. Henderson  

Common Arguments Against Immigration

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New research by Harvard professor George Borjas on the effect of the Mariel Boatlift - a giant shock to Miami's labor market that increased the size of its population by 7 percent in 42 days - finds large negative wage effects concentrated on Americans with less than a high school degree. To put the scale of that shock to Miami in context, it would be as if 22.4 million immigrants moved to America in a six-week period - which will not happen.

This is from Alex Nowrasteh, "Common Arguments Against Immigration," Cato At Liberty, August 8.

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In this article, Alex states, and critiques, 15 common arguments against immigration ranging from "Immigrants abuse the welfare state" to "Immigrants are especially crime prone" to my favorite, "It's easy to immigrate to America and we're the most open country in the world."

For those on either side of the issue, or on the fence, this is a good one-stop place to go to see a quick statement of the common arguments and a fairly data-rich response to each.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
pyroseed13 writes:

"To put the scale of that shock to Miami in context, it would be as if 22.4 million immigrants moved to America in a six-week period - which will not happen."

And yet, before Borjas reexamined Mariel, open borders proponents routinely cited the Card study as showing that large influxes of immigrants do not negatively impact the wages of natives. Now that this appears to be fundamentally untrue, they are now claiming that this supply shock will never happen because no one is arguing for allowing that many immigrants to come to the U.S., except of course for open borders proponents...

David R. Henderson writes:

@pyroseed13,
And yet, before Borjas reexamined Mariel, open borders proponents routinely cited the Card study as showing that large influxes of immigrants do not negatively impact the wages of natives.
It made sense toi cite the Card study when we didn’t know about Borjas’s reexamination. Now we know about that reexamination and Alex points that out. I find that admirable rather than the opposite.
Now that this appears to be fundamentally untrue, they are now claiming that this supply shock will never happen because no one is arguing for allowing that many immigrants to come to the U.S., except of course for open borders proponents...
I don’t think you can conclude that Alex is saying that this will never happen because no one is arguing for it. It’s much more likely that this will never happen because it’s inconceivable, even with minimal Ellis Island-type restrictions on immigration, that 22 million immigrants would show up in 6 weeks.

Christopher Chang writes:

Nowrasteh notes that New Zealand and Australia have more than twice as many foreign-born people as a share of their populations, but conspicuously fails to mention why the natives don't mind: New Zealand and Australia have selective immigration policies reflecting citizen preferences, and unapologetically enforce their laws. It should be unsurprising that, when only immigrants who'd plausibly fit in are admitted, the public is willing to accept far more of them.

I hope US policy moves in that direction sooner rather than later. For now, though, Nowrasteh and his colleagues are still doing all they can to rationalize deliberate nonenforcement of the law and trash the idea of selective immigration, even though it is becoming increasingly clear that the Canada/Australia/NZ model provides more opportunity for immigrants at less political cost than everything else that has been tried in 21st century Western countries, and that it is also adequate for catalyzing development of the immigrants' home countries.

Failure to correct this mistake expresses a preference for harming Americans, not helping immigrants. It is safe to assume malicious intent on the part of someone who tries to force you to buy everything that's sold to you, rather than distinguishing between the deals that benefit you and the deals that don't.

Garrett M writes:

For reference (just because I think it's funny), 22 million immigrants in 6 weeks would be the equivalent of having the bottom 26/50 European countries clearing out and moving across the pond.

John Alcorn writes:

Prof. Henderson:

Prof. Borjas writes: "The wage of high school dropouts in Miami dropped dramatically, by 10 to 30 percent." Presumably, the wage could not drop below the minimum wage. If the minimum wage was a floor, then Prof. Borjas' finding would seem to imply that the wages of high-school dropouts, before the Mariel boat lift, were much higher than the minimum wage. Is it plausible that the average high-school dropout was earning 20% or 30% more than the minimum wage before the marielitos arrived?

I am surprised that Prof. Borjas' paper does not discuss the minimum wage and the distribution of dropouts' wages above the minimum wage before the boat lift. This would seem to be a necessary plausibility check. Am I missing something?

Richard writes:

It's true, as he says, that the odds of dying in a terrorist attack are small, but you have to factor in the likely overreaction. The psychic costs and the amount spent on security are considerable. It doesn't do away with the problem to just say "be more reasonable."

Imagine someone arguing that we spend too much making planes safe. Flying on a plane is one of the safest things you can do. Perhaps we should tolerate more crashes for the sake of cost or convenience. Ignoring human psychology, such an argument may make complete sense. But if a plane was falling out of the sky even once a month, millions would probably stop flying, millions more would find their trips being much more stressful, and the overall costs would be huge.

Brian Holtz writes:

Under open borders, 22 million immigrants would surely show up within 6 months, and 220 million within 6 years. Gallup finds that 380 million adults wish to immigrate to N. America or W. Europe or Australia. If the U.S. were the only such destination with open borders, then it would surely be the immigration target of the vast majority of those 380 million.

If modern shipping technology were applied to the problem of satisfying this boatlift demand, then open borders would leave America awash in squalor. Open-borders advocates in theory should embrace this consequence, as they surely should argue that the best way to alleviate global squalor over the long run is to welcome its short-run relocation to America. But this is one bullet that open-borders advocates lack the courage to bite, because to concede the imported-squalor consequence is to concede that borders will never be fully opened. So, despite the "trillion-dollar bill" rhetoric, open-borders advocates trip over themselves to deny how much squalor would actually arrive. I.e., they downplay the actual humanitarian/utilitarian benefit of their proposal!

I'm skeptical that open-borders advocacy actually moves policy opinion toward increased immigration -- just as I'm skeptical that anarchy advocacy actually moves policy opinion toward smaller government.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brian Holtz,
Under open borders, 22 million immigrants would surely show up within 6 months,
That could be. My statement, and Alex’s, was about 6 weeks.

Benjamin Cole writes:

Seems to me a sovereign nation does in fact have an obligation to enforce its borders for trade and immigration, in contrast to what Alex Nowrasteh suggests.

I also believe in democracy. This results in the proper level and type of immigration being a democratically rendered result.

I may or may not like the result. The public may decide on zero, or 20 million immigrants a year.

I am aghast at the level of "national security" spending in the USA. I suspect it is as a result of interest-group politics and scaremongering. But I do not say we need to thwart the public's choice in this matter. Evidently the public wants to spend $1 trillion a year on "national security."

The "lets overlook illegal immigration" crowd seems to be saying an undemocratic result is preferable. The public supports a society of law, not man (at least I hope).

If there are immigration laws then they should be enforced.


LK Beland writes:

Benjamin Cole

"If there are immigration laws then they should be enforced."

Also, there should be red-light cameras at every intersection and hidden photo-radars everywhere, because speeding laws should be enforced.

Glen Smith writes:

The best argument against open boarders is that everyone here is likely an immigrant or from an immigrant.

MikeP writes:

If there are immigration laws then they should be enforced.

Just for the record, do you think that if there are fugitive slave laws then they should be enforced as well?

Jon Murphy writes:

If there are immigration laws then they should be enforced.

Which is why we're advocating changing the immigration laws

Christopher Chang writes:

LK Beland: Speeding laws are designed to improve public safety. Statistical enforcement achieves this. That's why you see very safety-conscious people pushing for any more than small marginal changes in speed limits and their enforcement. In contrast, current US immigration law enforcement policy fails to achieve the intent of the law. This is not due to some insurmountable technical problem; Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel all succeed at this while having much larger foreign-born population %s. It's due to elite hostility towards the will of the American public. A similar dynamic has occurred in many European countries, and they're all now facing populist revolts.

(It's reasonable to be initially confused about the distinction between effective statistical enforcement, and deliberate nonenforcement. However, if someone *continues* to trot out this argument after they should already know better, and actively tries to confuse others with it, conclusions can be drawn about the intellectual integrity of that person.)

MikeP: While Lincoln was technically not an abolitionist in 1860, he was close enough for the South to secede in response to his election by the American public, and that happened just ten years after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It doesn't take that long to fix a truly bad law by appealing to the public.

In contrast, Nowrasteh and his colleagues are trying to rationalize tyrannical imposition of laws that are being rejected in the marketplace of ideas by citizens of all Western countries. Even Sweden, which was exceptionally open to the idea of unselective immigration policy just 10-20 years ago, has found their ideas unworkable.

Meanwhile, Canada quietly chugs along, admitting immigrants at a comparable rate to the US (including lots of nonwhites from poor countries) without damaging trust in government. Maybe, if immigration laws and enforcement thereof are to be changed, it should be in that direction? Just a thought.

Christopher Chang writes:

Correction: "very safety-conscious people..." should be "very few safety-conscious people..."; apologies for failing to catch this during comment preview.

MikeP writes:

It doesn't take that long to fix a truly bad law by appealing to the public.

So 15 years and 620,000 dead isn't "that long"? That's a pretty flippant response to the notion that truly bad laws should not be enforced. I could have brought up the Nuremberg Laws instead. That's an even shorter time -- 10 years -- to "fix" a truly bad law, albeit with 20,000,000 dead.

Regardless, the Fugitive Slave Act is just one law among many racially based laws that explicitly abrogated individual rights. These laws lasted 350 years in America before state-mandated discrimination or worse was mostly eliminated, and the enforcing of those laws was wrong the whole time.

The current immigration regime, on the other hand, is less than a century old. There is still time to "fix" those truly bad and rights abrogating laws.

Christopher Chang writes:

No, 15 years and 620,000 dead isn't "that long" if it actually solves the millennia-old problem of slavery in a stable fashion, especially given that it was the South that rejected Lincoln's election and then fired the first shot. On what planet is it reasonable to assume that the South would have responded more kindly to deliberate, permanent nonenforcement of the law? Or to assume that the anti-slavery consensus that developed among ordinary citizens in Northern states would still have been strong enough to last, if a pure top-down approach had been employed?

There is no way around the need to persuade the public, unless you want to write off centuries of progress in Western self-government.

MikeP writes:

I frankly think the North should have seceded rather than accept that their sovereign states should enforce such federal laws.

Nonetheless, going back to the analogy of soft enforcement of traffic laws, the 1990's provided a very good compromise on immigration law: enforcement was generally light, the borders were mostly porous, no one cared that someone took a job under an ITIN rather than a Social Security Number, and actually dangerous immigrants were still subject to detention and deportation.

Especially after the welfare reform of 1996, that middle ground, as Milton Friedman noted, was actually pretty good -- probably better than any actual legislation could come up with.

Unfortunately, after Bush jacked up enforcement in an effort to throw anti-immigrant legislators a bone toward immigration reform, things got much worse. Then in response, after his own failures to even try to reform immigration, Obama went too far the other way by grandstanding in issuing work permits. All of this was far worse than simply looking the other way, saving enforcement for those who could actually do harm to the US.

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