Three Strong Arguments (of Many) for Immigration Reform

The Senate’s just having passed an immigration reform bill, it looks as if Congress might lighten the foolish, inhumane restrictions they have imposed for decades on the liberty of movement across our national border. The issue is tremendously important to the well-being of all people, so in hope of having an influence on the debate, I offer today an economic, a moral, and a practical argument for opening the borders to all immigrants who wish to live and work here peacefully.

Today’s economic argument for open immigration is that immigration’s consequences are (almost) invariably positive. Evidence strongly suggests that

  1. immigrants boost the economy on net; they don’t drag it down;
  2. immigrants open up new jobs for natives; they don’t steal our jobs; and
  3. immigrants increase natives’ wages; they don’t depress them.

Immigration does appear to reduce wage rates a small amount for a small subset of the American workforce, namely those who don’t even have a high school diploma. Even here, however, the effect is quite small (and the way to address it is not to limit immigration, but to free markets in schooling).

For more, see this two-minute LearnLiberty video from Ben Powell that makes these points.

Today’s moral argument for open borders (for peaceful people) is a response on principle to the worry that too many immigrants who would come to the U.S. now would vote for supporters of intrusive government. If so, increasing migrants’ liberty to come here might reduce the liberty enjoyed here.  (One of my students and one of my close relatives have challenged me with this argument in the last few days.)

My friend and teacher Don Boudreaux addresses this concern at length in “Immigration: The Practice of the Principle,” at Café Hayek. Here’s the heart of it:

[C]oncern over the likely voting patterns of immigrants is nothing new.  Past fears seem, from the perspective of 2013, to have been unjustified.  Or, at the very least, the benefits immigrants from 1789-2013 have brought to America almost surely overwhelm whatever costs immigrants might have inflicted via the ballot box on the economy.

Of course, the fact that past fears have proven unjustified or overblown doesn’t prove that current fears are unjustified or overblown.  But our American experience with immigration over the first 224 years of this nation’s existence should at least give pause to those who worry that something utterly new is afoot today.

But let’s assume for the moment that today’s immigrants – those immigrants recently arrived and those who would arrive under a more liberalized immigration regime – are indeed as likely as my concerned friends fear to vote overwhelmingly to move American economic policy in a much more dirigiste direction.  Such a move would, I emphatically and unconditionally agree, be very bad.  Very.  Bad.  Indeed.

I still support open immigration.  I cannot bring myself to abandon support of my foundational principles just because following those principles might prove fatal.  I cannot tolerate state power to interfere with my and others’ freedom of association, and with people’s freedom of migration, on the grounds that scaling back such state power might lead to more state power wielded in other dimensions.

Bravo, Don.

Today’s practical argument for open borders (for peaceful people) is that we don’t have to face the quandary raised just above, that with open immigration might come bad voting by immigrants. The overwhelming majority of immigrants want to come here to work and to live, not to vote. If we are concerned that they might vote badly, let’s not let them vote. But for goodness’ sake, let’s let them work and live.

George Mason University’s Bryan Caplan has developed this reasoning eloquently in this paper, which I found quoted on this page of the admirable website, Open Borders. Here is the payoff paragraph, with my emphasis:

Even if [there are valid complaints about possible bad consequences of immigration], though, immigration restrictions would remain morally impermissible. Why? Because there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote. Whatever your complaint happens to be, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy.

Bravo, Bryan.

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