All Commentary
Friday, December 1, 1995

Coming to America: The Benefits of Open Immigration

America Owes Its Heritage to Open Borders

Mr. Lehman is Adjunct Professor of Economics and Western Civilization, Adult and Professional Studies Division, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana.

For centuries, the American culture has been a beacon of hope to the oppressed peoples of collectivist economies and authoritarian or totalitarian governments throughout the world. Why then do the American people—descendants of immigrants, beneficiaries of open and unregulated immigration, whose culture, economy, government, and way of life are so deeply tied to open borders—exude such a passion against free immigration? Why do they wish so desperately to deny late twentieth-century immigrants the benefits to which their own eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors were privileged? What do Americans have against open borders?

American immigration policy is a labyrinth of regulations and barriers to free travel and migration. One wishing to enter this country must possess all the legal and “proper” documentation in order to be permitted entry. The poverty-stricken and homeless foreigners who expect to benefit most from immigrating into the American economy rarely possess resources adequate for legal entry. Hence, they are denied. Such immigration policy is based upon a xenophobic confusion regarding economics, the mobility of labor, the American welfare state, and cultural diversity.

Immigration and Labor

Many Americans argue that free immigration would destroy “working class” Americans’ ability to earn a living. They claim that allowing free and open borders to any and all immigrants would put decent, hard-working Americans out of work. Perhaps what these Americans really fear, however, is that someone will emerge from the “immigrant class” who would be willing to work for less than they while producing equal or greater output.

The present immigration policy of the United States amounts to nothing less than a tariff or barrier to entry on the commodity of labor, and harms American consumers in the same manner as tariffs and trade barriers on other capital or consumer goods.

A policy of open immigration would indeed force unskilled American laborers to compete for their jobs at lower wages. However, far from being an evil, this is a desirable outcome, one which should form the basis for a new immigration policy. By inviting competition into the American labor markets, artificially inflated labor costs could be eliminated and a greater level of labor efficiency could be achieved.

As the cost of labor (itself a cost of production) decreased, entrepreneurs and producers could produce more efficiently, enabling them to offer products and services at lower prices as they compete for consumers’ dollars. Lower prices in turn increase the purchasing power of the American consumer, and thus enhance living standards for everyone. This is happening even now as some small business owners use “illegal” immigrant labor to lower their operating costs and thus lower consumer prices: “. . . small-business executives do agree that some of their competitors who knowingly or unknowingly hire illegal immigrants use the cheap labor to undercut prices of business owners who play by the rules.”[1]

This is good for both consumers and the economy at large. As immigration makes the American labor market more competitive, costs of production are reduced and prices decline. In the long run, even the domestic laborer who is forced to lower his wage demands is not any worse off, since what he loses in terms of lower nominal wages he may well regain in terms of lower prices on the goods and services he purchases as a consumer. Meanwhile, everyone else benefits, and no one is privileged at the coerced expense of anyone else.[2]

Immigration and Welfare

Another argument used in favor of immigration controls concerns the American welfare system and its potential abuse by immigrants who migrate into America merely to feed at the public trough of social services. The claim is made that the welfare system, not potential economic freedom, is the lure which draws immigrants into the American economy. Immigrants—unproductive, slothful, and indigent—constitute a dead-weight loss on the American economy, and further increase the tax burden on productive Americans. Therefore, we must police our borders and keep out the undesirables.

This argument is statistically and theoretically flawed. Contrary to prevailing public opinion, current immigrants do not “abuse” the public welfare system, even in the areas where immigration (legal or illegal) is most concentrated. In fact, immigrants have little effect on the current system of taxation and wealth redistribution. As Julian Simon relates:

Study after study shows that small proportions of illegals use government services: free medical, 5 percent; unemployment insurance 4; food stamps, 1; welfare payments, 1; child schooling, 4. Illegals are afraid of being caught if they apply for welfare. Practically none receive social security, the costliest service of all, but 77 percent pay social security taxes, and 73 percent have federal taxes withheld. . . . During the first five years in the United States, the average immigrant family receives $1404 (in 1975 dollars) in welfare compared to $2279 received by a native family.[3]

Some may disagree with these statistics. Others would no doubt argue that if immigration controls were eliminated and borders completely unpoliced, a massive number of immigrants would enter the United States and overload the welfare system, causing taxes and the national debt to skyrocket. Certainly this is a possibility. But, even if we grant this argument the benefit of the doubt and concede that unrestricted immigrants would indeed flood the welfare system, the answer to the problem lies not in closing off the borders or “beefing up” border security. The answer lies in eliminating the American welfare state, and prohibiting anyone, native or immigrant, from living at the coerced expense of another.

Immigration and Culture

A final argument against immigration comes surprisingly from those generally supportive of liberty and the philosophy of the limited state. These critics are concerned for the preservation of what they see as a distinct American culture and its traditional heritage of European-style limited government and market economies.[4] Their fear is that this traditional culture is being sabotaged by an influx of immigrants who are unfamiliar with and perhaps even hostile toward its institutional framework. They contend that immigrants of the late-twentieth-century variety do not possess the same ethnic characteristics of earlier immigrants, and therefore do not have an appreciation for the “American way of life.” Such an argument suggests that recent immigrants who hail from Third World nations controlled by regimes of despotism have no understanding of the traditional institutions that have made America great. Allowing these immigrants of vastly different culture and ethnic heritage into the United States will result in a grave polarization of our society into racial enclaves that will run roughshod over our most sacred political and economic institutions.

To political conservatives, and even some libertarians, this argument may appear compelling at first blush. However, it is flawed. First, preserving “tradition” merely for the sake of tradition is pointless. The idea of tradition is meaningless unless we define the essence of that tradition in terms of the ideas that comprise it. Tradition alone is not what has made America great. Rather, it has been the reciprocal relationship between a limited state and economic and social liberty that has made the American way of life so coveted—in other words, the philosophy of liberty underlying the American tradition.

Expanding the power of government in order to preserve tradition is a sure path to the destruction of liberty. Americans ought to be particularly aware of this fact since the American tradition is bound together so tightly with the philosophy of freedom and limited government.

Yet, it is not the first time Americans have been down this road. U.S. public education began as a concerted effort to preserve the Protestant “traditions” of the American culture against the perceived threat of Catholicism. By subjecting the education establishment to the decisions of legislators and bureaucrats in local, state, and eventually national governments, Protestants hoped to stem the tide of Catholicism flowing into America on a nineteenth-century wave of immigration. As Samuel L. Blumenfeld relates,

There was another reason why the Protestant religionists decided to join the secularists [socialists] in promoting the public school movement. They shared a common concern with, if not fear of, the massive Catholic immigration to the United States during that period. . . . [It was] argued that Protestants had to put aside sectarian differences and unite to defend Protestant republican America against the “Romish designs.”[5]

By making schools public rather than private, Protestants sought to use the power of the state to exclude the teachings and influence of Catholicism on their children, thereby preserving the Protestant “tradition” in America by way of majority vote. In retrospect, the bankruptcy of the American public education system ought to serve as a somber reminder that expanding state power to preserve “tradition” is a sure path to statism.

There is another flaw lurking in the argument that open immigration leads to the decline of a nation’s cultural and institutional framework. Contrary to the anti-immigration position, the American traditions of limited government and free market economies are not based upon ethnic or racial origins. They are based upon ideas. Western cultures cannot suppose themselves to have a monopoly on the philosophy of liberty, nor can Americans argue that the political values of the limited state cannot be inculcated in non-American immigrants. The ideas of freedom that have created the American tradition can apply to any ethnic or racial make-up.

But what happens if, over time, America absorbs so many immigrants that, through their influence, the ideas of limited government and the free market economy become diluted? What happens when our political system falls victim to immigrant forces that seek to expand government power? These are good questions. The fact remains, however, that these fears are now being realized, and the foes of liberty in America are largely home-grown. Twentieth-century Americans have turned their backs on the philosophy of the limited state.[6] They have generally refused to acknowledge the advantages of a laissez-faire market economy. It is not the foreign element, but rather the domestic element that we should fear. Before we begin to castigate potential immigrants for the damage they may do to our freedoms, we need to acknowledge the damage we have already done on our own.

The answer is to return once again to a government “of laws and not of men.” In other words, the state must be radically limited in power and scope, with only minimal duties which are explicitly defined. This will put state power beyond the reach of those individuals or voting blocs that would seek to exploit it for personal gain. We then would have no reason to fear immigrants, regardless of their ideological or political persuasion. Their ability to “sabotage” our freedoms would be removed not because we expand state power to keep them out, but because we diminish state power in all areas and allow them in.

Immigration and Freedom

Immigration policy should not be viewed differently than trade policy: free, unregulated, unpoliced, open borders, devoid of taxes, tariffs, or any other barrier to entry. This is the policy of freedom to which America owes her heritage. Unilateral free trade, free immigration, and free emigration, where individuals possess unobstructed and unregulated mobility and trade, is a cornerstone of a free society. In fact, the free movement of peoples is no less important than the freedoms of speech, expression, and association. Liberty is indivisible; the laws of economics apply equally to all peoples.

Americans must begin to accept the fact that free trade and open borders are to their utmost benefit. By embracing the philosophy of free immigration and free labor mobility, we benefit from the productivity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship not only of those within our borders, but also of those from without. Expanding the division of labor into the international marketplace makes available a vastly enlarged array of resources, thus enhancing the living standards of everyone. []

1.   John S. DeMott, “Immigration Policy’s Double Impact,” Nation’s Business, December 1994, p. 28.

2.   See the compelling example offered by Jacob G. Hornberger in “The Case for Unilateral Free Trade and Open Immigration,” Freedom Daily, November 1994, p. 6.

3.   Julian L. Simon, Population Matters: People, Resources, Environment, & Immigration (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1990), p. 265.

4.   Perhaps the most developed argument from this position can be found in Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster (New York: Random House, 1995).

5.   Samuel L. Blumenfeld, N.E.A.: Trojan Horse in American Education (Phoenix, Ariz.: The Paradigm Company, 1984), p. 27.

6.   For those who would argue that the decline in American liberty during the twentieth century is related somehow to immigration and open borders, the reality is otherwise. Twentieth-century America has never practiced open immigration to the extent I am suggesting. Further, twentieth-century Americans have become more nationalistic than their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors, thus reflecting, at times, an extreme degree of suspicion or even hatred toward foreign peoples.