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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In Defense of the Huddled Masses

In April Arizona attracted national attention when it enacted a strict anti-immigration law, SB1070, which authorizes police having “lawful contact” with a person who arouses “reasonable suspicion” that he is an illegal alien to make a “reasonable attempt . . . to determine the immigration status of the person.” The law is intended to make life more difficult for illegal immigrants. It has been widely criticized for unnecessarily expanding police powers and inviting harassment of legal immigrants, especially Hispanics, and U.S. citizens of Hispanic descent.

The controversy surrounding immigration is not limited to Arizona, of course; many states have wrestled with the issue. But something about this is confusing: Almost all Americans are the descendents of immigrants, and the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty seems to give an explicit welcome message to immigrants. So why should anyone be concerned about the “problem” of immigration in the first place? What underlies the anxiety? I am not a psychiatrist, of course, but from reading both print and web discussions I think there are several reasons, each of which I believe is unfounded, though I will make a concession for one. In many cases, the anxiety and self-contradiction are due to conceptual confusion about rights and economics.

One of the concerns I see expressed frequently is that immigrants will come here and go on welfare. This argument has traction even among people who would otherwise be sympathetic to a libertarian open-borders position: It’s bad enough we have to subsidize people who don’t work, so why increase the number of people we subsidize?

This argument grants the idea that open borders would be fine as long as everyone were working. People who make this argument recognize that immigrants in the past came to the “land of opportunity” to make a better life for themselves. Proponents of immigration like to point to the Ellis Island experience, in which people came to America from the old world, found jobs, and by the third generation were solidly upper middle class. Here opponents of immigration will note that there was no welfare state to speak of, so the immigrants had to work to succeed. The fear now is that immigrants can skip that step. They will come to make a better life, sure, but that just means they will soak up our generous welfare benefits.

Is this argument to be taken seriously? On the one hand, there’s the counterargument that no one has the right to stop anyone from moving anywhere or prevent anyone from employing anyone. On this view, borders must be open regardless of whether some people come here for welfare. Proponents of this position are sometimes accused of taking libertarian purity too far. I am not sure what it means to be “too pure”—either one has principles or one doesn’t. In any case, if it turned out that immigration did put more pressure on the welfare system, that might help in the effort to roll it back.

On the other hand, though, there is no evidence that illegal immigrants are a net drain on the welfare rolls. First, illegal immigrants can’t just move here and file for welfare checks. Second, while they may get some benefits of the welfare state, they are a net gain for the economy. The majority of them do come here to get better jobs than they would have been able to get at home—in some cases they take jobs that native-born Americans won’t take. Keep this in mind as we examine the next bogeyman.

Taking Whose Jobs?

Another argument is that immigrants will take jobs away from “real Americans.” The first thing we notice about this argument is that it contradicts the previous one. Make up your mind: Are they coming to take your job or to go on welfare? But more substantially, competition is supposed to be good not bad. When one company competes with another, they are obliged to improve service or lower prices. It is the same thing with labor: If there are other people competing for your job, you’ll have to get better at it. (This would be true even if we had hermetically sealed borders. If you are that uncompetitive at your job, it will be outsourced.) Individual workers, like companies, have no right to be free from competition. Anticompetitive policies impoverish everybody. Lastly, this argument presupposes a fixed number of jobs, such that if one worker is replaced by another, he will never again be able to work at all. In a free market, where resources are scarce and demand is open-ended, there is always work to be done and thus no shortage of jobs. Protectionism is just as bad for workers as it is for companies.

Some fear that since many immigrants are coming from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, increased immigration will lead to increases in the drug trade. This argument is predicated on several mistakes. First, immigrants cannot move their climate with them. I don’t think you can grow coca plants in Wisconsin. If it’s not a matter of moving the crops, then the concern must be that there will be more places to send drugs. But that’s an argument for allowing immigration and normalizing immigrants’ status as Americans with kids in school and jobs in the community. How many of your neighbors and coworkers are drug dealers? Of course, if there were no prohibition, this would be a non-issue. But again we see a contradictory set of fears. Those who think drugs should be illegal, and are worried that increased immigration will increase the drug trade, are undermining their own position. Assimilated, productive, middle-class immigrants won’t be nearly as likely to be drug mules or abettors of illegal activity.

More broadly, some fear that increased immigration will produce more crime. (In one sense this is tautologically true: Increased illegal immigration by definition is increased “crime.”) There’s no way to predict whether immigrants from Guatemala are more or less likely than immigrants from Italy or Ireland to commit crimes, but burglary, robbery, and assault are already illegal. So we have a system in place to respond to crimes regardless of the ethnicity of the criminal. Some argue that this creates added burdens on the penal system, but that’s not a reason to curtail immigration. Of course, the penal system would be considerably relieved of its burden if it were rid of victimless crimes, and in any event violent immigrant offenders could be deported rather than sentenced to American prisons.

No Irish Need Apply

I am afraid that one additional fear about increased immigration is a generic dislike of those of darker complexion. (I hasten to add that I understand that not all anti-immigrant sentiment is so motivated, but it’s myopic to deny that any of it is.) This concern requires some historical perspective. There was a time in the history of American immigration when the Irish were, for all intents and purposes, nonwhite. They were openly discriminated against. Later, when the Irish had been here for a couple of generations, the Italians, Poles, and Jews became the new aliens. Now we think nothing of seeing a Jewish-American or Italian-American CEO or Supreme Court justice, or an Irish-American president.

Today, seeing waves of immigrants from Latin America, South and East Asia, and the Middle East, perhaps some people are concerned about America becoming less white. I can’t say that I feel the need to take this concern too seriously. It seems hypocritical to think that your ancestral homeland has made a great contribution to the American melting pot, but that no new homelands should be able to add to the mix. Nevertheless, for those who are concerned about their neighbors being culturally different, again the solution is to have a completely open stance on immigration. Earlier generations of “foreigners” who emigrated freely were relatively quick to assimilate to the prevailing cultural norms, even while simultaneously changing those norms. The best way to keep new immigrant subcultures alien, mysterious, and possibly hostile is to marginalize them and drive them underground. They can’t assimilate if they can’t get jobs and send their kids to school. Ultimately, “assimilation” is a two-way street: As new groups settle in, elements of the new cultures become part of the ever-changing norm. If you asked a fourth-grader to name four “regular American foods,” you will surely hear “pizza,” and probably “tacos.”

The one point I will concede to the anti-immigration contingent is the worry about voting. Will large numbers of (presumably legal) immigrants vote to make changes antithetical to the American ideal? Well, they might vote for reductions in the welfare state. It turns out that assimilated and upwardly mobile immigrant groups don’t support expanded welfare programs any more than indigenous groups do. If they voted to roll welfare programs back, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. More worrying, will they vote in such a way as to chill speech by, for instance, pressing for bans on cartoons depicting Mohammed? I would be concerned if trends like that started to emerge. Fundamental constitutional principles are not supposed to be subject to majoritarian whim, but I realize they sometimes are. So rather than think of solutions to the problem, it might be better to think of ways to avoid it in the first place. The best way to do that is to help the immigrants to become Americans. That means allowing them to seek work and find ways to contribute to the economy; it means allowing them the freedom to assimilate into, even while subtly changing, American culture—the very same freedom your grandparents had.

  • Aeon J. Skoble is Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.