All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1988

Tear Down This Wall

Last June, after his conference at Venice with the leaders of Japan, Canada, and Western Europe, President Reagan made a brief but significant visit to Berlin. There, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, he issued a striking and much-publicized challenge to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Berlin Wall has stood for two and one-half decades as a symbol of repression by both the East European countries and the Soviet Union. Driven to digging tunnels and making other desperate attempts, people held behind the wall have sought to break through to gain the freedom and opportunities enjoyed in the West. In the process, some have perished.

The border between Eastern and Western Europe has not always been sealed. Now, at a time when the Soviet leader is preaching a policy of “glasnost” (openness), President Reagan urged him to take a dramatic step beyond talk to action. As a sign that he really means what he says about expanding freedom, President Reagan urged:

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Yet less than one month after the President’s proclamation, a terrifying event revealed that Soviet Russia and its satellites have no monopoly on border problems. Not far from El Paso, Texas, a railroad car was opened to disclose the bodies of 18 Mexicans who had perished in a desperate attempt to cross the Mexican border into the United States.

The border between Mexico and the U.S. has not always been sealed. Until about a century ago, we welcomed people from other lands. No walls had been erected and so no one stood guard at our gates to check entry visas. Immigrants came in great numbers, some escaping political tyranny and religious repression, others responding to the promise of economic opportunity.

Indeed, according to Oxford University professor John Gray, in the century prior to World War I, not only in the United States but throughout Europe, “Everyone believed that free migration promoted prosperity. Statesmen took for granted that the freedom to travel was part of the market economy.” Classical economists argued that, “Just as tariffs and quotas resulted only in dislocating the world market and decreasing economic welfare, so too immigration controls resulted in economic stagnation and the waste of human resources.” (The Wall Street Journal, June 1, 1983)

Yet, toward the end of the last century, attitudes changed. We began to impose restrictions, first limiting the entry of Orientals, then others. By now we have a rather rigid system designed to control both the numbers and types of people entering the country. Although legislation passed by Congress in 1986 granted amnesty to many who were living here illegally, it also imposed new constraints on employers in an effort to make further immigration less attractive.

During the summer of 1987, numerous reports from the northwestern states revealed that crops of fresh fruits and vegetables were in danger of rotting for lack of labor to harvest them. Why do we deny entry to willing la borers when there is so clearly much work to be done?

Consider the following points:

• In general, immigrants do not become a burden to taxpayers. In fact, economist Julian Simon has shown that immigrants tend to be net contributors to government revenues, rather than a net drain. Often young and vigorous, they frequently pay income and social security taxes for many years, only to return to their homelands before receiving their full benefits. (The Freeman, January 1986)

• While it may be true that in some instances immigrants take jobs away from people who were born in the United States, there is also much evidence that Americans often don’t want the jobs immigrants take.

• If working conditions for immigrants are frequently below our standards, the fact that immigrants have come here voluntarily at often great risk to themselves suggests that the opportunities they find here are at least superior to those they left at home.

• What’s more, when the immigrants spend their incomes to buy food, clothing, and shelter, they provide additional jobs for people already here—an application of the famous old economic principle known as Say’s Law: “Supply creates its own demand.”

• In recent years, much concern has been expressed about the so-called “deindustrialization” of America. Whether the facts support these fears or not, the influx of workers willing to take jobs at low pay helps to discourage American producers from setting up shop outside our borders to cut labor costs. And for the rest of us, their work keeps the cost of products down and helps to improve our standard of living.

When people such as the Mexicans are dying in their efforts to break through the barricades and enter the U.S., just as others have died attempting to breach the barriers surrounding Eastern Europe, some extremely troubling questions demand answers: Do we have legitimate economic, moral, and political grounds for denying immigrants access to the freedoms and opportunities which we enjoy in such abundance? Can we justly deny to others what once was offered to our ancestors? Can we criticize the restrictive emigration policies of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European neighbors when we engage in restrictive immigration policies?

in view of these concerns, would it not now be most appropriate for the President to follow up his dramatic challenge in Berlin by journeying to Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego and, regarding our own unwarranted barriers to the free movement of the world’s peoples, say:

“Members of Congress, tear down this wall.”

  • Dr. Shannon was professor of economics at Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina.