Monday, June 07, 2010

Honest Concerns About Immigration

I am unapologetically in favor of increased immigration into the United States. Of course I prefer it to be done legally, but when that option is unnecessarily difficult, I sympathize with illegal immigration. It is one of the primary reasons the American culture and economy are great. However, an important part of political debate is presenting the benefits and being honest about the costs. So here is a list of some real flaws with increased immigration:

1) If all limitations to immigration are done away with we could theoretically have billions of immigrants. Why be a poor farmer in India when you be a rich (comparably) dishwasher in America. This would very likely drive down wages for some, especially unskilled, workers. After all the only difference between unskilled Americans and the rest of the world is location. Unskilled Americans benefit that there are some jobs that have to be done domestically.

2) This would shift the world's vast inequality to America's shore. The average wage in America would go from $48,000 to $9,000, though most at the bottom would be new immigrants who would be making more than before. The evidence is unclear, but there is a real safety concern that comes with extreme rich and poor living in close quarters. Also, it's not something the poor want (since comparative wealth is what most people care about). Nor is it what the rich want (since seeing the poor is burdensome).

3) There would be an unequal amount of  one race/nationality, namely Mexico. Because of its relatively close location to America's border and it has relative poverty, there would be (and is) a disproportionate amount of Hispanic immigration. This could lead to a strong division in America. Most immigrants to America assimilate quickly because there are huge benefits to doing so. But if the numbers are large enough and your homeland is close enough, there's a chance the transition would take longer.

4) If Mexican immigrants become a significant portion of the American population, it's feasible that they would  see themselves as more Mexican than American. That is what happened 150 years ago when Mexico liberalized its immigration policy to Texas, something it later regretted. It not only creates political tension, but also racial tension. For better or worse, people prefer to be around people who are like them. Worst case scenario is somewhere between a civil war and Mexican terrorists.

5) There would be an increase cost to social programs compared to the increase in taxpayer money. Most immigrants would be poor, so they would likely take more than they give to the government. Everything from the cost of having more poor (Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc) to bilingual education. In a nation where we want basic necessities to be had by all, this is a real concern.

Like most political changes increased immigration would not be a complete improvement in the lives of all people at all times. Anyone telling you otherwise is being disingenuous. There would be a transfer of wealth from the American uneducated and poor to the world's uneducated and poor. However, I'm confident the benefits to both current and future American citizens would be well worth the previously described costs. Our world is changing faster than it ever has before and that means more improvement, but it also means more painful transition.

1 comment:

  1. You are very thoughtful tackling this subject this way. A few thoughts:

    On your point (1) Wages may be driven down only so far, due to minimum wage laws. Greater demand for jobs will lead to greater unemployment. Combined with your point (5) would mean government ruin.

    On your point (2) There is a good lecture video from NumbersUSA that applies queueing theory non-mathematically to the immigration problem (uses gumballs and jars). There is significant investment required to provide infrastructure (roads, schools, utilities, etc.) for new population (indigenous and migrant), and so total growth rates must be affordable (using savings--which there is little of municipally--and debt issuance--of which there is already a lot and which must be repaid through tax revenue). Hence the need to control the rate of migration (unless you are China and can also control indigenous population growth).

    On your point (3) If migrants find enclaves (like Hispanics in the Southwest) large enough to avoid assimilation altogether, your point (4) kicks in. Are we really a nation at that point? Can we prevent this forseeable possibility through robust immigration policy?

    On your conclusion: Would you want to be one of the ones bearing the cost of the transition? Would you want government policy to ease your pain by spreading it around?

    My father-in-law legally migrated to the U.S. after WW2. Immigration policy that rewards law-abiders and punishes law-breakers creates the incentives and disincentives migrants need to succeed in our country. Letting illegal immigrants off scot free is an insult to the law-abiding migrants who worked with the system we put up to control the process. Immigration policy should also consider national security concerns. Both of these aspects are not embodied in the basic theory of immigration espoused by economics. It's an incomplete model, though, not a flaw.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.