Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Debating Conservatives on Immigration: Slogans vs. Economics

by , Contributing Editor, Free Liberal

Initially my reaction to the argument was to blink past it: “Secure the borders and then we’ll talk” or “get rid of welfare and then we’ll talk”.

The response is almost entirely predictable. If you’ve ever debated conservatives or conservatarians about immigration policy you are all too familiar with it.

Now I have realized how frequently such slogans are repeated. It is almost disquieting how easily and blithely either slogan rolls from the fingertips as if it’s some magic bullet loaded with the holy word of economics and good policy.

The trouble is, it isn’t either. At all. And in fact, both slogans are the approximate opposite of an informed position.

Now usually, once one of the two slogans emerges the thread erupts. Almost inevitably the well-written and generally most up-to-date research dealing with immigration—yes those CATO studies—shows up to demonstrate the economic impacts of immigration tend to be slightly positive and welfare dependency tends to be lower within immigrant populations than for comparative native populations.

Theoretical economics, and a growing body of empirical research looking at specific economic consequences of immigration, have all concluded that immigration is a net positive to the economy and that immigrants use on average fewer welfare resources than natives, full stop. Now read it again.

I wonder at this point, has anyone actually ever bothered to read the links? Probably not. This is the Internet after all, where by the virtue of anonymity, politically alienating people you’ve barely ever met is more the rule than the exception.

At any rate, those studies are important. Conservatives and conservatarians should give pause before proceeding with reiterating their favored slogans. Factually, the welfare argument doesn’t hold; factually immigrants are a net economic boon.

Let’s deal with the first of the slogans, which like the second is almost entirely a red-herring argument: “Once the borders are secure, then we can talk about immigration”. The threshold of action this slogan requires is “once they are secure”. But how secure?

Given that current policy imagines a circumstance where all immigration is supposed to be legal, I will infer that the intended threshold is completely—which for practical reasons is radically implausible if not entirely impossible. Even superficially this isn’t a serious policy prescription. This is a way of ending a conversation without addressing problems with immigration policy.

After almost 30 years of policy predicated on the very idea of a “secure border”, the border isn’t secure.

In fact, illegal immigration has a great deal more to do with the general economic environment. For the periods of time 1994–1999 and 2000–2004, the volume of illegal immigration was almost double in each set of given years than that of the immigration levels seen in the most recent 2005–2010 period. It has basically no direct association with how much policing is done.

But why then did immigration dip 2005-2010?

Recession. It’s simple: Immigration (illegal and otherwise) is the product of profit seeking by labor. Immigrants are following the relative availability of work.

Given that many of the illegal immigrants are already low income, if the relative economic viability of immigrating diminishes, the rational response is to not immigrate if possible for some period of time necessary until conditions have changed. Evidence since 2010 suggests that as US economic conditions improve, illegal immigration has trended up.

What we already know about restricted markets is important as well.

For instance, let’s look at other markets where barriers to entry exist, like illegal drug markets. We understand that if there are restrictions on the supply of goods (demand held constant), that the relative return for each additional package of product that makes it to market is higher.

Hence the endless cycle of cops and smugglers continues, every time the cops manage to bust one drug dealer, they make it that much more profitable for the next to fill his place.

For immigrants, the wages they earn in the US can be used to facilitate further crossing of friends and family, or serve as remittances to ease the deplorable conditions existing in many of the originating countries.

Hence, when each additional illegal is apprehended and sent back, a stream of benefits—whether remittances, in real or physical property, goodwill, or establishment of a cultural enclave (to facilitate cultural and economic assimilation for new arrivals)—gets cut off. The potential returns for each additional illegal immigrant rises, each new immigrant can realize a comparatively larger share of the possible gains from immigrating.

Therefore, restriction of the immigration process inadvertently incentivizes more people to make the border crossing.

What critics fail to understand is that the exact economic logic that underpins basic marginal value theory is at play with immigration, and cross-border migration is a way of having labor mobility. Immigration and emigration are part of the market process itself and they are not unique economic phenomena.

Moreover, the “secure our borders” line really doesn’t say much amount about either improving our native liberties, those of new arrivals, or the welfare of either group.

Ostensibly, conservatives and libertarians care a great deal about maximizing liberty. But given that the proposition of “securing the borders” necessarily implies the processing and deportation of individuals, and the further restriction of immigration, the inherent contradiction between the authoritarian implications of such policies and the language about liberty should be obvious.

Accomplishing a secured border would require a considerably more aggressive and expanded police presence throughout most of the United States, require aggressive expansion of immigration-associated SWAT raids, ICE raids of businesses, check points, and the expansion of the already-filled-to-the-brim detention facilities.

All of which already has become a monumentally expensive and largely-failed set of policies. For the past 10 years, US taxpayers have paid on average an absurd $12 billion yearly.

Natives and newcomers can hardly be expected to subject themselves to patently Unamerican encroachments of their liberties and property.

In fact, the inability of the Department of Homeland Security to make meaningful use of this incredible sum of money shouldn’t surprise anyone: The enforcement mechanism stands on the wrong side of both economic logic and basic humanitarianism.

Most importantly, “secure the borders” stands against a great tradition of loose immigration policy that created the institutions that we now consider distinctly American.

In fact, the first four major migrations to the United States took place almost completely without any set policy. For the first 80 years of the country’s existence, English, Germans, Irish, and Scots immigrated with no set policy to observe, aside from some local variations of sanitation and a federal minimum residency for citizenship. Not until the 1862 and the anti-Chinese Acts—which severely restricted Asian immigration to the United States, were meaningful restrictions of immigration a reality. (And later, the 1882 banning of Chinese immigration, and of the mentally ill.)

Still, during the 19th and early 20th centuries European immigrants thronged to the United States: English, Scandinavian, Italian, Polish, and even a major immigration of post Mexican Civil War Mexicans. All of these migrations are beautifully illustrated here.

Historically, immigration was almost entirely unrestricted until the 1920’s when, influenced by eugenics, the US Congress passed immigration policies that severely restricted Southern Europeans, and “undesirables” such as Jewish and Slavic people. Fortunately, these policies were eventually seen for what they were: racist, discriminatory, and veneered with a contrived scientism that washed away with more critical understandings of culture, genetics, and history.

These laws were repealed in the 1960s, after which the first major permutation of our present policy to restrict unfettered immigration was formulated in favor of origin-based policies which presently cap any country of origin at 7% of the total number of green cards available.

This policy has resulted in a chronic shortage of green cards for places of origin such as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala—the exact places where the desire to come to the US is most acute.

Continuing to cap immigration based on the nation of origin is a vestige of a compromise immigration reform of the 1960s that has outlived not just the economic, but also the humanitarian needs of the modern economy. Modern demands for entry to the US far exceed the current provision, just as modern economic demands for skilled and unskilled immigrant labor far exceed the present provision and are distinctly different from the 1960s.

Overall, I still can’t make heads or tails of the “secure the border” or the “end the welfare state” lines.

I keep looking for a good argument against immigration.

As it appears though, those arguments that are the most developed tend to fall into the Peggy Noonan line of reasoning, which is that immigrants pose some sort of existential threat to the American national character; that there is some almost sacred dimension to international borders.

In line with this claim, anyone that transgresses the border is by definition already a criminal. Those who don’t mind it much must be scofflaw rabble-rousers that donate entirely too much to those “feed the children” charities.

This is a romantic John-Wayne-like Americana narrative where every person ever that wants to be free has to pass muster. It’s the kind of harrumphed nationalism that expresses not a sense of moral rectitude, as much as a kind of banality.

This sort of slogan stands directly opposed to individualism, independence, and a free and open society. Most of all, it directly insults the aesthetic of reason supposedly engendered in the American spirit. It says that you’re going to do what I want or I’m going to toss you back to where you came from.

If you believe that traveling on the life raft of “secure the borders” will get you to the land of liberty, just realize that your boat has a leak.

Because you are wrong on the economics of immigration and you are wrong on the morality of immigration. The only life raft you’re clinging to is one of reactive nationalism.


Tom Thrasher, Contributing Editor
Tom Thrasher is an editor and commentator for Free Liberal.