Does America Need Immigrants?

by Russ Roberts on March 22, 2006

in Immigration

Does America need immigrants? Need? Of course America doesn’t need immigrants. Some pro-immigration people like to point out all the jobs and tasks done by immigrants and argue that if it weren’t for immigrants we’d have to do without all those things. This is mostly not true. If we closed our borders, all the things that immigrants do now would either be done by ‘native’ Americans (presumably at higher wages with resulting higher prices) or be done by machines or would not get done at all. The country would not collapse. We’d just be poorer.

Robert Samuelson, in a depressingly bad piece in today’s Washington Post, gets part of the story right when he writes:

Economist Philip Martin of the University of California likes to tell a
story about the state’s tomato industry. In the early 1960s, growers
relied on seasonal Mexican laborers, brought in under the government’s
"bracero" program. The Mexicans picked the tomatoes that were then
processed into ketchup and other products. In 1964 Congress killed the
program despite growers’ warnings that its abolition would doom their
industry. What happened? Well, plant scientists developed oblong
tomatoes that could be harvested by machine. Since then, California’s
tomato output has risen fivefold.

For Samuelson (who usually gets it right), this story proves we don’t need immigrants. And he’s right. We don’t need them. They just make life better for those of us already here. True, keeping out Mexicans doesn’t mean that the tomatoes die on the vine, never to be eaten.  But losing the opportunity to have Mexicans come and pick them means that for some period of time, tomatoes were more expensive than they needed to be.

Arguing about whether we ‘need’ immigrants is a red herring.

But that’s not the truly depressing part of the Samuelson piece.  It’s this part where he argues against a ‘guest worker’ program and immigration in general:

What we have now — and would with guest workers — is a conscious
policy of creating poverty in the United States while relieving it in
Mexico. By and large, this is a bad bargain for the United States. It
stresses local schools, hospitals and housing; it feeds social tensions
(witness the Minutemen). To be sure, some Americans get cheap
housecleaning or landscaping services. But if more mowed their own
lawns or did their own laundry, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.

Bob, what were you thinking when you wrote that paragraph? I don’t agree that more immigrants stress our local schools and hospitals and housings. If immigrants come here and pick those tomatoes and put up that dry wall and mow our lawns, they add to the economic pie, they don’t take from it. As for social tension, I’d argue that immigrants add much more through enriching American culture than they detract from our lives in the form of ‘social tension.’ Social tension is just another name for racism—why should we pander to that?

But the real problem with the paragraph is the last two lines:

To be sure, some Americans get cheap
housecleaning or landscaping services. But if more mowed their own
lawns or did their own laundry, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.

It wouldn’t be a tragedy? No, it wouldn’t be a tragedy for the Americans. A little more lawn mowing and laundry isn’t a tragedy. But what about the Mexicans? I care about them, too.

Samuelson hints at it himself without noticing when he writes that current policy creates poverty in the United States and relieves it in Mexico. But that’s misleading. The poverty ‘created’ in the United States isn’t an increase in suffering. It’s a shift in where the suffering occurs—it moves across the border. Total human well-being hasn’t really gotten worse. But the American economy gives those Mexicans a chance to get out of poverty, a much better chance than they have if they stay. That’s why they risk so much to come here. Stopping them from coming means they’re more likely to be stuck in poverty. That’s the real tragedy.

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