The Benefits of Immigration

by Don Boudreaux on January 17, 2008

in Immigration, Myths and Fallacies

I’m pleased to find that this ten-year-old short article that I’d written on immigration (for the Foundation for Economic Education) is today posted at a website for immigration lawyers.  It’s here.

Here’s an early paragraph:

Each immigrant comes to America to make himself better off. Suppose
government no longer redistributes income to immigrants. Would
immigrants still relocate here? You bet! A handful will come because
some Americans are willing to use their own resources to care for them.
Most immigrants will come because each has sufficient skill and
ambition to profit in the market.

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Christopher Rasch January 17, 2008 at 10:18 pm

A bit off topic, but I just wanted to say thanks for the blog! Nobody is better at coming up with clear, succinct thought experiments that demonstrate the absurdity of much government behavior. Bastiat would be proud.

Rob Dawg January 18, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Each immigrant comes to America to make himself better off.

Did you forward this to the family of Mohammed Atta? He was an immigrant. Surely he is included in your blanket justification.

Carter January 18, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Shouldn't that read "ten year old's"?

Tom January 18, 2008 at 4:41 pm

"Did you forward this to the family of Mohammed Atta?"

Don't they believe him to be 72 virgins. How much better off do you expect?

The Albatross January 19, 2008 at 3:12 am

Despite being an immigrant myself I'd say something very nasty about immigrants, but they just did a bloody fine job of the garden–damn the trabajo.

Colin January 19, 2008 at 9:32 am

The problem with discussing immigration with many Americans is that they cannot ever, for a moment, focus on one specific aspect of immigration. There are many facets to the overall discussion, which include environmental questions about the situation near the boarder, the risk of terrorists taking advantage of physically open borders, the strain on public services in the US, the rhetoric coming from from certain racist groups like MEChA, the externalities such as increased traffic on our already crowded high ways and the effects of the labor market and the economy as a whole.

In economics, you taught to frequently think in terms of "ceteris paribus" and to analysis an issue item by item. I have forgotten how often, people, even well educated people have not been taught that way of thinking and therefore they cannot discuss a complex and multifaceted issue.

When I start winning the point about how immigrants are basically cheaper inputs, who improve our general welfare, the anti-immigration people will jump into some other topic like the risk of Al Qaeda walking in to the country through a phyiscally open border. They will claim that you must be fine with hospitals closing down and LA Freeways becoming even more congested

It is as if anyone who points out the contributions of lower skilled immigrants is clearly in favor of the status quo and all of the very bad things associated with it.

It is similar to when I argue in favor of free trade. As soon as the protectionist is shown that foreign out sourcing is, economically, the same as firms using more efficient capital, firm reorganization or inter state/county/city they will then argue about the Government's debt or the size of corporate subsidies.

The same thing happens when I oppose minimum wage but support a more generous negative income tax. After saying I am against a minimum wage, they assume that I would be against any welfare for the poor and assume that I do not care about people in poverty.

The situation occurs when I refute the claim that "slavery built the entire United States." Too many people interpret that as my attempting to justify slavery and by extension, white supremacy.

I guess I have become spoiled being around students and professors of economics and can support a particular position or point out a fact without a whole cascade of anger and assumption following. In Economics, people think item by item and in many other fields, there is no room for briefly imagining hypotheticals for the sake of analysis. Nor is there is there the belief that different people can have different views and advocate different policies and have similar concerns and goals for society. Worst yet, the belief that listening to an argument in its entirety before deciding to accept or reject it is seen as archaic and out dated.

It really is sad how people, even most educated people have not only have had their heads filled with collectivist and protectionist garbage but chances of changing their minds is harder than ever because they have been very well taught on how to not think.

Rob Dawg January 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm

When I start winning the point about how immigrants are basically cheaper inputs, who improve our general welfare, the anti-immigration people will jump into some other topic like the risk of Al Qaeda walking in to the country through a phyiscally open border.

The problem Colin is respectfully that the first part of your statement is debatable. Cheaper inputs if you choose to disregard externalities. The pennies saved on produce is more than offset by the millions spent on unvaccinated disease vectors such as whooping cough and spectrum resistant TB. Controlled immigration is more than safety it is public health, environmental protection, tragedy or the commons, and a recognition that when the US benefits from the people we let in that many times the places they come from suffer from their not contributing there. In some respects my biggest problem with our porous southern border is that it is a socioeconomic safety valve that is keeping Mexican policies of injustice and inequity from needing to change.

Bruce Boston January 19, 2008 at 2:05 pm

So, what are the arguments against a 'Cap and Trade' system of Immigration and Expatriation?

Clearly US Citizenship is valued by many, just as US Currency is. So, why not 'Cap and Trade'? Surely the amount of resources the next person uses isn't substantially more than the last persons, and surely any differences could be evened out by the market, no?

'Cap and Trade' would allow people who want to be here to be here, and the market would benefit from that, it would also allow people who don't benefit from being here to cash out.

So, how about it, 'Cap and Trade' anyone?


Gil January 20, 2008 at 5:31 am

I remembering reading how a wag suggested that for every hard-working migrant with aspirations there should be a loser-slacker deported.

John reed January 20, 2008 at 10:17 am

You make an excellent point. An emotionally charged subject is in most need of being discussed piecemeal. Only then can we begin to look for solutions that might maximize the good and minimize the bad. In the absence of this kind of discussion we are forced to assume there is no way to limit the undesirable aspects of (for instance) immigration and that we must choose pro or con based on the net good or bad of the totality.

jorod January 20, 2008 at 9:23 pm

No one doubts the value of immigration. But when people come here illegally and bring all their relatives and have only limited skills, it puts a burden on society to take care of all those illegals. Better to have legal immigration of highly skilled workers that will keep the wage disparity between skilled and unskilled lower and avoid providing fuel for the demagogues with unwholesome agendas. Again, unregulated immigration of unskilled workers drives up the wage disparity and encourages the demagogues.

jorod January 20, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Tis matter is addressed in Alan Greenspan's book: Age of Turbulence.

JW January 22, 2008 at 10:51 pm

Immigration does have some positive aspects. Workers who demand a low wage will perform jobs that otherwise wouldn't be. Companies are grateful for this cheap labor, and can produce more at a lower cost. The immigrants are just happy to be working. So what's wrong with this? Well, many things. First, the increase of the labor supply means that the native workers in this country earn a lower equilibrium wage. This creates a larger income discrepancy between the skilled and unskilled workers. While this is bad for the nation, it doesn't come close to the negative externalities it creates. For an example, let's take France and Germany. In the recession that hit during the 70's, many "guests workers" were brought in to work from Turkey, Algeria and many Middle Eastern nations. The expectation was that they would leave after the economy was stable again. Did they? No. In fact, many brought over their entire families to live with them. Many live off the welfare system, taking away money from the native people, who actually deserve it. Even worse, these people have children at three or four times the rate of the Europeans, creating a larger percentage of non-european peoples in the country. With this increase of foreigners that have not assimilated into the culture, that european culture is now threatened today. Dangers from unruly foreigners are also created for the citizens, as we can see with the Arab riots that have just shook suburban Paris. Just ask any western European about it. He or she will probaly want the foreigners to leave. So, could something like this happen in America? Well, we are beginning to see it. Many machines will ask you if you want the english or spanish version. Entering a party store and hearing the loud uneven sounds of fast arabic being spoken is becoming more frequent. Seeing the long robes an turbans of an Indian family in the supermarket has become common-place in some areas. But, how bad is this really? The question is how much Americans value their cultural identity. Judging by the fervent support of Tom Tancredo, and other anti-immigration politicians and legislation, we can safely say that the majority of Americans would like to see immigratiom restricted, at least moderatley. If this is truly a land of the people, then immigration should be stopped for the sake of our native citizens.

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