06 January 2008|
Thoughts on Immigration
By Joe Holmes
As the presidential primaries draw near, one of the most contentious topics being debated by the candidates is immigration. Many Republican candidates seem to support building a wall between the United States and our neighbor to the South and rounding up the current illegal immigrants and sending them back to Mexico. Others, such as Senator McCain, have argued that America is the land of opportunity and that building barriers and fences undermines the pursuit of the American dream. Democrats are similarly mixed. Many democrats would provide illegal immigrants currently in the country citizenship while closing the border to future immigrants. While the prescriptions differ, it is clear that both parties are struggling with this touchy subject.
Built into this national debate are some fundamental assumptions that I believe are in desperate need of reevaluation. First, people assume immigrants will overwhelmingly be a drain on our economy based on their statistically low incomes and low tax contributions. While this seems like our starting place, the problem is really much deeper – below this assumption is another, more fundamental assumption – that the government can/should/must continue to provide the same level of government services it currently does. It is undeniable that our social welfare system (Medicare, Medicaid, social security, welfare, and unemployment) cannot absorb the hit of millions of lowincome immigrants. As a result, many conclude that we must ban mass immigration from poorer countries and cherry pick who we actually let into our country. However, this approach is short-sided and would likely harm the national economy.
Immigrants perform valuable services and jobs in our country that many Americans simply would not perform. By and large immigrants come to the United States precisely because they feel like they can make it in our country. If there were no jobs and opportunity in this country, why would an individual choose to displace his or her self? The immediate response may be because our country has a more refined welfare system and because we take care of our citizens. However, if our bloated and inefficient welfare system were drastically reduced in size, this incentive would hardly seem to carry much weight. Further, the millions of illegal immigrants currently living in our country do not have access to government assistance programs.
Thus, the argument that government benefits play a decisive role in people"s decision to illegally immigrate to the United States is largely unfounded. Moreover, when you couple this fact with my underlying assumption – that social welfare programs can and should be limited – government assistance has little bearing on an individual or family"s decision to immigrate. From the mid 19th century to the early 20th century, the western world experienced a huge movement of people across national borders. It was during this time that many Europeans immigrated to our country. Economists would say that during this time Europe was capital poor and labor rich and that the United States was capital rich and labor poor. Rather than move capital and business, a somewhat more difficult task (especially when the capital is land or manufacturing factories), people were able to move across borders to countries where their labor was in higher demand. From this balancing of capital and labor came a period of tremendous growth and prosperity. Yet in the 1920"s, a wave of xenophobia (not unlike the one currently being experienced in our country) swept across the country and immigration was largely limited and heavily regulated. With the depression, immigration became a low priority; as a result, movement across borders was severely limited during this time. It is only in the past 20 years or so that immigration has once again become an issue of national debate.
Free marketers push hard for the free flow of capital across national borders. This signals that more than a hundred years after the United States" immigration boom the nation is still largely capital rich and labor poor. Free trade and, correspondingly, free movement of capital are essential components to continued global and national economic growth. Yet many overlook the significance of the free movement of people. I understand that it is somewhat difficult to perceive the virtues of immigration when one focuses on the unsustainability of continued government spending and the expectation of absorbing many millions of low income earners. However, a number of leading economists and government analysts have already asserted that many government programs such as social security and Medicare are not economically feasible based on future income tax projections. Furthermore, an incalculable portion of our national economy and service industries are dependent upon the cheap labor provided by immigrants. As a result, giving all immigrants the boot or building a mile-high wall across the border can only harm America.
The fundamental problem in the immigration debate is not the unsustainability of having to absorb millions of immigrants (we have done this in the past) the problem lies in the unsustainability of our current welfare state. The immigration question sheds light on a fact that might otherwise be able to be ignored for a limited amount of time – that our government provides too many services and provides these services in a largely inefficient manner. From this it necessarily follows that our only two viable options are closed borders and continued government spending or open borders and reduced spending. For reasons articulated above, the former solution is unsustainable; we simply cannot maintain our current consumption habits and lifestyle while closing the border. The free movement of people is the only workable solution to the immigration debate; however, its success is predicated on the government providing fewer services and programs. Ultimately, this issue – the unsustainability of our current welfare system – is one that will have to be dealt with sometime in the future. The immigration debate brings this fact front and center and will hopefully lead to a reduction in the government"s provision of services.