Two Arguments In Favor Of Immigration

With the Arizona (anti-)immigration laws coming into affect soon, I have seen a lot of arguments in favor of immigration by those opposed to the Arizona laws. Most of them are either weak on economics, or miss the point completely. As a strong supporter of immigration, I thought I’d give two of my favorite arguments in favor of immigration.

My favorite argument in favor of immigration is that immigration is a huge boom to the immigrants themselves. It is, without a doubt, the strongest poverty alleviation tool in the history of man. Nothing else, no social program, no foreign aid, no economic reform, nothing, can so positively improve the lives of people like the freedom of an immigrant to move from an underdeveloped country to a developed country. The only way immigration is even debatable on humanitarian grounds is for one to assign almost zero importance to the welfare of the immigrants themselves. The argument is made stronger when you consider that immigrants also have a (small) net positive affect on the developed country. But even if you disagree, and believe that immigrants are a net loss to the receiving country, that loss would still have to be weighed against the overwhelming positive gain it gives immigrants themselves, almost always of which consist of the poorest members of the world. An impossible hurdle to overcome.

My second favorite argument in support of immigration, and this one specifically appeals to my libertarian and conservative friends, is that immigration is mutually exclusive from social programs. You have to pick: either an economy with abundant immigrants and low levels of social programs, or an economy with abundant social programs and low levels of immigrants. You can’t have both. Counter intuitive you say?

Not really:

Although poor immigrants are likely to support a bigger welfare state than natives do, the presence of poor immigrants makes natives turn against the welfare state. Why would this be? As a rule, people are happy to vote to “take care of their own”; that’s what the welfare state is all about. So when the poor are culturally very similar to the rich, as they are in places like Denmark and Sweden, support for the welfare state tends to be uniformly strong.

As the poor become more culturally distant from the rich, however, support for the welfare state becomes weaker and less uniform. There is good evidence, for example, that support for the welfare state is weaker in the U.S. than in Europe because our poor are disproportionately black. Since white Americans don’t identify with black Americans to the same degree that rich Danes identify with poor Danes, most Americans are comfortable having a relatively small welfare state.

Thus, even though black Americans are unusually supportive of the welfare state, it is entirely possible that the presence of black Americans has on net made our welfare state smaller by eroding white support for it.

Immigration is likely to have an even stronger counter-balancing effect on natives’ policy preferences because, as far as most Americans are concerned, immigrants from Latin American are much more of an “out-group” than American blacks. Faced with the choice to either cut social services or give “a bunch of foreigners” equal access, natives will lean in the direction of cuts. In fact, I can’t think of anything more likely to make natives turn against the welfare state than forcing them to choose between (a) helping no one, and (b) helping everyone regardless of national origin.

This is not something peculiar to one blogger, this is widely recognized on the left and the right. From Paul Krugman and Matthew Yglesias on the left, to Bryan Caplan, Jeffrey Miron and David Friedman (also here) on the right.

Taking the side of immigration over safety nets doesn’t just make sense economically, it also makes sense on humanitarian grounds. As Bryan Caplan explained:  “…unlike the welfare state, immigration has and continues to help absolutely poor people, not relatively poor Americans who are already at the 90th percentile of the world income distribution. There’s no reason for libertarians to make apologies to social democrats: Libertarian defenders of immigration are the real humanitarians in the world, and the laissez-faire era of open borders without the welfare state was America’s real humanitarian era.”

8 Responses to “Two Arguments In Favor Of Immigration”


  • It’s odd that the Union Democrats that I know who ARE against illegal immigration are now for it even though they have threatened my life in order to keep their envolvment quiet.

    On the face of it they are for it, but in practice they “Unions” can stoke tensions either way then blame the Republicans for it.

    It is the internet, one can remain anonymous if they so wished.

  • I’m now unimpressed with “starve the beast” arguments.

    You can feed the beast for a very, very long time, and not run out of access to debt until it becomes a civilizational threat. One irony is that lowering taxes has been shown empirically to actually increase demand for government services, because they look “cheaper” – at least for awhile – when they’re funded by debt than with taxes, in much the same way your LCD TV looks cheaper at $75/month than it does if you pay $1500 out-of-pocket for it.

    Personally, I don’t mind more immigration, but there is a gigantic amount of reform that has to be done before there’s a level playing field. Right now, it’s actually easier for illegals to find work than it is for naturalized Americans to find work, simply because there are tons of under-the-table jobs that are basically available only to illegals. These aren’t great jobs, but they’re better than nothing. As a libertarian-minded sort, my fix to this would be to massively liberalize all aspects of laws and regs related to employment so there’s less incentive to hire people under the table, and less threat to employers from hiring Americans and firing them from lower-level jobs.

  • While I don’t disagree with much of your argument for immigration, as an Arizona resident I’m offended by your first sentence. 1070 is not (anti-)immigration. Most in Arizona would welcome comprehensive immigration reform but the federal government would only enforce the amnesty portion leaving the border open for the next round. Just like ’86.

  • Interesting post, but I believe you proceed from a false premise. The Arizona law, like a great many of its supporters, is not anti-immigration, it’s anti-ILLEGAL immigration.

  • I’m intrigued by the supporters of 1070 claiming that they are only anti-illegal immigration. If we take them at their word, I assume that that means that they are in favor of increased legal immigration and would like to see illegal immigration disappear entirely.

    Which, amusingly, is a pretty good description of what the opponents of 1070 want.

    But, anyway…

    In my view, there are/were three problems with 1070:

    1. As it was originally written is was either written badly, or intentionally written to be too vague. Thanks to the initial (justified) outrage, the now amended version of 1070 has largely fixed those issues.

    2. It’s not hard to imagine that the enforcement of the law will be discriminatory, even if we grant that the wording is not. It’s illustrative to remember how some Jim Crow laws were written – often there was no clear racial bias in the law itself, only in how it was applied. A “literacy test”, for example, was not in itself inherently discriminatory, but in its implementation it certainly was.

    3. The law is just dumb for any number of practical reasons (e.g. The state of Arizona will end up spending millions on lawsuits. The law will divert much needed police resources away from crime-related activities to less important immigration-related offenses. The economic effect of such a law on the state will be a net negative. And so on.)

  • LaurenceB: You said, “I’m intrigued by the supporters of 1070 claiming that they are only anti-illegal immigration. If we take them at their word, I assume that that means that they are in favor of increased legal immigration and would like to see illegal immigration disappear entirely.”

    That doesn’t logically follow, no, and (speaking for myself, at least) you assume incorrectly. A better assumption might be that while supporters of 1070 might favor illegal immigration disappearing entirely, they really support the enforcement of existing immigration law, which determine how many people may legally come here, from where, and what conditions they are required to meet to be eligible. Such support does not require that one support either an increase or a decrease in legal immigration levels.

    On the other hand, if one did seek an increase or decrease in legal immigration, the law provides ways for the people of the United States to change them. If they decide to ramp up legal immigration and significantly increase the number of agricultural workers, say, to keep food prices affordable, that’s their choice. If they decide instead to tighten policy and allow in only a small number of people with specialized skills that are in shortage here, that’s also their choice.

    The people’s elected representatives have an obligation to those who elected them to set policies in the interest of the electorate, and be held accountable to those voters for the decisions made. What Congress and the Administration are trying to do instead by failing to enforce the law is skirt responsibility and claim they are helpless to keep those who break the law beyond the borders. It’s an irresponsible, dishonest position, for which they should be–and I suspect will be–punished in November.

    I should add that I say all of this as a legal immigrant myself. I came to the US in the early 1980s with my family, and was naturalized by doing what the law required of those of us seeking that privilege.

    As to your other points: “As it was originally written is was …written badly… .” I tend to agree.

    “It’s not hard to imagine that the enforcement of the law will be discriminatory…” It’s possible to imagine all sorts of things, some of which may not be true.

    “The state of Arizona will end up spending millions on lawsuits.” An excellent argument for tort reform.

    “The law will divert much needed police resources away from crime-related activities to less important immigration-related offenses.” Not if in application it is used primarily to check immigration status of those who are already in contact with the police because of involvement in crime-related activities it won’t.

    “The economic effect of such a law on the state will be a net negative.” You might be wrong about that. If you are right, however, the people of the State of Arizona can petition the Federal government to increase in legal immigration to meet whatever level they believe will be a net positive.

  • David,

    Thank you for your reply.

    I think I’m just going to skip the discussion of whether or not opponents of 1070 should be described as “anti-immigrant”. It’s just too difficult a discussion to have in blog comments. I hope you don’t mind – I’m not ceding the argument, just skipping it.

    On the subject of my objections to 1070 -

    You appear to believe that the enforcement of 1070 will be mostly race-blind. I simply disagree. Well, not just me – according to polls, most Americans disagree with you. Indeed, the majority of Americans are quite willing to admit that 1070 will result in profiling – feel free to Google it. And blacks (who I think it’s fair to say, have some experience with profiling) overwhelmingly disagree with you.

    So… we could all be wrong, but I think I’ll stick with what we believe.

    Your answer to the inevitable lawsuits: Tort reform.

    First, if the purpose of “tort reform” is to keep the judiciary from reviewing the constitutionality of new law, then please remove my name from those who support “tort reform”. No thank you.

    Second, 1070 itself, as written, explicitly spells out conditions (in fact, streamlines them) under which citizens of the state may sue the government for not enforcing the new law. It’s a good bet that, if the law is enacted, there will be any number of such suits along these lines, costing the state millions of dollars. Your stance on “tort reform” make it sound like you’re against allowing these kind of lawsuits – so my question is: Are you against 1070?

    Your answer to the issue of the diversion of police resources to immigration matters, rather than higher priority criminal investigations, is to make an assumption about how the law will applied. You assume that most applications of 1070 will occur during investigations of serious crime. I beg to differ, just as I did with your previous assumptions about how the law will be enforced. I suspect the most common application of 1070 will actually be a traffic stop – effectively making the most commonplace and simplest everyday police task into a complicated, time-consuming, expensive project for the officer, while more important criminal matters go unattended.

  • Although I found many good arrguments for and agalnst Illigal Immagration, I didn’t see any that addresses the Children that we’re brought here by there parents when they we’re very young and only know how it is to live in America. I would like to know the arguments for and against citizenship for these kids.

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