The Land of Opportunity

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To listen to the hue and cry of conservative talk radio or the U.S. House of Representatives, one would think that the country is being overridden by hordes of alien invaders. This appeal to nativism, along with conservative chestnuts like gay marriage and flag burning, is part of a desperate attempt by Republicans to retain power in the 2008 elections. It seems that invoking the sector of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is not effectively inspiring the faithful in a time of record budget deficits, so Republicans are resurrecting the California governor Pete Wilson,  the GOP’s most cynical operator since Richard Nixon.

 At one of a series of town hall meetings, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin responded to audience questions about immigration with such inflammatory statements as: “Eighty-five percent of the drugs in Chicago come from south of the border,” and “The next bunch of terrorists won’t have their passports stamped. They will come in through the south or the Canadian border.” Pennsylvania’s GOP Senator Rick Santorum is running a TV ad that accuses his Democratic challenger of giving illegals “preference over American workers.” In Colorado, GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez is basing his campaign on his Democratic opponent’s ostensible support of state

benefits for illegal immigrants (even though Beauprez’s opponent in the primary accused him of doing the same during his time in Congress). Syndicated conservative columnist Kathleen Parker has written that “the loyalties of those people [Hispanics] are for their countries back home . . . rather than to the United States. And because they are not assimilating, they’re not learning English.”

How is the Democratic leadership responding? With more nativist appeals: in an interview with the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said, “I would oppose just opening the borders at this point. We now have between 400,000 and 800,000 coming across our southern border illegally each year. That number would increase. It would become the venue for anyone coming into the U.s. right now. It’s not just Mexicans; it’s Central Americans, South Americans, many others, Caribbean natives, come through Mexico into the U.S. The first thing we have to do is bring the border under control. That means not only border enforcement, but also workplace enforcement. What draws them here is jobs.” Hordes of aliens! Coming to take our jobs!

Or they simply blather. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently said, “Democrats propose a new direction on immigration. We believe it is long past time to focus on tough laws, actually implement them, hold the administration accountable for enforcing them, and pass comprehensive immigration reform.” Exactly how is that different from Republican talking points?

Libertarians should provide the moral and rational reasons for welcoming immigrants. The issue of immigration can be reduced to property rights. If Jorge from Oaxaca gets a job from Linda in Long Beach and buys a house from Owen in Oceanside, no one’s rights are violated and it’s an economic win for everyone involved. If those economic transactions are prohibited by law, everyone’s property rights are violated. Jorge doesn’t get the job and is stuck in Mexico working for less. Linda,

Our country had no quantitative immigration laws until 1921. We had no qualitative laws until 1875 when convicts and prostitutes were barred.


deprived of a willing worker, may have to pay more for labor from an artificially diminished labor pool, may have to automate the job, or may have to close .’ up shop for want of employees willing to work for the wage she’s able to pay. And Owen will have one less bidder for his house and probably will have to sell it for less.

We expect progressives and nativists to disrespect property rights. They will very explicitly argue that Ameri- cans should not have to compete with foreigners for jobs either in this country through immigration or abroad through outsourcing. What is troubling is to hear so-called defenders of free markets decry immigration under the rubric of the “rule of law,” the welfare state, or national security.

The rule of law referred to is, of course, the limitations on immigration which explicitly violate the property rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. The United States was founded largely as a rebellion against laws the colonists considered to be unjust. One of the complaints against King George in the Declaration of Independence is that “He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for the Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither.” Our country had no quantitative immigration laws until 1921. We had no qualitative laws until 1875 when convicts and prostitutes were barred. “Mental defectives” and Chinese were barred in 1882. The U.S. economy suffered not at all from our acceptance of the huddled masses. To argue against immigration because we have made it illegal only illustrates that we have reverted to the unjust laws of King George.

What’s more, the quotas set by present-day immigration law are ridiculously low. According to the American Immigration Law Foundation, visas for permanent immigration tailored to less-skilled workers are capped at 5,000 per year. H2A (seasonal agricultural) and H2B (other temporary work) visas are limited to 66,000 per year. There is demand for more high-skilled immigrant workers, and a ready supply of them, but not enough visas are issued to allow the workers to be employed. Demographically, the growing population of Mexico and other developing countries, combined with the overall aging of the U.S. population, produce a pull of labor market demand from the U.S. and a push of labor market supply from Mexico and elsewhere in the developing world. Every year in the 1990s, 290,000 less-skilled workers arrived from Mexico alone, and a lot more from other countries. Free-marketeers, above all, should realize that we cannot repeal the laws of supply and demand, in labor markets or anywhere else.

The conservative argument that a welfare state and open immigration cannot coexist sounds logical. But the problem is obviously not immigration. It’s the welfare state. Our century of unlimited immigration did not pres- ent any significant economic problems. But then, it is argued, we did not have a welfare state. Conservatives, in essence, take the defeatist approach of throwing up their hands and saying “Do you really believe we can get rid of the welfare state?”

Both conservatives and progressives tend, by nature, to be pessimists. We libertarians tend to be optimists. We need to make the optimistic case that we can indeed reform the welfare state – see the proposal of Cato’s Michael Tanner for one approach that could work.

A first step was taken in 1996, when President Clinton signed a welfare reform act written by a Republican Congress. (Oh, how we long for divided government!) As a result of that legislation, the only public programs from which illegal immigrants may legally benefit are emergency room care and K-12 education. Meanwhile, approximately two-thirds of immigrants pay income, Medicare, and Social Security taxes. And that understates the tax contributions of illegals. The labor force participation rate of illegal immigrant men is 94%. That compares with rates of under 50% for American men without high school diplomas. The discrepancy between the 94% labor force participation rate and the 67% paying payroll taxes is due in large part to the higher entrepreneurial predilections of immigrants. Even if the Mexicans who clean your house and mow your lawn don’t pay payroll taxes, they still pay sales taxes and property taxes directly or indirectly through their rent.

A large part of the immigration debate centers on the net cost or gain to taxpayers when all these taxes and benefits are taken into account. Both sides have trotted out studies supporting their side of the argument. Of course, they conflict. A synthesis of all the research suggests that immigrants are either a net positive or a net wash in terms of costs and benefits to taxpayers in the current welfare state. The problem is that the benefits accrue at the federal level and the costs accrue at the state and local level. Most undocumented employees pay into Social Security and

It’s not the slackers who have the initiative to emigrate from their native countries to the U.S. One does not ordinarily encounter Latino panhandlers in this country.


Medicare, but usually with phony Social Security numbers. They pay in but they will not collect, resulting in a net benefit at the federal level. Given the upcoming scarcity of workers relative to retirees, AARP will probably soon become the biggest cheerleader for immigration.

Since undocumented workers are usually low-income, they do not pay as much in local and state property and sales taxes as the rest of us, but they do

That we still have bilingual education is a testament to the political power of the National Education Association, not to the preferences of Latino parents or children.


still avail themselves of the emergency rooms and public schools they are allowed under the 1996 reform legislation. In this respect they are not materially different from our native-born poor. How they are different is in the probability that, over time, they will better themselves economically. One does not ordinarily encounter Latino panhandlers in this country. One does in Mexico. It’s not the slackers who have the initiative to emigrate from their native countries to the U.S. It’s the ambitious. A clearly defined path to legal employment and citizenship will accelerate that process.

This is one issue – one of the only ones – where President Bush has it right. Properly legislated, the opportunity to work legally right now, combined with a place at the end of the line to acquire citizenship in the future, accomplishes two things. First, it retains the prohibitions of the 1996 law against immigrants receiving most welfare benefits upon arrival in the U.S. Second, it provides time for an immigrant to become established in a vocation before gaining citizenship and becoming eligible for the full panoply of welfare-state benefits. The upshot is that by the time this new citizen is eligible for benefits, he will probably no longer need them.

The most nefarious of the Republican arguments is the conflation of immigration with national security. No one proposing that we can lock down the borders against anyone entering the country illegally should be taken seriously. Even in an age of electronic surveillance, lockdown is precluded by fake IDs, ladders, tunnels, airplanes, submarines, backpackers, and boats. Securing the thousands of miles of land and sea borders of the United States is a practical impossibility; determined people breached the Berlin Wall and it was only a few miles long.

Those who argue that increased border security (whether in the form of a wall, or heavily increased patrols) will prevent terrorists from entering the country are demagogic or hopelessly naive, or worse, exploiting nativist sentiment to beef up the surveillance state for their own purposes. Besides, all of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. legally; how then would extra restrictions against illegal immigrants have protected the country?

The argument made by trade unionists and populists (they’re coming to take our jobs!) is simply protectionism at its worst. The implicit premise is that Americans should not have to compete for jobs. It is in our long-term interest to respect the rights of all people to live and work where they can find mutual agreements with home sellers or lessors and employers. Prosperity is fostered by free trade in labor as well as in commodities and manufactured goods. Other countries have that same interest, and we should encourage them to act according to it. But if they don’t, that just means we benefit more from talented immigrants than they do. Immigration laws are really just import restrictions on labor. Uniteral reduction of trade barriers always works in the long-term interest of the country reducing the barriers. If we open our borders we will reap the economic benefits that will occur. At some point foreign governments will realize they need to change their ways and free up their economies in order to increase incomes for their citizens, or continue to lose more of their best and bright- est. That will reduce the push factor of immigrant labor supply. Also, at some point U.S. labor markets will offer wages closer to those in countries where immigrants are coming from. That will reduce the pull factor of labor demand. Thanks to free trade there is generally one global market price for oil and other commodities. Why shouldn’t there be one global price for a given skill level of labor? To argue against a global market rate for labor is to argue that residents in one country are somehow entitled to a higher income than residents of another country. What is the justification for that?

Meanwhile, the allegations of cultural conservatives like Kathleen Parker that latter-day immigrants won’t assimilate and learn the language are unfounded. By the third generation, the primary language of 78% of descendants of Latino immigrants is English; 22% are bilingual. Next to none retain Spanish as their primary language. When Spanish-speaking immigrant parents are polled on their preference for English immersion versus bilingual education, English immersion wins hands down. That we still have bilingual Spanish-English education is a testament to the political power of the National Education Association, not to the preferences of Latino parents or children.

The fear that immigrants will bring to our shores cultural beliefs antithetical to our values and thus overpower us is equally unfounded. To use an example, those emigrating from Afghanistan are likely to be those Afghans not particu-

Securing the thousands of miles of borders of the United States is a practical impossibility; determined people breached the Berlin Wall and it was only a few miles long.


lady fond of shariah. Those who prefer fundamentalist Islamic law would be more apt to stay. If the economic lure of the United States proves greater than the desire to avoid infidels, and a bunch of Islamofascists move here, I’ll bet that after a few years of gradual adaptation, they’ll prove no more dangerous to the American way of life than any other special-interest group – and probably less dangerous than the same number of customs officials given additional powers by Congress.

Actually, one of the biggest obstacles keeping immigrants from blending even faster into American society is the federal government itself. At any given time, the United States keeps at least 25,000illegal immigrants in federal prison. They are not eligible for bail. Their choice is to sit in jail while attempting to obtain legal entry, or to return to their country of origin. If they choose deportation and return to the U.S. illegally they could be sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Legislation pending in Congress would further criminalize attempts by people to better their lives and the lives of their families.

Immigrants should have the same rights as natural-born citizens, rights limited to “negative” rights such as those enshrined in the first ten amendments of the Constitution. We all have the right to free ourselves from oppression, including unfettered ownership of rightfully obtained property. No one has the “positive” right to the possessions or labor of others.

Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state.

Though it’s been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us – and it does – what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?

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