The conservative case for liberal immigration

The leading opponents of immigration are conservatives. I find this especially striking because immigration controls run afoul of conservatives’ most basic principles. I present here an argument that immigration control is immoral as currently practiced. I argue that immigration should be greatly liberalized to allow in many more people. I also explain how this position is consistent with conservatism.

Non-aggression principle
A large part of the reason that conservatives wrongly support immigration control is confusion over what immigration control is. Immigration control is often referred to as “defending the border” and the illegal immigrants are referred to as “invaders.” This is a mistake. To defend something, you must own it. And to invade a place, you must gain access to it through force. Are the people who talk this way suggesting that the land in America is owned by the government? Since conservatives value private property and individual rights, they should be among the last people to advance such a position.

To complete the idea, illegal immigrants do not apply force to anyone upon crossing the border. It is the government that is applying force to the immigrants. The appropriate characterization of immigration control is therefore aggression.

This leads me to the first reason conservatives should support open borders: it is consistent with the non-aggression principle, a principle which is central to conservatism. The non-aggression principle states that it is wrong to initiate force against another person. Since immigration control is the initiation of force against another, it is wrong.

Deaths on the border
The second reason to support open borders is that immigration control unjustly imposes significant harms on immigrants. The most damning piece of evidence on this point is the number of immigrants who have died attempting to cross the southern border. In the 1990s, the U.S. implemented heightened immigration controls in populated areas along the border around San Diego and El Paso. This pushed the flow of illegal immigrants toward the desert and mountains. The effect of this push was to substantially increase the number of migrants who died crossing the border.

In 1994, the year prior to this enhanced enforcement in San Diego, 23 migrants died attempting to cross into California. According to data from the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, that number had risen to 140 deaths in 2000. The American Civil Liberties Union released a report in 2009 which estimated there were more than 5,000 migrant deaths in the prior 15 years on the U.S.-Mexico border. Evidence from Mexican Consulates shows a dramatic rise in the 1990s in the number of immigrants who died of “environmental causes” such as hypothermia, dehydration and heat stroke, all a result of the U.S. government’s efforts to push migrants to remote areas.

Migration and poverty
Why would so many immigrants take such risks just to enter another country? The answer becomes obvious when you look at their prospects. Michael Clemens is a researcher at the Center for Global Development and focuses on how international migration affects those in the developing world. For many of the Earth’s inhabitants, moving to the United States means leaving a life of poverty for one of prosperity. Clemens and his colleagues Claudio Montenegro and Lant Pritchett analyzed a data set of 2 million workers from 42 developing countries to look for factors that would alter a person’s wages in those countries. They found that people from the developing world can expect their wages to double simply by immigrating to the United States. A Peruvian’s wages are 2.6 times greater upon entering America and a Haitian’s wages jump an astonishing seven-fold. An even more amazing figure is that, of 100 Mexicans who have escaped poverty ($10 a day), 43 of them have done so by immigrating to the United States. Of 100 Haitians who have escaped poverty, 82 accomplished the feat in the land of the free.

(Watch Clemens’ talk on immigration here.)

Objections so far
Conservatives may object to the preceding paragraphs on the grounds that we can’t take care of everyone in the world. “How can you expect me to care about thousands or even millions of complete strangers?” they ask. I don’t. Conservatives often talk about immigration as if the U.S. is doing a favor to the immigrant by letting him in. It is not. Respecting someone’s rights is not an act of charity. It gives him what he is owed. I do not expect other people to pay for my groceries. I do expect them not to block me from entering the store. If you want to say that you have no obligation to financially support immigrants, you are correct. You do, however, have an obligation to stay out of their way if they’re not hurting anyone.

All of this is perfectly consistent with mainstream conservative moral philosophy. Conservatives differ in where “rights” or “moral worth” come from. Some think they come from God, while others think they flow from certain characteristics of human beings. As far as I know, none of them thinks moral worth comes from government. That immigrants are foreigners therefore does not diminish their moral worth.

Skeptics will point out that, so far, I have only mentioned the effect of immigration and immigration control on immigrants. What is the effect of immigration on other people, such as those in the receiving country? Luckily, there is plenty of evidence to answer that question. Before we look at the data, we know at least this much: immigration control is terrible for immigrants. It unjustly coerces them and makes their lives much worse. Therefore, to justify immigration control, the effect of immigration on other people would have to be catastrophic. For instance, if the presence of immigrants caused the native population to die out in great numbers, that would be a persuasive argument against immigration. In fact, this very scenario occurred when European settlers immigrated to North America.

So what do the data say about immigrants in the U.S.?

A common fear is that immigrants are more prone to commit crime than the native-born population. There is some evidence that suggests the opposite is true. University of Colorado Sociologist Tim Wadsworth published a study in 2009 which looked at correlations between violent crime and other factors in America’s largest cities between 1990 and 2000. He found that when poverty increased in a city, the incidence of homicide and robbery rose with it. The same was true for divorce rates. Wadsworth then turned his focus to immigration, and found that cities that experienced greater growth in immigrant populations showed sharp declines in homicide and robbery rates.

To quote Wadsworth, “The suggestion that high levels of immigration may have been partially responsible for the drop in crime during the 1990s seems plausible.”

Another common objection to immigration is the supposed burden immigrants place on government services. This is of particular interest to conservatives, who want to reduce taxes and the role of the welfare state. But data from the Social Security Administration indicate that immigrants pay in more money than they receive from that system. In 2002, the Social Security Administration reported it received $56 billion from people who used incorrect Social Security numbers on their W-2 forms and estimated that three quarters of the incorrect numbers were from illegal immigrants. The money generated from illegal immigrants’ Social Security taxes made up 10 percent of the administration’s surplus that year.

Immigrants have very little effect on the wages of native workers. I could quote plenty of studies that show this, but just any old study won’t do. Let’s look at the data the opponents of immigration marshal in their defense. Harvard economist George Borjas is among the leading critics of immigration in academia. In his textbook “Labor Economics,” Borjas provides figures for the effect of immigrants on native-born wages. Borjas finds that the long-run effect of immigrants on native wages is exactly 0.0 percent. In fact, he finds that immigrants increase the long-run wages of high school graduates by 1.2 percent. What do immigrants do that is so horrible that they must be denied a vastly better life in America? According to Borjas, they decrease the wages of high school drop-outs by 4.8 percent. This is why 400,000 illegal immigrants are deported every year: to ensure a modest increase in the wages of the low-skilled native population.

Economist Giovanni Peri at the University of California-Davis has criticized Borjas for assuming native and immigrant labor are interchangeable. Peri argues they are not. Natives and immigrants differ in their language skills, so when immigrants arrive they push natives from non-language intensive jobs to ones where a command of English is required. Peri believes that Borjas is overestimating the effect immigrants have on depressing native wages, because the two groups aren’t competing for the same jobs. According to Peri’s research, immigrants are a net wash for low-skilled natives’ wages and are a positive effect for everyone else’s.

In the first few paragraphs, I established a presumption in favor of immigration by showing that it is immensely good for the immigrants and that efforts to control it are immensely bad. This alone did not prove that it was the correct policy. We needed to look at the effect of immigration on the rest of society. Far from producing disastrous results, the evidence suggested that immigrants were mostly beneficial to U.S. natives. From this we can conclude that immigration control is indefensible as currently practiced and that the only moral position is to accept far more immigrants than are now allowed in.

Editor’s note:

Those who enjoyed this column may also enjoy Bryan Caplan’s lecture, Immigration Restrictions: A Solution in Search of a Problem, and Michael Huemer’s essay, Is There a Right to Immigrate?


5 Responses to “The conservative case for liberal immigration”

  1. David Says:

    If not everyone can do X because there’s limited capacity to do X, can there be a right to do X? If not everyone can do it, then necessarily some will be denied from doing it. For example, if a tree house can only support 3 kids at a time, is it denying the rights of the other kids not to let them in? If they all rush in it will be destroyed anyway.

    I guess (assuming property rights), they provide an immediate apparent counterexample. But while they are exclusive (by nature), it seems here you want to grant this to everyone simultaneously.

    What is it that makes the US attractive? Certainly the natural resources and capital help, but is it not largely the culture, ie, the people? It definitely seems it is the people that make the US what it is. If the US population were suddenly mixed in evenly with that of the world, would its culture not be radically altered?

    I think nothing approaching this would happen, even with totally open borders, but I think if you’re talking in terms of rights or moral presumption, you must consider extreme cases. I do not think one can ever get away from doing messier utilitarian arguments, but I see that as what you are doing in the bulk of your essay.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Hello David. Sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve been out of town visiting my family since Friday and I didn’t have a block of time in which to write a response.

    If not everyone can do X because there’s limited capacity to do X, can there be a right to do X? If not everyone can do it, then necessarily some will be denied from doing it. For example, if a tree house can only support 3 kids at a time, is it denying the rights of the other kids not to let them in? If they all rush in it will be destroyed anyway.

    If the treehouse were somehow part of the commons, not private property, then preventing someone from climbing a ladder to get in it would seem to me to be a rights violation. What gives anyone else the right to deny someone else entry to property they don’t even own? That leads me to think it is a prima facie rights violation.

    However, if allowing free immigration into the treehouse would cause it to collapse, that would be a good reason to regulate access to it. Perhaps the people wanting to use it would take turns, and that people who went out of turn would be punished. Here, regulation seems better than no regulation if no regulation means no more treehouse.

    Huemer says basically the same thing in his argument for liberal immigration. Immigration restrictions are a prima facie rights violation, which creates a presumption against them. They can be overcome, in theory, but in reality the arguments against immigration do not overcome the presumption to allow it.

    Here is Huemer in his own words:

    Michael Huemer:The claim that an action is a prima facie rights violation, then, is not a very strong claim. It does
    not entail that the action is wrong, all things considered, for there may be special circumstances that prevent the action from being an actual rights-violation, or that render it justified despite its violation of rights. But nor is the claim entirely without force: to accept that an action is a prima facie rightsviolation has the effect of shifting a normative presumption. It becomes the burden of those who advocate the act in question to identify the special exculpatory or justificatory circumstances that make what tends to be a wrongful rights violation either not a rights violation in this case, or a justified rightsviolation. Those who oppose the act in question need only rebut such efforts.

    Back to your comment:

    What is it that makes the US attractive? Certainly the natural resources and capital help, but is it not largely the culture, ie, the people?

    That is not the impression I have. I would say most people immigrate for the economic opportunities. A smaller fraction immigrates because they were facing some sort of hardship or persecution in their native country. For instance, I think the refugees from Cuba for the first few years of the Castro regime were well-off people who thought they would do poorly under his rule.

    If the US population were suddenly mixed in evenly with that of the world, would its culture not be radically altered?

    I agree that the U.S. would be much less desirable if it were a closed society with a more authoritarian government. I also think it would be even more desirable if it were more open and freer, which is why I support open borders.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    > What gives anyone else the right to deny someone else entry to property they don’t even own?

    We do own it. It’s called taxes, and government. The United States belongs to Americans.

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    Hi Anonymous.

    I don’t know what it means to say the United States belongs to Americans. I have a car sitting in the parking lot outside, which is in the United States. Does it belong to me or to all Americans since it is in America?

  5. Offene Grenzen aus konservativer und minimalstaatlicher Sicht | Says:

    […] The conservative case for liberal immigration von Andy Hallman. […]

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