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Archives for Immigration Policy (page 2 / 2)

Immigrants: Can We Assimilate Them?

(Part of the Intra-Madison Immigration Debate)

Update: Jenna's response to this post.

When I last wrote about immigration, I was talking about the gross disparity between the number of green cards issued and the number of people wishing to immigrate. I advocated lifting the green card limits and giving residency to anyone who wishes to immigrate -- regardless of skill levels, country of orgin, or anything else.

Can We Absorb Them?

Jenna challenged that idea, quoting Jib. Both Jenna and Jib argued that large-scale immigration is unsustainable in the long term. Jib argued that large-scale immigration would cause a crisis at the lower economic rungs of society. He reasons that the influx will create a huge demand for low-paying jobs. This demand will drive down the wages in these jobs, causing a strain on the social safety net (as more and more low-income people use Medicaid / Badger Care). Jib ends his argument by stating:

Bringing in that many legal immigrants is anything but compassionate for poor legal immigrants looking for a better life. If anything, it is going to keep them buried at the bottom of society. I'm all in favor of robust legal immigration at the skilled and unskilled ends, but let's do it at sustainable numbers, shall we?

I'd like to begin my counter-argument with the idea of "sustainable numbers". Our nation has absorbed several waves of immigration during its history. I think it would be useful to compare immigration then with immigration now.

The nation's first immigration quotas were established in 1921. Prior to that time, Congress only limited the types of people that could immigrate (the insane, criminals, anarchists, etc), not the numbers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

As a percentage of total population, the foreign-born population rose from 9.7 percent in 1850 and fluctuated in the 13 percent to 15 percent range from 1860 to 1920 before dropping to 11.6 percent in 1930.

Today the foreign-born population is estimated at 9.7 percent of the total population. (That estimate is from 1997. The percentage may be slightly higher today.) Although the modern immigration numbers seem high, they're actually right in line with historical standards. Right now we have fewer immigrants, as a percentage of our population, than we did during the 60 year period from 1860 to 1920.

Not only is our foreign-born population lower than in the past, our ability to absorb immigrants is dramatically greater. Our per capita resources are greater now than they were in the early 1900's:

Consider that in 1915 the typical dwelling in America housed 5.63 persons; today it houses fewer than half that number -- 2.37 persons. Combined with the fact that today's typical dwelling has about 25 percent more square footage than its counterpart had back then, our ability to absorb immigrants into residential living spaces is today more than twice what it was a century ago.

In many other ways America today can better absorb immigrants. For example, compared to 1920, per person, today we:

  • have 10 times more miles of paved roads
  • have more than twice as many physicians
  • have three times as many teachers
  • have 540 percent more police officers
  • have twice as many firefighters
  • produce 2.4 times more oil -- as known reserves of oil grow
  • produce 2.67 times more cubic feet of lumber -- as America's supply of lumber stands grows
  • have conquered most of the infectious diseases that were major killers in the past.

Our current situation is far from critical. During the late 1800's we absorbed a proportionally greater number of immigrants, while benefitting from far fewer resources. I think the evidence shows that America can not only absorb the immigrants we already have, but that we are capable of absorbing far more than we ever have before.

A Drain on the Economy?

The second half of the "sustainable numbers" argument is that immigrants are creating a pile-up on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Jib worries that a continuing inflow of immigrants will drive down wages. He linked to a column by Robert Samuelson that expanded upon this theme. Mr. Samuelson fears we will create a drag on our economy by gaining immigrants who consume social services without generating sufficient tax revenue to pay for those services. JoeFriday left a comment on my previous article claiming that:

the real incentive to come here illegally is to bypass the tax system and be absorbed into our government as a citizen.. they know that would take a chunk of the change they send back home to their families in Mexico (an amount that surpasses the national foreign aid we give Mexico).. meanwhile, they use our schools and health care benefits, while staying "off the books" intentionally

Is it true? Does immigration drive down wages? Are immigrants stealing from the American people by using social services but not paying taxes? Are immigrants creating a drag on our social services? No. I think the evidence demonstrates otherwise.


Let's look at the first claim: immigration drives down wages. At first glance, this argument seems logical: a greater supply of labor will lead to a lower cost of labor. The economic theory is sound, but the assumptions underlying the claim are bad. Claiming that immigration drives down wages is to claim that the number of jobs (the demand for labor) is fixed. But the demand for labor is not fixed. There is not a limited supply of jobs that must be carefully parcelled out. There never has been. Rather as the price of labor falls, the demand for labor generally rises (new jobs are created, using the cheaper labor), thus pushing the price of labor back up.

This has been true throughout American history, whether discussing the wages of native-born or foreign-born workers:

Would New York City (or any other city) be richer today if it had held its population to what it was in 1850? 1900? 1950? 1980? Does the inflow of people into New York lower the wages of the people already there? Does it make them poorer? Does it matter whether rich or poor people, high-skilled or low-skilled people are the ones moving into New York?

This is not just idle speculation. Recent research has indicated that once job creation is taken into effect, overall wages are unaffected by immigration and wages for high-school drop-outs are pushed down by -- at most -- 0.4%. Over the long run, immigration does not appear to pose a threat to the high wages that Americans currently enjoy.


Are immigrants coming here illegally because they can work "off of the books" and avoid paying taxes? No, they're not. They're coming here illegally because they have no other way to come here. Last year, the U.S. offered 5,000 visas for unskilled workers. Last year, the U.S. gave two of those visas to Mexican immigrants.

Contrary to popular belief, most immigrants do pay their taxes.

It is impossible to know exactly how many illegal immigrant workers pay taxes. But according to specialists, most of them do. Since 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act set penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, most such workers have been forced to buy fake ID's to get a job.

Currently available for about $150 on street corners in just about any immigrant neighborhood in California, a typical fake ID package includes a green card and a Social Security card. It provides cover for employers, who, if asked, can plausibly assert that they believe all their workers are legal. It also means that workers must be paid by the book - with payroll tax deductions.

Our assumption is that about three-quarters of other-than-legal immigrants pay payroll taxes," said Stephen C. Goss, Social Security's chief actuary, using the agency's term for illegal immigration.

Because these taxes are paid with fake Social Security Numbers, it is "free money" for the IRS and the SSA. During the 1990's, the SSA's "earnings suspense file" increased by $189 billion.

Far from getting off tax-free, the vast majority of illegal immigrants do pay taxes and may, in fact, be responsible for keeping Social Security solvent.

Economic Drag?

Finally, do poor immigrants (legal or illegal) create a drag on our social services? Undoubtedly, they do. But I think it's fair to say that it's a short-term drag, not a long term one. Once in the United States, immigrants move rapidly up the socio-economic ladder. True, first generation immigrants are often poor and uneducated compared to native-born Americans. But by the third generation, they are on nearly level ground with native-born citizens both in education and in income.

Claiming that immigrants create a drag on social services is to misunderstand the type of people that choose to immigrate:

America is an amazing natural experiment -- a continent populated largely by self-selected immigrants. All these people had the get-up-and-go to pull up stakes and come here, a temperament that made them different from their friends and relatives who stayed home. Immigrants are the original venture capitalists, risking their human capital -- their lives -- on a dangerous and arduous voyage into the unknown.

Not surprisingly, given this entrepreneurial spirit, immigrants are self-employed at much higher rates than native-born people, regardless of what nation they emigrate to or from. And the rate of entrepreneurial activity in a nation is correlated with the number of immigrants it absorbs. According to a cross-national study, "The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor," conducted jointly by Babson College and the London School of Economics, the four nations with the highest per capita creation of new companies are the United States, Canada, Israel and Australia -- all nations of immigrants. New company creation per capita is a strong predictor of gross domestic product, and so the conclusion is simple: Immigrants equal national wealth.

Immigrants may create a short-term drain on social services. However, their children and grandchildren will be most likely be valued, successful members of America's middle class. Moreover, today's immigrants will be creating jobs and business that will employ tomorrow's workers.

Limiting immigration will prevent a short-term drain on social services, but will cost America many valuable entrepreneurs and future middle class workers and investors. I think the trade-off is a worthwhile one.

In conclusion, high levels of immigration cause little to no long-term economic harm for the United States. The United States is much more likely to be harmed by preventing high-levels of immigration than by allowing it. I think I've demonstrated that America is more than capable of absorbing and assimilating immigrants. Next I'll tell you why I think that the U.S. must encourage higher levels of immigration.

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy

Incentivizing Illegality

Jenna responded to my last essay. At this point, we agree that immigration, when legal, is a good thing. We agree that immigrants should be able to immigrate just because they want to be Americans, whether or not an employer is "sponsoring" them.

Jenna and I still disagree on one small point. I was planning to overlook it, until I realized that it was the perfect segue into the next stage of the debate. Here's what Jenna had to say:

The number of people breaking a law does not necessary invalidate the purpose of the law. Millions of people speed, don't where their seat belt, smoke marijuana, engage in public drunkennesss, remove the tags from their mattresses (I'm kidding), and engage in other types of illegal behavior.

Does their pure disobedience warrant the abolishment of those laws? Not necessarily.

I agree. Pure disobedience does not necessarily warrant the abolishment of laws. However, wide spread disobedience may indicate that the law was ill-considered, may indicate that a majority of people don't actually consider the "crime" to be a crime. Does that mean we should automatically change or abolish the law? No, absolutely not. But wide spread disobedience might indicate that the law is toothless, ineffectual, ill-advised, poorly implemented, or otherwise flawed.

It's worth noting that poorly written laws (or laws that are just plain stupid) create just as much disrespect for the law as outright law breaking does. (For instance, Wisconsin's new mandatory booster seat law is causing me to lose respect for both the Wisconsin legislature and the governor. It's both poorly written and just plain stupid.)

Of course, immigration laws are a trickier subject. They are enacted by the citizens of one country in the expectation that they will be obeyed by the citizens of another country. In the case of America's immigration laws, the biggest law-breakers are Mexican citizens. The INS estimates that an average of 150,000 Mexicans have been illegally immigrating every year, over the past two decades. As I mentioned in a previous post, America only issues 10,000 green cards to Mexican immigrants each year.

Jenna says:

I believe Joe makes a good point when he says that the number of those wishing to enter our country far surpasses those we allow in. That may play a small role in why some choose to enter illegally: increasing the number allowed in may alleviate a tiny percentage of illegal immigration violations.

I think this understates the truth quite a bit. When we give out 10,000 green cards and 150,000 people enter illegally, I tend to think that those 150,000 people entered illegally because it simply wasn't possible for them to obtain a green card. If all 150,000 people waited for a green card, they people at the end of the line would have to wait 15 years for their chance to immigrate. And that's just for the people who illegally entered in one year. If everyone that has entered illegally, during the past two decades, had waited to immigrate legally, the people at the end of the line would have to wait over 1,000 years for their chance to get in.

When a person is faced with the desparate poverty of their home nation combined with a 15 year wait to legally improve their status, I can well understand the decision to risk illegal immigration. After all, their family's very survival may be on the line. Rather than alleviating a tiny percentage of the illegal immigration problem, I believe increasing the green card numbers would alleviate the vast majority of the illegal immigration problem.

I'll stop here. I think this post nicely sets up my response to Jenna's questions, but I'll have to wait until later in the day to post it.

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy

A Turkey of a Bill

While I have issues with the current state of our immigration laws, the Senate's attempt to fix those laws is looking uglier by the day. Thanks to an ACU alert which lead me to a Bob Novak column, I found a Heritage report detailing a few of the flaws in this immigration bill. Simply put, the Senate is attempting to mandate wages and working conditions for the new legal immigrants. As if that wasn't bad enough, the mandated wages and working conditions will be better than what American workers receive:

The Senate has devised a guest worker program that would extend bureaucratic control over some 5 percent of the labor force, via wage controls on the private sector. Rather than establish a simple cap on the number of temporary visas issued each month (which could be distributed fairly in a simple monthly auction), the Senate bill would create of a new Department of Labor bureaucracy that would be nothing less than a central planning agency for the U.S. labor market.

This new bureaucracy would include:

  • "a 'Temporary Worker Task Force' with ten members (all political appointees from the federal government, none from states). More explicitly, the Secretary of Labor would determine which occupational categories in the U.S. have unmet demands for labor."

  • "Dramatically Expanding Prevailing Wage Rules. Centrally controlling wages for every possible occupation is a breathtakingly ambitious project but would be mandatory for guest workers under the S. 2611."

The "prevailing wage rules" are the Davis-Bacon Acts requirements. This law requires that workers on Federal job sites receive whatever the "prevailing wage" is for their job. While it sounds like a harmless requirement, "prevailing wages" are often far higher than a worker's normal wages. This can lead to definite problems in the free market.

My dad worked quite a few jobs, in Norfolk, as an electrician. Every now and then, his employer would send him to job sites on the Norfolk Naval Base. While he worked those sites, his salary would increase dramatically. We all enjoyed the extra income, but it came with a price: reduced profits for his employer. He knew, and we knew, that his employer simply couldn't afford to pay him that wage on a regular basis. Had they been forced to pay that salary to my dad all of the time, he wouldn't have had a larger income; he would have been laid off.

I have to wonder who inserted the original provision into Section 404 of the Senate Immigration Bill. It's quite possible that it was an attempt not to make immigrants better off, but to make sure that immigrants couldn't find any work. After all, immigrant workers often work for lower wages than American workers. If employers were forced to pay immigrants far higher wages, they might never employ them at all.

Whatever the reasoning, this bill is a turkey. In its current form, I cannot support. Several of its provisions are worthwhile and desperately needed. However, I cannot tolerate its interference with free market wages.

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy

Improbably Legal Immigration

Update: Jenna responds to this post here and here.

Jenna has already responded to my earlier post about immigration. In her response, she makes two arguments for why we should have border laws and immigration laws. The first is that American citizenship is valuable -- too valuable to simply be handed to anyone and everyone:

The first is that my citizenship of the United States of America means something to me. We truly are the greatest nation of the world, however cheesy that line is, and I am proud to be part of it. I believe that there is some valuation to that citizenship, not necessarily monetary, but on some level, it is worth something, and should not be automatically granted to all.

The second is that before becoming an American citizen one should show respect for our laws by immigrating legally:

Our laws are intrinsic to our nation and the opportunities available. For this reason, for someone to come and take advantage of our great nation, they must respect our laws and our country. To sneak across the border, to break our laws, to subvert our system as one's first act in our country shows great disrespect for the very thing which makes our nation great.

I agree with Jenna that American citizenship is a wonderful and valuable thing. I love my American citizenship and would not trade it in for any other country's citizenship. We are one of the few countries in the world that says that all authority passes from the people to the government. We are one of the few countries in the world that has a written constitution which only gives the government specific, limited powers. American citizenship requires that someone be willing to defend that Constitution and uphold those principles. In fact, our oath of citizenship requires it:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same

So, no. Our citizenship isn't free. It shouldn't be given away to anyone. Rather, it should be purchased (through the Oath of Allegiance) by anyone willing to uphold its meaning. And I do mean anyone. I think U.S. citizenship is the best thing going and I'd love to grow "our team" as rapidly as possible. As we attract more of the world's talent, creativity, ingenuity, labor, and dedication we can make this country even better than it already is.

As Jenna says, historically speaking we have grown our team by leaps and bounds.

Our nation understands that others will want to become a part of our country, and we have created legal methods for them to do so. Millions of people have taken advantage of those venues over the years, my ancestors from Germany being some of them in the late 19th century.

Prior to 1918, immigrants had to pass two qualifications only: prove their identity and find someone to vouch for them. Ninety-eight percent of the immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were passed through. The Mexican border was unguarded and people freely crossed in both directions. It would be more accurate to say that prior to 1918, there was no such thing as illegal immigration. I doubt Jenna's ancestors had to put up with the mess that is legal immigration these days.

And it is a mess. I share Jenna's desire for immigrants to move her legally. I share a desire for orderly, law-abiding conduct. But when 11 million people are law breakers, I begin to question whether is the people or the law which is in the wrong. (It's worth noting that most of our current immigration laws were enacted during times of national crisis: The Great Depression, the post World War II era, and the Civil Rights era.) Rather than the free-wheeling, open-acceptance immigration laws of our past, we have a Byzantine system of regulations, requirements, fees, tables, and preferences.

The National Foundation for American Policy published a report today about the waiting period that would-be legal immigrants face. When it comes to obtaining green cards, the restrictions are severe. The current annual limit is 140,000 total green cards per year. Most would-be Mexican immigrants fall into the "Other Workers" category for green card applications. This category is statutorially limited to 10,000 green cards per year. Waiting times for siblings average 11-12 years and waiting times for spouses and children of green card holders averages 7 years. Just obtaining a visitor's visa can take anywhere from a month to half a year.

Even for those who do, finally, obtain green cards (after an average 5-year waiting period), citizenship is a far from easy road to travel. Russian-born attorney Ilya Shapiro has little hope of ever becoming a U.S. citizen:

The problem for high-level professional workers is that our visas don't work that way.

Under provisions that won't change, we can work for a particular employer for six years. After that, unless the employer agrees to the root canal surgery that is green card sponsorship, and can prove that no American possesses the minimal qualifications for that job, we have to leave the country.

There is no so-called "path to citizenship" "” and thus, for me, no way to fulfill my dream: to serve my adopted country.

Despite living here my entire adult life, my fancy degrees, despite having worked for a senator, a federal judge, and a presidential campaign, I can't apply for the legal and policy making jobs for which this country has trained me.

Given these laws, restrictions, and delays I'd be tempted to cross the border illegally as well.

One final point. Current immigration law is heavily biased towards only letting people into the country after they've obtained a job and their employer can demonstrate that no American worker can fill that job. In what way is that a just immigration policy? Both Jenna and I agree that the United States is a land of opportunity. I think we should allow in anyone who wants to create a better life for themselves. If they want to move in with a family member and then look for a job, we should let them. If they want to immigrate in the hopes of starting a business or creating jobs, we should let them. Once they've learned English, learned our laws, and are ready to swear allegience to the Constitution, we should grant them citizenship.

Here's my questions: Why put numerical caps on immigration, especially when those caps are set far, far below the number of people who wish to immigrate? Why is it just to punish illegal immigrants for breaking the law when those laws are written in such a way as to practically invite law-breaking? Finally (if you agree with the rest of this essay), what is more honorable: to strictly enforce our own bad laws or to admit that our laws are bad and then find a way to clean up our mess?

(Hat tips to Cafe Hayek and Poliblog.)

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy

Debating Immigration

Welcome to the Great Immigration Debate. Over the next couple of days (weeks?), Jenna and I will be discussing the immigration issue, both legal and illegal. As Jenna pointed out, immigration "is a very complex issue that crosses many standard lines". While most Republicans agree on most issues, many Republicans disagree on how to handle illegal immigration.

As I listen to talk radio and read blogs, I see a lot of heated rhetoric. I see a lot of statements that, frankly, go beyond rational argument straight into frothing anger. I see a lot of polarized opinions and people talking past each other. I'd like to make a small step towards changing that. Immigration is a complex issue and it needs to be treated as such. I don't believe there is one "right" answer or easy answer to the question. So, let's talk about it. Let's talk about what makes it such a big problem and let's talk about all of the ways (good and bad) to handle this problem.

I think the best place to start would be a quick summary of where we're each coming from. I'm a life-long Republican (whatever that means when you're as young as I am). I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, rejoiced when the South turned Republican, and was glued to the television for Election Night 2000. In my younger days, I breathed fire and brimstone towards any and all who would break the law. During my early teenage years, I once advocated sending in the SEALs and Rangers to deal with the inner city drug trade.

I say all of this to establish my conservative bona-fides or, at least, to demonstrate that I once was a "law and order" Republican and understand the mind set. More recently, I've been drawn towards libertarianism. I've seen that politicians rarely act in the nation's best interests. I've seen that many laws are unfairly written or unfairly enforced. I've developed an aversion to using government power unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.

So, I have a lot of questions about illegal immigration. I think the first and most prominent one is: why is it such a big deal? Why do people care so much about Mexicans crossing the border, looking for a better life for themselves and their families? Is it just because there is a law prohibiting that? (That is, would the issue go away if the law were changed?) Or is there a reason for the law. If so, what is it?

Yes, it's a rather basic question. But in this case, I think it's best to start with the basics and move on from there.

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy

How Many Immigrants?

I've been closely watching the entire debate over illegal immigration. I have a lot of thoughts, a lot of links that I've been collecting, and a few things that I want to say. Sometime tonight or tomorrow, I'll publish a post that it will outline my thoughts on the debate. For now, however, I'd like to focus on the latest entrance to the debate.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions has issued a press release claiming that the new Senate immigration bill could bring in as many as 217 million people in the next 20 years. 217 million. That's a huge number. The Heritage Foundation agrees with him. They think it would allow 103 million persons to immigrate within the next 20 years. Again, a huge number.

Well, I think they're both full of it. The current population of Mexico is around 108 million people. So, if Senator Sessions and the Heritage Foundation are claiming that over the next 10-20 years somewhere between the entire population of Mexico and twice the entire population of Mexico will be immigrating to the United States.

To put it bluntly, I don't trust any analysis that determines that an entire country will be left entirely unpopulated within a decade. You shouldn't either.

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy

Respecting the Law

Rick Scarborough just made another statement about immigration:

Increasingly, conservative Christians are being drawn into the illegal immigration controversy. Over the past few weeks, illegal immigrants and their supporters have taken to the streets to demand their "rights" -- including a blanket amnesty for an estimated 11 million who are in the country illegally.

On the one hand, some Christians (including those usually associated with conservative causes) are saying that the Bible's call for compassion to the stranger should shape the Christian position here.

But others note that God does not require us to treat the innocent and the guilty alike. While God's mercy is available to all, the Bible also says that He has put the sword of justice in the hands of the civil authorities to punish wrongdoers.

Whether they are a burden or an asset to society, it is self-evidently true that illegal immigrants have broken our laws. How can we expect respect for the law if we condone law-breaking?

I have a counter-question: how can we expect respect for the law if we have laws that are nearly impossible to follow? The United States currently limits the number of people that can legally immigrate every year. Anyone who wants to immigrate needs to go through multiple offices, file many, many different forms, pay multiple fees, wait, wait, and wait some more. Is it any wonder that many poor Mexicans choose to slip across the border illegally? Especially when the well being of their families is one the line?

There are two ways to restore respect for the law: harshly punish those who break the law or reform the law so that it is more just. I can't speak for all Christians, but this particular Christian would rather reform the laws. It is my belief that reforming the laws and helping our poverty-stricken neighbors is more in keeping with Christ's examples than all-out enforcement and punishment would be.

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy

My Views on the Immigration Debate

I've been trying to figure out how to articulate them. Jane Galt beat me to the punch. Go read her post.

The three-quarters of my forebears who were Irish probably didn't speak English when they got here, and showed no particular interest in learning how to do so. Cramming themselves into tenements ten or more to a room, they were willing to work longer hours for lower pay than native-born Americans. Having brought a rich, and very foreign, culture with them, they clustered in urban areas so that they could preserve it, including a drinking culture that horrified the Protestants then flocking to temperance reform. None of them showed much propensity for assimilating; they established their own churches, schools, social organizations, and businesses, allowing their descendants to live in a little parallel Irish world that kept them out of the mainstream. More than 100 years after they landed in North America, my father's family was still living in an Irish neighbourhood in Boston (though by then they had learned how to speak English). Then, as soon as there were enough of them, they took over the political apparatus of the cities they lived in, and began running it for the benefit of the immigrant communities swelling the tenements, instead of the native-born. This separatism was so complete, so pervasive, so stubborn that America is still riven by the threat of . . . gay Irishmen marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

You really should read it all. It's what I would say. Err, except the part about three-quarters of my ancestors being Irish. I think most of mine were English. But, given that I never finished my genealogical research, that could apply to me as well.

This entry was tagged. Immigration Policy