Missing the point on immigration

I live in a nicely cosmopolitan little apartment complex. It’s one of the cheaper places to live in town, so we get a nice mix: single people, young couples, seniors, working-class folks, grad students. Those last two categories in particular add a good bit of racial diversity—African Americans, South Asians, East Asians. It makes for a nice place to live.

Because I like living in places like this, I find myself conflicted on the topic of  immigration.

The largest motivation for opposing immigration (setting aside the wrong-headed opposition that springs from racism) is economic—but most of the people trying to make the economic argument get it wrong. Or maybe they just state it poorly.

Population density

The most important reason that the United States is an attractive place to live is the low population density. This was true from the beginning of European settlement. There was enough land that anyone could be a landowner. The low population meant fewer workers, which kept wages high and working conditions good. Natural resources were abundant, meaning everyone could have and use more timber, more water, more grain, and (especially over the past couple of generations) more coal, oil, and natural gas.

There is high population density in cities, and that’s the best way to arrange things: If most people live in an urban environment, it preserves the maximum amount of land for crops, timber, pasture, natural areas, and so on. Sprawling the people out in subdivisions and exurbs wastes a lot of land. But however you arrange the living and working spaces: the more people you have, the smaller the average person’s share is going to be.

Economists dismiss this argument, on the grounds that people are productive: Each new person produces more than enough to be self-supporting, so each new person can potentially raise everyone’s standard of living. That’s not wrong exactly, but it’s largely a self-serving argument. The monied interests benefit from an influx of new workers, because a larger labor force holds down wages. At the same time, the monied interests don’t suffer as their pro-rata share of nature’s bounty declines, because they don’t settle for a pro-rata share; they buy as much as they want, leaving that much less for the rest of us.

Many people understand this at some level, but view it in pieces rather than as a whole. If they’re workers, they object to other workers willing to work for lower pay. If they’re business owners, they claim that there are “certain jobs” that Americans just won’t do. (A falsehood: it would be easy to find Americans to do any job, if it were a full-time salaried position with health insurance, a pension, and education benefits—just like every job I ever had as an adult.) Others point to the increased demand on social structures when “different” people arrive—people with bigger families (more children to be educated) or people who speak a different language (public safety information needs to be translated). At this level, the pro-business argument is correct: immigrants are productive and the taxes they pay easily cover the costs of the services that they use. But they still increase the population density—and that means dividing all the resources of the country among more people.

It’s an economic issue, a quality-of-life issue, and particularly an environmental issue: there are many things that are only environmentally harmful if the demand for inputs exceed the local environment’s capability to provide them, or if the outputs produced exceed the local environment’s capability to handle them.

So: I’m not against immigration; I’m against population growth. In the context of a stable population, I’d like as much immigration as possible, because I enjoy a cosmopolitan community.

Where the anti-immigrant argument turns really wrong, is when it comes to strategies and tactics of handling a population that includes some immigrants.

Police state

If you’re going to allow people to visit, whether for tourism, cultural exchange, as guest workers, or whatever, some number of those people are going to stay here. They’ll stay for all kinds of reasons—for economic opportunity, for freedom, because they fall in love with someone who lives here, or just because they like the place they’re visiting.

If the number who stay are the number you want to stay, then everything’s fine. But if it’s more than you want, there’s no way to reduce the excess without turning the country into a police state.

I don’t want to live in a police state. I don’t want police to ask me for my papers. It’s annoying. It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional. (Well, it’s constitutional for the police to ask, but it’s unconstitutional for them to do anything if I don’t present my papers. Note that the Supreme Court seems inclined to disagree with me on this point.)

For one thing, there’s no obligation for a citizen to even have papers. Almost everyone does, because a drivers license counts and it’s so handy to be able to drive, but it’s not required. It’d be pretty tough to get along without a social security number, but you can have a number without having an identity document. (Early social security cards—I still have mine—had no security features at all: just a name and number printed on card stock.)

Since the mid-1980s, employers have been insisting on seeing identity documents, because otherwise they can face penalties if they hire illegal immigrants—an early example of exactly what I’m unhappy about.

Even if you have papers, even if you keep them sufficiently in order that you can present them to an employer when you start a new job or a bank when you want to open a new account, there’s still no obligation to keep them on hand to show to the police.

Still, objecting to being asked to show papers is really just a personal quirk. The real harm comes from having people here who can’t safely use ordinary public institutions. Communities where people are afraid of being arrested or deported are inevitably bad communities.

  • Crimes will go unreported, which will result in more crime—and more violence, as people who lack access to the courts have to resort to self-help to settle their disputes.
  • Sick people won’t seek medical care, producing pockets of disease.
  • Pernicious institutions like check-cashing stores and pay-day lenders thrive where people can’t open bank accounts.

I don’t want to live in a town where there are people who don’t feel safe talking to the police when they get robbed or the department of labor when they get cheated by an employer or the bureau of weights and measures when they get cheated by a merchant. I don’t want to live in a town where lots of drivers don’t have insurance because they don’t have a license because they don’t have the right kind of visa. I don’t want to live in a town where some people have to work for cash because there’s no legal way for them to pay taxes.

As I say, I’m of two minds. I want to keep the low population density we enjoy in the US—it’s a key factor in our high standard of living. At the same time, I enjoy living in a diverse community. But it’s impossible to have it both ways: If you allow foreigners into the country, some of them will stay, and any effort to remove them produces problems that are much worse than the small hit that any one immigrant produces to our standard of living. And yet, in the aggregate, the hit on our standard of living is significant.

In the end I come down squarely against measures like the recently passed law in Arizona—it will do a lot more harm than good. I’m generally in favor of efforts to control the border, to make it tougher for people to sneak into the country, but that’s no panacea—not unless you use control of the border to hold the number of temporary visitors below the number of permanent residents that you’d be willing to accept. I’m not sure there is a solution, except for the rest of the world to become as nice a place to live as the US, and thereby produce a balance between immigration and emigration.

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3 thoughts on “Missing the point on immigration”

  1. Philip, you’ve given this careful thought, and I applaud that. So many don’t dig beneath the surface of this issue. I’d like to suggest a couple other reasons any nation should aim for zero net immigration.

    1. We need someone to be accountable for achieving sustainable population size. If a nation fails to address this, or has an overt or defacto open-borders policy in order to grow its economy, then it is diffusing responsibility for sustainable population size, leaving that to someone else. Who?

    2. In the case of the U.S., our defacto open borders policy exploits immigrants. They are crowded into sorry living conditions, separated from their families, and poorly paid, so that we can have cheap houses, cheap landscaping, cheap food and cheap landscaping. Perpetuating this system delays by generations the day when these immigrants could stay in their homeland and have a good life.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
    http://www.growthbusters.org

  2. I hesitate to use the “It’s for your own good” argument: However poorly paid, poorly housed, and poorly treated immigrants are, they’re still likely to view themselves as better off than they were. And I’d grant more weight to the idea that having emigration to the US serving as an escape valve that reduces the pressure for improvement at home, if the places they were coming from had working political systems that would allow for change driven by democratic pressure.

    Really, that’s what needs to be fixed: If the countries that are producing net immigration to the US had political systems and economies that worked, the immigration problem would fix itself. But it’s the sort of thing that can’t really be fixed by the US. The one thing that we can do that might help—allowing people to visit the US to attend school, make business contacts, and so on—is also the thing that makes it impossible to reduce immigration without using police-state tactics. And having a police state is a solution that’s worse than the problem.

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