This is the full text of a letter Prof. Howard Baetjer wrote the Wall Street Journal, an edited version of which the WSJ published on Oct. 6.
Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) argue for immigration restrictions in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “What We Learned in Scandinavia About Migrants,” on September 27. They reach wrong conclusions from wrong premises.
Wrong Premise #1: Immigrants are a net burden on society
Cotton and Pompeo write, “Norwegians understand that an open-border policy would strain their resources.” But, as Julian Simon has taught us, human beings are “the ultimate resource.” The human imagination coupled with the human spirit turn natural resources into goods and services.
Immigrants don’t “strain a country’s resources” unless they are not allowed to work, whether by high minimum wages, occupational licensing, union restrictions, or direct prohibitions on immigrant labor, as in various European countries. If they support themselves by work, they create value for others. Any immigrant willing to live and work peacefully should be welcomed as a new resource.
Wrong Premise #2: Immigrants are welfare junkies
Cotton and Pompeo claim that Sweden has committed “more than 7% of its 2016 budget to migrant services, with costs set to steadily increase.” The assumption here is that government has to support immigrants.
But that’s the welfare state mindset at work.
Of course some immigrants will become a burden, as native-born citizens do, if invited into the arms of a welfare state. But governments do not have to pay for migrant services (education, housing, etc.) beyond screening out the bad guys. The welfare state subverts the welfare and dignity of immigrants as it does of the native born; it should be replaced by the kinds of private-sector endeavors its growth crowded out. In fact, during periods of rapid growth in America, “migrant services” were provided by previous immigrants from the same country, by ethnic fraternal associations, by churches, synagogues, civic associations, and by the migrants themselves. The government should just stay out of it.
Wrong Premise #3: Immigrants erode national culture
Cotton and Pompeo write of “the legitimate desire of Norwegians to preserve their nation’s culture and character” by restricting immigration, implying that Americans might want to do the same. But American culture and character differs fundamentally from that of Scandinavia. Norwegians identify themselves ethnically: a woman born in Iran, say, though she marries a Norwegian and lives in Oslo for a decade, is not considered Norwegian. But my friend Jared, the Kenyan-born janitor in my building in Towson, is American now, despite his broken English. And everyone accepts him as such.
Americans identify themselves as those who have had the pluck to make a new life for themselves in “the land of the free” (along, of course, with those who were brought here in chains and won their freedom). Other than Native Americans, we’re all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Immigration is fundamental to our nation’s culture and character. If we would preserve it, we should say to the Old World, now as in the past, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
That last word, “free,” brings me to my main criticism of Messrs. Cotton and Pompeo’s article.
Wrong Premise #4: Immigration is against the economic and social interests of American citizens
While I agree entirely that immigration policy should promote the interests of American citizens, Cotton and Pompeo mistake those interests. First, open immigration of peaceful people is overwhelmingly in our economic interest—on this there is broad agreement among economists. Second, the overriding social interest of Americans is preserving liberty. Our commitment to liberty is what has defined us from the arrival of the Pilgrims (immigrants!); it is that of which we are most justifiably proud.
If we believe in liberty for migrants as well as Americans, we must grant them liberty peacefully to travel the world unmolested and to settle wherever they find homes to rent and enterprises to work for. But even if, mistakenly, we believe in liberty only for current American citizens, then we must support the liberty of American bus companies to carry migrants from the border, the liberty of American landlords to rent migrants a room, the liberty of American stores to sell migrants food and clothing, and the liberty of American businesses to hire migrants. We can’t block the liberty of migrants to come here peacefully without blocking the liberty of American citizens to interact with them here as we choose.