Debate – What to Do about Immigration
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that you’re taking jobs away from Americans?
MIGUEL: I think so.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel bad about it or no?
MIGUEL: Yes, I feel bad.
INTERVIEWER: You do feel bad. Why do you feel bad?
MIGUEL: Because some guys bring job from American guys. American guys now . . . he can do for a little money. So American guy says, “Okay, pay $1,000 for this job.” The Spanish guy says, “Okay, give me $600 or $500.” I feel bad for them.
INTERVIEWER: You feel bad for them?
INTERVIEWER: Why do you feel bad for them?
MIGUEL: Because he wants to work too.
[End of clip]
BRYAN CAPLAN: This is my four-step case for open borders. Step one, immigration laws deny very basic human rights: The right to accept a job offer from a willing employer, the right to rent an apartment from a willing landlord. The breachable results for people born on the wrong side of the border are poverty and worse. This creates a strong moral presumption against immigration restriction.
Two, to overcome this presumption, you’d have to show that free immigration has consequences so awful that they clearly overshadow the horrible consequences of restriction. Furthermore, you’d have to show that there isn’t any cheaper, more humane way to avert these consequences.
Three, the best social science finds that the alleged downsides of immigration are greatly overstated at best and often the opposite of the truth. For starters, immigrants make Americans and the world much richer. This is probably the strongest result from all public policy analysis in terms of what—if there’s one policy that would change the wealth of the world, it is open borders. Standard estimate is it would double the wealth of the world. Essentially, right now, what we are doing is keeping most of the world in Antarctica. They are in countries where their labor productivity is nowhere near what it could be. If they could move to places where they are labor productive, they would be much richer and the world would be much richer.
Similarly, immigrants—in terms of the effect on tax and benefits—immigrants pay about as much in tax as they use in benefits. There’s various estimates for where it goes but there’s no credible estimate showing that immigrants are a [inaudible] to work.
Fourth, so even in worst case scenarios, there are cheaper, more humane remedies for whatever problems that immigration is supposed to inflict upon us. For example, if you really do think that immigrants are a serious fiscal burden, you don’t have to prevent immigration in order to solve that problem. Just make them ineligible for benefits. This seems cruel. It is far less cruel than forcing people to remain in Haiti. That’s it.
JAN TING: Let me start by saying both my parents were immigrants and many of their friends were immigrants in the Detroit suburb where they settled, and many of the children that I grew up with were the children of immigrants from all over the world. So it goes without saying that I admire and respect immigrants, as we all should, because every American, if not an immigrant themselves, is a descendant of ancestors that came here from somewhere else. And that includes Native Americans. But that’s not the question.
The question before us is, given how much we admire and respect immigrants, how many? How many should we admit to the United States? That is the question. The United States has the most generous immigration system in the world bar none. We admit more legal immigrants with a clear path to citizenship than all the rest of the nations of the world combined. We have a complicated formula; it works out to about a million a year. A million immigrants every year. Is that too many? Is that too few? We can adjust the number up or down. The question is, whatever number we agree on, are we willing to enforce it?
Are we willing to enforce a restriction on immigration law? And I believe it makes sense to set some sort of limitation. First of all, I think it’s constitutional. The Supreme Court has already ruled on that question that in a free society like ours the American people have a right to control immigration, and that requires enforcement. That’s the hard part of the equation.
Now lawyers always like to say they can argue both sides of the question and I think that’s the case. I think I could argue the libertarian side. I understand the libertarian argument, but I don’t agree with it. It just seems to me the practical consequences are such that I’m not willing to bet the Republic that open borders would be good for America. The reality is we’re not living in the 19th or even the 20th century anymore. We live in a world where there’s instant communication and instant transportation.
In the past people didn’t understand what their alternatives in life were. Now they understand that there’s a better life to be had in the United States, and it’s easy to get here now. It used to be hard to get here. All you have to do is get on an airplane. And I think the reality is, if we open the borders, we’re going to have an enormous number of people come in to the United States, an enormous number—an uncountable number—and we need to think about the consequences on the environment, what happens to our water table, where are they all going to park their cars. Think of that the next time you’re stuck in traffic on I-95. Where are we going to educate their kids? You can’t cut off their kids and say, oh, no benefits for your kids because you’re immigrants. No. You have to educate their kids. And if you’re going to provide health care, you’re going to cut off health care and say, oh, these immigrant people, they don’t get health care? Everyone else gets health care, but they don’t? So I think there are practical consequences that say we have to set a limit somewhere.
TURNER: Okay. Thank you. Let me kind of begin the question session with a question for Professor Caplan. So you said that—you mentioned in your opening remarks that generally we’re going to be wealthier. Right? That immigration, low-skilled, low-wage earning immigration helps the economy. Does it help all parts of the economy? If I’m a low-skilled, low-wage native earner in the United States, do I want to see a flood of low-skilled wage earners come in as well?
CAPLAN: There’s a lot of good research on this. The main result is that high school dropouts, your native high school dropouts, seem to lose from low-skilled immigration. Everybody else either gains or has very little effect. So are there some people lose? Sure. I lose when we let in professors from other countries. Is this a good reason to keep them out? I don’t think so. I don’t think the fact that there’s someone who loses is a justification for saying that a person has to stay in Haiti.
It is all out of proportion to what the harm is. And in any case, if you really were worried about the effects of immigration on native workers, there is a much cheaper, more humane alternative. Which, by the way, I do not favor, but it’s way better than what we do. The alternative is to say we’re going to charge you an entry fee to come here, or we’re going to charge you a surtax on your taxes and we’re going to use that money to compensate native-born Americans who do lose out. If you think that’s unfair I would say that is less unfair than what we do right now, which is saying you can’t come no matter what.
TURNER: So let me push you on this for a second, but in other words the high school dropout, we’re talking about that section of the population that we tend to be most worried about anyway. We’re talking about recipients of government programs. We’re talking about, in other words, people who are most susceptible to these kinds of large-scale harms nonetheless. In other words, we’re talking about a policy whose practical effects is that it only tends to harm the least well off. Doesn’t that sound like a hard sell?
CAPLAN: I think that only makes sense if you forget that other people are human, that non-Americans are human. It is not true that American high dropouts are the most vulnerable people on earth. They’re actually among the richest and most well off people on earth. People in Haiti—those are the most vulnerable people. And what immigration laws really amount to is saying we’re going to go and protect American high school dropouts at the expense of impoverishing people who are desperately poor. People who would love to come here just to shine shoes. That seems—not only it seems odd and cruel, and it seems like the only way you can really think that is if you forget that these people in other countries are human beings.
TURNER: So if I rephrase that, right, so I think what Professor Caplan is getting at is that there’s a moral principle, right? Why value someone who happens to born inside this particular border over someone who happens to born outside that particular border?
TING: Yeah, I get that, but the reality is, as everyone in this room knows, that for the last four years the United States has had record unemployment, still hovering around 7.9 percent. Maybe 12 million Americans have been unemployed for like four years, and they’re not all high school dropouts. I mean, a lot of them are college graduates, people who have had careers, whose businesses closed. Four years of unemployment means devastated lives, devastated families, and foreclosed homes, and a lot of misery, a lot of human misery.
Do we have greater concern for our fellow Americans than we do people from other parts of the world? Should we? I mean, that’s an interesting philosophical question. I know Chinese philosophers have thought about that question a lot. Do you have greater loyalty to your clan, to your nation; does the nation mean anything in the 21st century going forward? I think it does. I think we have a responsibility toward those people, including workers that have worked their whole lives and now find themselves unemployed as they’re facing retirement and not having enough money for retirement.
Think about the competition that we’re going to generate. I mean, I understand why big business wants unlimited immigration. Big business loves unlimited immigration that drives wage levels down in this country, and so they can drive profits up and wage levels down. Yeah, corporate profits are going to go up, if that’s what we’re all about. You’re going to get the corporate profits up, but you’re also going to get wage levels down.
Why don’t American students go into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? Do you ever wonder about that? I wonder about that all the time. Why do we have to have a STEM jobs bill just to bring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? What’s the matter with American students? Why do they all want to go to law school and study with me? In part it’s because there are all these smart foreign students coming in, and you know if you’re going to go into science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, you’re going to have to compete with these smart foreigners coming in. And you want to do that? You want to stake your career on competing with these smart foreign students? So the competition is real. And we need to decide what is our priority? Is it taking care of our fellow Americans first, or is it worrying about the entire world? Can we not take care of our fellow Americans until we take care of everyone in the whole world? I don’t think so.
BRANDON TURNER: Can I let Bryan respond?
BRYAN CAPLAN: Sure. I care about my children far more than I care about other Americans or other human beings. I love my children, and yet there are many things I will not do to help them. I will not steal from other people to help my children. I won’t try to get other kids kicked out of school so my kids can be the best kids in the class. I won’t, because it seems wrong. The fact that you love someone and care more about them is a reason to make sure that you are treating other people fairly. And that is precisely what immigration laws do not do.
Immigration laws are not about saying we’re going to take care of Americans as long as we’re treating other people fairly. It’s about saying we’re going to take care of Americans no matter what the cost we impose on other people. And that is really what immigration restrictions come down to. It’s saying that we are so concerned about a few people here that we’re willing to inflict enormous harm on other people who’ve done nothing wrong, they just happened to be born on the wrong side of the border.
In terms of the economics of what Jan is saying, this is the kind of thing that economists try to root out of people in first semester econ. Yes, you can always look and find ways that you’re losing from things. You also need to look at ways that you’re gaining. And then you need to add the two up and see what the net effect is.
If we were to actually run a world on the principle of try to get rid of anyone who might compete with you by being better than you or anything, what kind of a world would this be? What kind of an economy would it be? We would be living in dire poverty. We should be glad when there are more talented and skilled people in the country realizing their potential. Most of the time we gain from them, because usually we’re trading with them. Sometimes we lose because we’re competing with them. It’s important to remember the bottom line: total amount of stuff produced in the world. There is very good reason to think that immigration would double the total amount of stuff produced in the world, most of which is going to go not just to corporations but to human beings all over the planet.
TURNER: Let me push on this though. So if this the kind of immigration equivalent of a free lunch, why aren’t we taking it?
CAPLAN: I think the reason why we’re not taking it is because most people are economically illiterate, so they focus on whatever downsides they can find. And second of all, people suffer from what I call antiforeign bias. Namely, any time there’s a problem, they look around for a way to blame foreigners. Whenever foreigners are about, they try to find anything negative that they can to say about them. Very rarely do people take a deep breath and say let’s consider, first of all, all of the good and all the bad added up. And second of all, rarely do people consider, am I doing wrong to a foreigner? Should I feel bad that I mistreated someone who wasn’t born in this country? And this is yet a question that we all should be asking ourselves.
TING: I fundamentally disagree with that. I think the elite in the United States fully understands that we’re a nation of immigrants and wants an immigration policy that’s consistent with our history and our tradition of being a nation of immigrants, and that’s why we have the most generous immigration policy in the world. Again, we admit more legal immigrants with a clear path to full citizenship than all the rest of the nations of the world combined. And we do that every year.
That is an appropriate immigration policy for our nation of immigrants. But can we set any limit at all? That is the question, and that’s a fundamental question. And I thank the organizers of this debate for putting that question before us, because that is the question that so many politicians deny. Are we going to enforce any limitation at all? And I admit it’s hard.
We’re going to turn away people that look a lot like our ancestors. And we’re going to turn them away not because they’re bad people. We’re going to turn them away because we have a numerical limitation on how many people we’re willing to admit every year because we want to assimilate them in an organized way.
We want to make them full citizens in our United States. We see immigrants as future citizens standing on an equal footing with all the rest of us. But we need a process of assimilation, and we can’t just kind of throw the doors open and let everybody in all at once. I wish Bryan was right. And if he turned out to be right that would be great.
But fundamentally the question is, as I’ve said, are you willing to bet the Republic that he’s right? I, for one, I am not willing to bet the Republic. I want a generous immigration policy where we gradually assimilate people and make them contributing citizens. So that’s the way forward. And I think the American people understand that. They get it. They understand that the numbers of people that would like to come here would overwhelm us even if immigrants are no more or have no higher incidence of criminality than the population as a whole.
A tremendous increase in population is going to increase our need for prisons and all kinds of social services. We’re projected—we have 300 million people—we’re projected to grow to 400 million by the year 2050 and 600 million by the end of the century. And that’s if we do nothing. That’s with keeping the immigration restrictions on now. We’re still going to have that dramatic growth. So we have enormous population-growth problems that we’re going to have to deal with if we do nothing. If we adopt Bryan’s position of open borders it gets worse.
TURNER: Okay so now we move to—
CAPLAN: Sorry, I’ve got to reply to that.
TURNER: Okay. Can you reply with a question?
CAPLAN: Um, no. All the pictures of being overwhelmed by vast numbers of immigrants, if there’s no quota, are very scary until you realize that the free market has a way of rationing scarce resources. It’s called the price mechanism. Right now, in Manhattan, there’s a very small of fraction of people who want to be in Manhattan are in Manhattan. Why are all the other persons not there? The reason is because the rents in Manhattan are really high and the inflation-adjusted wages are really low. That’s how markets handle things. When there’s very high demand for something, prices go up. When there’s very high supply, prices go down.
This is the market’s way of rationing scarce resources. There’s no need for some additional policy of limiting the total number when market prices can adjust and handle it in the same way that it does in all the other areas that we’re used to.
TURNER: So now I am going to move to the next segment, which is the segment in which the panelists ask each other questions. So does anyone have a ready and at hand? Fire away.
CAPLAN: How can you say the United States has a very open policy when we are letting in maybe 1 or 2 percent of the people who want to come? I say that we have a 98 or 99 percent closed border. We are almost at the ideal of no immigration at all. All you’re saying is that we do better than other countries, all of which are extremely restrictionist as well.
TING: Absolutely. We do a lot better than other countries. There aren’t very many other countries that even have an immigration policy like we have in the United States where we welcome people from all over the world. I mean if you want to be German, good luck. How can you become German if you don’t have the blood? If you’ve got the blood then it’s easy. But if you don’t have the blood you can’t be German. Anyone can be an American, and we give all kinds of ways for people to become Americans. And again, we view immigrants as future American citizens. So I think we have a unique immigration policy in the United States. Although I tip my hat to Australia, Canada, New Zealand who have copied aspects of our immigration policy in trying to bring in people from all over the world. But I think we have a virtuous immigration policy. I think if we’re worried about people in other parts of the world, there are other things we can do to improve their lot, if that is our goal. But I think our primary concern ought o be that the nation state means something, that it means something to share citizenship in this country. And our first responsibility is to our fellow citizens, including the unemployed, the people that need social services from them. And we need to take care of those needs first.
TURNER: Professor Ting do you have a question?
TING: Do I have question? What do you think would happen with open borders? How rapidly are people going to come into the United States? I heard an interview on NPR where somebody asked someone in Nigeria, “If it were possible to come to the United States and seek your fortune and a better life, what percentage of the people in Nigeria would come to the United States?” And I’m sure it was an exaggeration, but this interviewee said, “Well, all of them. Of course, everyone in Nigeria.” I don’t know if everyone would, but a substantial portion of the people in Nigeria, Brazil, China, India, the Philippines, would all head to the United States.
We were talking about Walter Williams during the break, and I said Walter Williams used to say the poor people of the world may be poor, but they’re not stupid. They’re as capable of doing cost-benefit analysis as anyone in this room, he used to say, and they do it all the time. So in trying to decide, oh, do I want to stay in my country with no job prospects or do I want to come to the United States where millions of immigrants have found a better way forward? What’s the logical thing? How quickly would it take for the rest of the world to depopulate and come to the United States, given the fact that poor people in the world are rational people?
CAPLAN: Strangely. Jan your argument against is my argument for. The entire reason why we have these enormous gains from open borders is because a lot of people are right now in the wrong country. They need to move. People in low-productivity countries need to move in vast numbers to high-productivity countries. And that’s what open borders would allow.
What do I think will happen? So in the short run, precisely because it’s hard to build an enormous amount housing really quickly, you would see a large increase in housing prices. Which, by the way, would benefit any American who owns housing, a lot, as well as any American who currently is bailing out anyone whose housing price went down. Worth pointing out. So the very short-run effect is going to be a large increase in real estate prices and also a large fall in the wages for very low-skilled workers. Worth pointing out that many workers in the world are so low skilled that there are hardly any native-born Americans who are actually comparable to them.
Now again, people generally think, well, isn’t that a reason not to let them in? No. Not only is that a reason to let them in, it is a reason why Americans are not going to lose out, because their skills are so different that they are not actually competing in the same market as we are. What would happen is that there’d be a great realignment of the economy. There’d be a big move to people having personal servants if there’s this much cheap, low-skilled labor around. Things would change. They would change a lot. But to say that the Republic is going to be destroyed by this or that you’re worried about this, I just think this is paranoid.
Is it possible? It’s possible. What examples are there of countries that have been destroyed by immigration this way? I think it’s pretty hard to come up with any plausible example. I think you’re really saying is it possible this will bring down our country is not too far from saying is it possible that our heads would explode if a lot of immigrants come here. Yes, we can imagine it, but it is not a reasonable worry. It is only a small risk. It is not reasonable to expect a billion extra people to live in poverty and misery so that you can sleep a little better at night.
TING: What about the environment?
CAPLAN: What about the environment? Good question. So yes. I’ll do a quick version. First of all, in terms of environmental effects, there are cheaper and more humane ways of handling the problem than restricting immigration. Go to any environmental economics class and what will they tell you you can do about pollution? Raise the price. That is the right approach. If you’re worried about pollution, raise the price. If you’re worried about resource scarcity, let the price go up, and so on. Saying that we can solve this problem by keeping people out of the country entirely is not a morally acceptable approach when there is a way cheaper way that doesn’t involve ruining people’s lives just because they are born on the wrong side of the border.