Debate – Who Is Harmed Most by Immigration?

Release Date
June 26, 2013



The United States has laws in place to limit the number of immigrants granted entry. How many immigrants should be allowed to call America home? Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, argues that the United States should have open borders. Jan Ting, professor of law at Temple University, argues that there need to be limits on the number of immigrants.
Economically, native-born high school dropouts are the most likely to lose out from the competition from low-skilled workers that will increase if the United States has open borders. In this clip, Prof. Caplan argues that although these are the most vulnerable Americans, they are some of the wealthiest people in the world. Prof. Ting argues that part of being a country means having greater concern for your fellow citizens than for the world as a whole.
Prof. Caplan argues that while it is fine to care about fellow Americans more than about the world as a whole, immigration laws are about saying we’re going to take care of Americans no matter what the cost we impose on other people.  Even when you care more about one person or group of people than others, it is still important to treat the others fairly. The clip also brings up interesting questions about how competition and trade affect individuals and society.

Yes, There Is Such Thing as a Free Lunch: It’s Called Immigration [article]: A Forbes article on the job-creating impact of high-skilled immigration and two policy proposals to promote high-skilled immigration
A Smart Solution to the Diversity Dilemma [article]: Jason Richwine at The American proposes a controversial immigration solution to a controversial problem – that ethnic diversity has serious social costs on a society
What if Justice Demands Open Borders? [article]: Nathan Smith at The American argues that a Lockean conception of justice and social contract demands an open-border policy
The Effect of Immigrants on U.S. Employment and Productivity [study]: A paper from the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco showing the positive net benefits of immigration on jobs and production
Immigration Reform and the American Worker [article]: A New Yorker article rejects the claim that high and low-skilled immigration takes away American jobs

Debate – Who Is Harmed Most by Immigration?
JAN TING: 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 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 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 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 it 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.