Economically and morally, more immigration is right

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The border crisis is a humanitarian disaster. Both parties are responsible. Democrats seem incapable of anything but publicity stunts, as evidenced by Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent visit to El Paso, Texas. Republicans indulge in ugly nativist rhetoric, hiding behind law and order considerations when pushed. The constant partisan posturing means nobody is addressing the appalling conditions at border shelters, let alone working to rectify our byzantine immigration laws.

Piecemeal reforms won’t do. We need a complete immigration overhaul. Immigration is a boon to Americans in almost every way imaginable. We should want more of it — much more.

Immigration skeptics commonly make three arguments for tightening our borders. The first is increased immigration lowers the wages of citizens, which especially hurts the poor. The second is immigrants are especially prone to crime. The third is immigrants bring “bad” ideas, culture, and institutions with them, which will weaken economic and political institutions in the United States. None are true.

Immigrants don’t lower Americans’ wages. The error here is looking only at one side of the ledger. It’s true more immigrants means a higher labor supply, which pushes down wages, all else being equal. But all else isn’t equal: Immigrants are also demanders of goods and services, which boosts wages for the workers who produce those goods and services. Even low-skilled workers, who compete most directly with immigrants for jobs, aren’t harmed. They may even see small wage increases. Overall, immigrant labor and native labor are complements, not substitutes. The more immigrants we have, the greater the degree of specialization and exchange. As we’ve known for hundreds of years, this makes countries richer, not poorer.

Immigrants aren’t a major source of crime. Nationalists raised this objection in the late 19th century in response to Irish and Italian immigration. Former President Donald Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants is just the latest case of nationalist cant. Fortunately, we have the data to refute it. Texas keeps track of the immigration status of those arrested and convicted of crimes. The data unequivocally show that immigrants are less prone to crime, including violent crime, than natives. In fact, even illegal immigrants commit less crime than natives.

Immigrants don’t weaken our institutions. This is, admittedly, a serious concern. Institutions are the political and economic “rules of the game” that govern social life. Private property, democracy, and the rule of law are important examples. Institutions are the main cause of national wealth or poverty. Fortunately, the evidence shows that immigrants have minimal effects on institutions. In Wretched Refuse? The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions, researchers Alex Nowrasteh and Benjamin Powell conduct a thorough analysis of the effects of immigration on institutions. (Full disclosure: Powell is my boss.) Culture, productivity, and respect for law and order don’t fall in the wake of immigration, and sometimes, they even increase. Defenders of freedom and equality have nothing to fear from immigrants.

Pro-immigration policies often face political hurdles. This is due to a failure of messaging. Because immigration can make America much wealthier, it just might save America’s floundering social insurance programs. Despite their popularity, Social Security and Medicare are financial messes. The political will necessary to make the books balance through tax increases just isn’t there. There’s only one solution: Grow the tax base. More immigration means a stronger economy and, hence, more tax revenue.

Michael Clemens, a leading scholar of the economics of immigration, contends that immigration restrictions amount to leaving “trillion-dollar bills” on the sidewalk. The same worker is immensely more productive in the U.S. than in a country with poor institutions and scant productive capital. Immigration thus enables us to keep our civic promises by ensuring the elderly or infirm never suffer destitution.

When it comes to immigration, there’s no trade-off between economic self-interest and moral imperatives. Accepting more immigrants is right in both cases. America was founded by sojourners and refugees longing to be free. It’s time we live up to the promise of our founding and welcome those seeking a better life to our “city upon a hill.”

Alexander William Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder associate professor of economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, a research fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and a senior fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research.





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