Immigration is a magnificent thing. I want to see more of it, not less. As a country we may have misconceptions about immigration that actually make us worse off. I hope to persuade you to think differently about immigrants and immigration.
I see immigration as the ability to visit, travel, live, or work where you choose. When speaking about immigration below, I am not speaking about citizenship, with the attendant rights to vote, receive benefits from government programs, etc. I’ll consider that a separate topic.
Let’s get the easy part out of the way. Immigration of highly educated people seems more easily accepted. If someone comes to the U.S. for a PhD program, why not staple a visa to their diploma upon graduation?, it has been said.
- Companies founded by 1st-generation immigrants include Google, Yahoo, Intel, PayPal, Tesla, eBay, Kohl’s, Comcast, and Nordstrom.
- Companies founded by 2nd-generation Americans include Apple (Steve Jobs’s biological father was a Syrian immigrant), Amazon (Jeff Bezos’s step-father, who raised him, was from Cuba), and IBM.
- Companies currently run by foreign-born CEOs include Microsoft, Adobe, Pepsi, and CitiGroup.
It’s hard to imagine arguing against the above type of immigration. We should want as many founders and CEOs of companies as we can get. These new companies create thousands of jobs and improve our lives through the products they develop. Likewise, in chronically under-staffed positions such as for computer programmers, nurses, and doctors in rural areas, we should want as many immigrants as we can get.
It is remarkable how much value in tech is created by immigrants, and how hard we make it for them to come start companies here 🙁
— Sam Altman (@sama) August 16, 2015
But we should not stop there.
Even low-skilled or no-skilled immigrants are a boon to society and we should be far more accepting and encouraging of this type of immigration than we are.
In short, we should be accepting of all types of immigration.
Immigration is often synonymous with Mexican immigration, and that’s not unwarranted. The largest migration of one country’s citizens to the U.S. was the 12M Mexican immigrants that have come in the last 40 years. However, Mexican immigration has slowed or even stopped (on net) in recent years. There are now more Asian immigrants than all Hispanics.
What I have learned about Mexican immigration
Why more immigration?
There are several reasons to allow more immigration, appealing to our self-interest, our altruism, and our understanding of human rights and liberty.
Black Swan Immigrants
Some immigrants have created life-changing companies, some of them mentioned above. However, we’ve denied entrance to many other potential immigrants. What companies and products have these would-be-immigrants not created because they lack similar opportunities at home? What if someone in Ghana, India, or China, with the right education or opportunity, has a cure for cancer or aging, or an invention that can turn salt water into drinking water economically?
What life-changing or life-saving inventions are we missing out on because a would-be immigrant is not here?
It’s not just about high-tech. If you’ve eaten at any Asian restaurant in the last few years, you’ve probably seen Sriracha sauce, the red hot sauce in a large, round bottle with a green spout. It was named Ingredient of the Year in 2010. Sriracha sauce was created by David Tran, a refugee from Vietnam whose company is named after the freighter ship on which he escaped from Vietnam, the Huy Fong.
What foods, flavors, and experiences are we missing out on because a would-be immigrant is not here?
Indeed, not every immigrant will cure cancer or introduce a well-loved food product. We might call these immigrants “Black Swan immigrants,” to borrow a phrase from Nassim Taleb, because they are rare. However, to increase the likelihood of these “Black Swan” events — huge, breakthrough contributions by immigrants — we need to increase the number of rolls of the dice, allowing more immigrants to come here and take their chances. I doubt we, or even they, could know ahead of time what break-through contributions they might make under the right circumstances.
Even if most immigrants won’t make break-through contributions to the world — and again, we won’t know which ones until they have the opportunity — all working immigrants are a positive addition to the economy.
I don’t suppose employers hire immigrants for charity. An immigrant may not speak English as well as a native-born American and may not be familiar with the culture of the customers. To hire an immigrant implies the immigrant will do the job better and/or more affordably than someone else (not to mention the increased cultural richness for the customers and co-workers, which some employers appreciate.) The ability alone to do a job better and/or cheaper is a win for the economy.
Labor is a key ingredient in most products and services we buy. When labor is cheaper, the products and services we consume become less expensive. Imagine cheaper food or electronics, or a less expensive night out at a restaurant. Cheaper products and services also help the poor, even more so than they help the middle-class.
In addition, immigrants don’t just sell us their labor, they buy our products. To have more immigrants in the economy is to increase aggregate demand in the economy.
Because We’re Human
In addition to strong, self-interested reasons to want more immigrants here, allowing more immigration is a way to exercise our altruism and humanity.
To allow immigrants to come here is to let the very poor lift themselves out of poverty. I suspect very few immigrants want a hand-out, and most simply want the opportunity to work. Why take the risk to leave home and live far away from family if not for the opportunity? The “lazy” immigrants don’t immigrate; they stay home.
Immigrants send money to their friends and family in home countries. This is the most ennobling form of international aid. This money reaches individual families, one by one, and is not a large grant of one country to another.
Where is the compassion for the desperately poor people who come here to work, helping themselves, their children, and us? 3/
— Russell Roberts (@EconTalker) August 4, 2015
We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) July 8, 2013
A Natural Right
In addition to economic and altruistic reasons, a belief in natural rights also supports immigration. This is the idea that we have natural rights from our Creator, or from our humanity, that precede and supercede government institutions.
The right to travel is an individual personal human right, long recognized under the natural law as immune from governmental interference. Of course, governments have been interfering with this right for millennia. The Romans restricted the travel of Jews; Parliament restricted the travel of serfs; Congress restricted the travel of slaves; and starting in the late 19th century, the federal government has restricted the travel of non-Americans who want to come here and even the travel of those already here. All of these abominable restrictions of the right to travel are based not on any culpability of individuals, but rather on membership in the groups to which persons have belonged from birth.
Yet, the freedom to travel is a fundamental natural right. This is not a novel view. In addition to Aquinas and Jefferson, it has been embraced by St. Augustine, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II and Justice Clarence Thomas. Our fundamental human rights are not conditioned or even conditionable on the laws or traditions of the place where our mothers were physically located when we were born. They are not attenuated because our mothers were not in the United States at the moment of our births. Stated differently, we all possess natural rights, no more and no less than any others. All humans have the full panoply of freedom of choice in areas of personal behavior protected from governmental interference by the natural law, no matter where they were born. — Judge Andrew Napolitano
In the 19th century, the Burlingame Treaty between the United States and China’s Qing Dynasty, recognized “the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of … free migration and emigration … for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents”. Wikipedia
But immigrants use our government programs
While I suspect few immigrants come here for the government benefits, but for work opportunities, it’s worth looking at this.
Temporary immigrants and undocumented immigrants are generally ineligible for benefits. Lawful permament residents are eligible after 5 years. One source indicates immigrants are less likely to receive public benefits and when they do, they use less than native-born people. 
In fact, it may be true that allowing more immigrant workers will help the social security program, precisely at a time when there are many baby boomers retiring and not enough young workers to fund it. 
It’s true that temporary or undocumented immigrants may use emergency room services and schools. However, isn’t public education considered a public good precisely because the education of youth should have a multiplying effect in society? Why would that not also apply to immigrants?
Bill Niskanen said, “build a wall around the welfare state, not around the country.” 
But immigrants steal our jobs
The idea that a job “belongs” to a country strikes me as odd. Why not let the employer and employee decide?
But immigrants use our government programs and steal our jobs
Marc Andreessen identified the irony of the above two claims, side by side:
"Immigrants steal our jobs!" "Immigrants refuse to work, and instead soak up social benefits!"
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) September 7, 2015
He also said if immigrants steal our jobs, so do our children.
@bm_ Yep. Also if positive net migration was bad, then babies would also be bad. Job-stealing little scamps.
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) September 8, 2015
But immigrants depress our wages
As mentioned above, when labor costs can be reduced, the system is working. This means lower prices for you on a variety of products and services.
But immigrants are criminals
“Although a host of reasons exists to expect that immigrants are high-crime prone, the bulk of empirical studies conducted over the past century have found that immigrants are typically underrepresented in criminal statistics.”
But if we open our doors wider, we’ll have a flood of immigrants. They will overwhelm our cities and infrastructure.
Counterintuitively, strict immigration controls may have the effect of keeping people here that would like to go home. If you’re a migrant farm worker, why go home in the off-season if it will be difficult to return?
Ronald Reagan…championed a version of open borders: “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems? Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then, while they’re working and earning here, they’d pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back. They can cross. Open the borders both ways.”
But immigrants don’t assimilate
Suppose immigrants really don’t assimilate, that is, become “normal Americans”. That doesn’t really bother me. We live in a pluralistic society with a variety of cultures. Immigrants have every economic incentive to integrate with society at large, so I see no reason to force it. It will happen naturally.
In any case, one study showed, “Immigrants have opinions barely discernible from those of native-born Americans.” One hypothesis was, “Those who decide to come here mostly admire American institutions or have opinions on policy that are very similar to those of native-born Americans.” That is, immigrants may have some pre-existing affinity toward the U.S. or they might not have come here.
I see the issues of immigration and terrorism as orthogonal to each other. That may not be entirely true, but consider this. A wall around the U.S. would not have kept out any of the 19 terrorists involved in the 9/11 attack, who came here on a variety of student, tourist, or business visas. It’s also not clear to me that reducing legal immigration levels to zero would have prevented the attacks, nor is it clear that increasing legal immigration now will mean future attacks.
While I appreciate law enforcement efforts to reduce terrorist threats, terrorism is so statistically rare that I don’t see wisdom in connecting it closely with immigration policy. (You are more likely to be killed by disease, car crash, or lightning strike than by terrorism.)
OK, but immigrants must learn English
A non-English-speaking immigrant has every incentive to learn English to improve his/her own opportunities. One such incentive would be to access government services or apply for citizenship, but immigration alone would not require knowledge of English. I see no need for a language requirement.
OK, but only if immigrants come (or come back) legally. No amnesty.
I find this argument interesting. If the only thing you dislike about immigration is that illegal immigrants came here illegally, why don’t we simply wave our wand, declare them forgiven, and welcome them to full fellowship in the economy? That would solve their problem and ours, our problem being the dissonance about their being here illegally.
I suspect that any punitive effort to “get tough” on illegal immigrants — requiring them to pay a fine, requiring them to go home and “get in line,” asking them to pay back taxes — will not work. Illegals are already here illegally. They’re already in the shadows. Why not break down the barriers, make it easy for them to join the ranks of tax-paying workers, and welcome them to society?
Bad Policy Ideas
There is no wall high enough, deep enough, or with enough laser-shooting drones patroling it, that can physically keep people out of the United States. When you hear a politican say, “Let’s build a wall,” it should trigger your spidey sense. Discussion about building a wall is a way for politicians to sound tough on immigration, possibly pandering to a crowd, and a great way to give a large contractor millions of tax-payer dollars. Dismiss this idea out of hand when you hear it.
E-Verify is a federal program to track the right to work of each employee. The idea is that if you apply for a new job, the employer looks up your name in a national database and proves that you can legally work. Four states require all their employers to participate in E-Verify: Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
A recent audit of E-Verify concluded that the system has an error rate of 0.3 to 0.7%, meaning that if all 150M American workers were run through the system, 450,000 to a 1M workers would be incorrectly flagged as ineligible to work. If you were incorrectly flagged as illegal, imagine a DMV-like experience to resolve the issue and earn back the “right” to work.
Breaking up families through deportation
In 2010, 87% of immigrants deported to Mexico were male, and 34% of those were married. 53% of the total (male and female) were the head of their household. Breaking up families by deporting individuals strikes me as a horrible idea. It may also cause a previously self-sufficient home to become dependent on community or government programs.
“Removing millions of undocumented workers from the economy would also remove millions of entrepreneurs, consumers and taxpayers. The economy would actually lose jobs. Second, native-born workers and immigrant workers tend to possess different skills that often complement one another.” 
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs stated, “Without the undocumented population, Texas’ work force would decrease by 6.3 percent” and Texas’ gross state product would decrease by 2.1 percent. Furthermore, certain segments of the U.S. economy, like agriculture, are entirely dependent upon illegal immigrants.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that, “about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were unauthorized, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico.” The USDA has also warned that, “any potential immigration reform could have significant impacts on the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry.” From the perspective of National Milk Producers Federation in 2009, retail milk prices would increase by 61 percent if its immigrant labor force were eliminated.
The average tourist from China spends $6,243 during his or her trip, and the average tourists from India and Brazil spend $6,131 and $4,940, respectively. But long waits for visas – more than 100 days for an interview in Brazil – have resulted in tourists traveling elsewhere. Between 2000 and 2010, these delays cost the United States $606 billion in travel and tourism output, 467,000 American jobs, and as many as 78 million visitors.
I have attempted to persuade you that immigration is fully a good thing. Admittedly, I have not proposed any policy specifics. Instead, I’m proposing we start by looking more kindly at immigrants. As you evaluate candidates and political proposals, and discuss this issue with friends, look more favorably on immigration.
Look skeptically at politicians who label immigrants as a problem. To get “tough on immigration” should sound as odd to us as getting tough on any other good thing. Would it not sound off to hear, “tough on innovation,” “tough on economic growth,” “tough on culture,” or “tough on the poor”? “Tough on immigration” should sound equally odd.
I see increased immigration as the humane, liberty-minded, small-government, pro-economic-growth approach.
There is room for discussion about policy details, but on the margins we should look more favorably at immigration.
At a personal level, an immigrant does not need to be well-educated, speak English, have special skills, or have documents to be welcome here.
Further Watching and Reading
- Let Them In? How Immigration Can Help the Economy – Learn Liberty
- Economic and Moral Factors in Favor of Open Immigration by Alex Tabarrok
- Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere by Bryan Caplan
- 5 immigration myths debunked
- A comic about aliens
- Foreigners Are Our Friends