Immigration is really under-rated. I want to see more of it. We may have misconceptions about immigration that make us worse off. I hope to persuade you to think differently about immigrants and immigration.

The ability to visit, travel, live, or work where you choose is the broad sense of immigration. I am not just speaking about citizenship, with the attendant rights to vote, receive government benefits, etc.

Photo by Kevin Miller
Photo by Kevin Miller

Immigration of highly educated people is apparently the easy part. 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. Similarly, 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.

But we should not stop there.

Even low-skilled or no-skilled immigrants are a benefit to society. We should be far more accepting and encouraging of this type of immigration.

In short, we should be accepting of all types of immigration.

Immigration is often synonymous with Mexican immigration. 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[1]. However, Mexican immigration has slowed or even stopped (on net) in recent years. There are now more Asian immigrants than all Hispanics[2].

What I have learned about Mexican immigration

  • The U.S. border was largely unenforced before 1970. Migrations were seasonal.[3]
  • “By 1980, about half of Mexican immigrants living in the United States were unauthorized” [3]
  • Mexico has been the largest source of immigrants in U.S. history. In the last four decades, roughly 12 million immigrants have come from Mexico. [1]
  • “The Mexican-born population continued to grow until 2007. At that point, the combined effects of the failing U.S. economy, increased border enforcement, more expensive and dangerous crossings, violence at the border, and changes with the Mexican population and economy brought this population growth to a halt.” [3]
  • “In recent years, there appears to be less short-term seasonal migration between Mexico and the U.S., perhaps because of the increased costs and risks of crossing the border.” [3]
  • The net migration from Mexico has stopped; that is, roughly as many people go from the U.S. to Mexico as come from Mexico to the U.S. now. [1]
  • More Asians have immigrated here in the last five years than Hispanics. [2]
  • Border apprehensions are at the lowest since 1971. [4][5]
  • According to a 2010 survey among labor migrants in Mexico who previously worked in the U.S., 20% said they would not return, compared with 7% in 2005. [4]
  • Immigrants to the U.S. are more educated than they’ve ever been and are more likely than the U.S. born to have a degree. 41% of immigrants in the last 5 years have at least a bachelor’s degree. [6]
  • Why more immigration?

    Reasons to allow more immigration include self-interest, altruism, and supporting 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 of an immigrant who 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.[14]

    What foods, flavors, and experiences are we missing out on because an immigrant is not here?

    Not every immigrant will cure cancer or introduce a well-loved food product. We might call those 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.

    Photo by Kevin Miller
    Photo by Kevin Miller

    Working-class immigrants

    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 help the economy.

    Employers don’t hire immigrants for charity. Why would they? The immigrant might not speak English well, and might not be familiar with the culture. It must be the immigrant will do a a better job, at a lower price, or both. That alone 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.

    It’s not just that immigrants sell us their labor. They buy our products too. More immigrants in the economy means more aggregate demand in the economy.

    Because We’re Human

    Besides the self-interested reasons above, friendliness to immigrants is altruistic and humane.

    Immigration allows the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. I suspect very few immigrants want a hand-out. Most simply want to work. Why risk leaving home, living 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.

    A Natural Right

    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. [7]

    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. [8]

    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.” [6]

    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:

    He also said if immigrants steal our jobs, so do our children.

    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.”[9]

    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.”[17]

    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.”[10] That is, immigrants may have some pre-existing affinity toward the U.S. or they might not have come here.

    But terrorism

    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.[11] 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.[12])

    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

    A Wall

    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.

    VIDEO: John Stossel on immigration and building a wall


    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.[13]

    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.[3] 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.

    Mass deportation

    “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.” [18]

    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.[15]

    Restricted tourism

    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.[16]


    I hope I’ve persuaded you to be more favorable to immigration. True, I haven’t proposed any specific policies. 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-growth approach.

    There is room for discussion about policy details, but on the margins we should look more favorably at immigration.

    Further Watching and Reading


    Government Main Politics

    Capitalism is pro-markets; corporatism is pro-business

    I can empathize with the Occupy Wall Street protestors, but my perception is that many of them misunderstand the cause of their pain. They naively blame capitalism; they should blame corporatism.

    Corporatism is the alliance of government and business. It happens on the left (think Solyndra), and on the right (think military-industrial complex), in the Federal government (think bipartisan bailout of GM) and in local government (think Utah naming April 5, 2010 “Cafe Rio day”.)

    Corporatism is pro-business. Specific businesses get government subsidies, above-market-rate contracts, or special recognition.

    Capitalism is pro-market. The consumer decides whether to favor GM or Ford; Cafe Rio, Costa Vida, Bajio, or Chipotle.

    I loved Phil Windley’s post today on how Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, though they seem like polar opposites, actually share a disdain of corporatism and ought to work together to fight it.

    Image source: James Sinclair

    Main Politics Tech Utah

    Seven ways the Internet is changing politics

    1. Last week I attended the opening event of Phil Burns’s new company Politic2.0, a platform for communication between politicians and citizens. When I first heard about the event, I was skeptical that it would be anything more than the buzz-word-ification of another niche, but by the end of the event I was really impressed with what had happened.

    Utah Congressman Chris Cannon was the guest of honor, and there were about 25 attendees. The website allowed us to post and vote on questions, Digg style, and then the MC addressed the most popular questions to Mr. Cannon. Participation wasn’t limited to people in the room; anybody online could submit questions, vote, and leave comments on the website. Live video was streamed to the website.

    It was a Darwinian press conference. The most popular questions were asked; no one person could dominate the conversation with his own agenda. Mr. Cannon said he felt a disconnect because most of our heads were down while we typed and clicked, but because I was able to influence the conversation, I felt very connected. I liked it so much I contacted a couple friends so they could hop on the website during the event.

    The process still needs polishing, but Mr. Cannon’s participation was commendable and it was a good first draft for Politic2.0. I hope other politicians will participate.

    Pete Ashdown

    2. The Politic2.0 platform allowed us to collaborate on our questions, but not on the answers. When Pete Ashdown ran for U.S. Senate last year, he used a wiki to allow citizens to collaborate on policy solutions. I personally edited a page or two and found it refreshing that the ideas were being debated on their own merits and that someone (Pete) cared to listen. It’s humbling and realistic for politicians to realize they don’t have all the answers. Maybe together we do.

    3. IT Conversations is my favorite source for podcasts. This week its founder, Doug Kaye, launched PodCorps (via), which aims to “record and publish important spoken-word events anywhere in the world.” PodCorps will call on an army of volunteers to record lectures, political events, and talks in their local communities. These amateur recordings by you and me will be posted online for all to hear. What would otherwise be some inconsequential talk on an obscure topic in a far away place will find far more listeners. Politicians can’t pander to local interests if everyone is “watching.” The transparency will encourage consistency.

    4. C-Span, the nonprofit cable network that records Senate and House proceedings (and for most people is the fastest way to fall asleep), keeps ownership of over 85% of its video — video that should be in the public domain. Carl Malamud, the creator of the first Internet radio station, recently wrote a letter to C-Span petitioning that all its video be released into the public domain and explaining how the Internet makes their mission of promoting open government even easier.

    5. Phil Windley has blogged repeatedly about the Utah Senate Majority’s website, At the site Utahns will find a group blog and podcast where local politicians explain and debate policy.

    6. Mitt Romney and other presidential candidates are using YouTube to engage with citizens. Mitt Romney on Youtube In a YouTube video, Mitt asked people “What is America’s single greatest challenge?” Seventy-one people responded with short videos of their own.

    7. Candidates are using Facebook and MySpace to stay connected with supporters. Because of Facebook, I know Mitt is in Iowa today.

    Anything else?

    As our world becomes more complex and the job of politician more difficult, it’s increasingly important that we be closely connected with the people that represent us.