Unworkable delusions: Rethinking open borders
The case for the United States having completely open borders is superficially appealing, at least to those who cherish individual freedom and free-market capitalism. This is why many who embrace the market, particularly libertarians, are intrigued by the idea. The Wall Street Journal used to annually editorialize on behalf of a constitutional amendment that would open US borders to anyone willing to enter. The late Julian Simon was a passionate believer in expanded immigration. Jacob Sullum recently opined in Reason magazine that there was no more justification to restrict people’s movement between countries as between the 50 states. My colleagues at Enter Stage Right have eloquently made similar arguments.
Yet immigration is one issue that divides members of the free-market fraternity. Many pro-market thinkers view, with much justification, free flow of capital as being indelibly associated with the free movement of people. Others see this as more of an abstraction, with the concrete reality being that immigration, particularly from the Third World, actually undermines the market by growing the welfare state. Ayn Rand believed in unfettered immigration, while Murray Rothbard held that there was no right to immigrate and John Hospers, the Libertarian Party’s first presidential candidate, has expressed skepticism about open borders. Although much of the free-market opposition to this concept and liberalized immigration generally has come from conservatives, Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Alan Keyes have all spoken in favor of increased immigration.
Open-border immigration conceptually appeals to individualism. Its proponents note that people should be free to work, move and seek a better life for themselves and their families regardless of bureaucratic regulations and geographic distinctions. George Will has noted that the act of immigration itself demonstrates personal initiative. Immigration laws, according to open-borders proponents, invite bureaucratic harassment of employers, regulatory red tape, intrusion into people’s lives, interruption of family connections, discrimination and otherwise prevent people from achieving their own good in their own way while similarly depriving others of immigrants’ skills within the marketplace.
All of this is to some degree true and all of it is unfortunate, yet open borders remain an unsustainable situation for the United States (or any major country, for that matter) and an ultimately self-defeating proposition for its market-minded defenders. It should be stated at this point that terms like “pro-immigration” and “anti-immigration” are crass oversimplifications. Virtually no one opposes all immigration to the United States, and even proponents of a moratorium such as Alan Caruba favor the resumption of immigration at the end of that specified period. Many of the leading advocates of immigration restriction evidence their lack of intrinsic hostility toward immigrants by being immigrants themselves, such as John O’Sullivan, George Borjas and Peter Brimelow. Similarly, indefatigable immigration enthusiasts like Julian Simon and Milton Friedman have indicated their belief that a totally open border isn’t feasible.
It has been noted that at least 1.2 million immigrants, both legal and illegal, come to these shores annually. Presently, immigrants account for about a tenth of the population, the largest share in decades, the largest absolute number in history and a 43 percent increase since 1990. It is not difficult to envision 2 to 3 million a year entering the United States if all immigration restrictions were lifted, accounting for nearly all our population growth. Those who see no problem with this and its probable contribution to the crowding in certain areas of the country should consider this immigration’s likeliest sources. Even in the absence of immigration laws dictating who may or may not come in, people from all over the world will not immigrate here equally. Open border immigration is likely to favor countries in the Western Hemisphere to our south, as they are closest.
These are the same countries that have provided the largest proportion of our immigrants since the Immigration Act of 1965. Since 1965, the pool of immigrants has been increasingly mismatched with the US labor market and characterized by deteriorating relative skill levels. In 1970, the average recent immigrant had 0.35 years less schooling than the average native-born American. By 1990, the average recent immigrant had 1.32 year less schooling. This educational gap has only continued to widen. While immigrants on average earned 3 percent more than native-born Americans in 1970, they earned 16.2 percent less by 1990. Immigrants who had arrived within the past five years earned 16.6 percent less than the native-born population in 1970, but this gap increased to 31.7 percent in 1990. With open borders, there is reason to believe that the importation of unskilled labor and attendant economic stratification would continue and perhaps escalate.
Those who advocate open borders as part of a free-market economy ignore the reality that America has been transformed from a federal constitutional republic into an affirmative action welfare state. The immigrants who will come in from Mexico, Central America and South America in great numbers are, due to relatively low skills, statistically more likely to go on welfare and demographically eligible to benefit from racial preferences. Expanding the affirmative action welfare state does not make the United State a freer society. That these policies should be repealed in favor of returning to federalism, constitutionalism and republicanism is no argument for open borders. It is clear that such an immigration policy would exacerbate these problems and make repeal of these contraptions politically even less likely than they are now. Is anyone naïve enough to believe that welfare programs will be repealed as we import more poor people or that racial preferences will be repealed as we increase the number of eligible beneficiaries?
Indeed, approximately 9.1 percent of immigrant households participate in various welfare programs versus 7.4 percent of native-born households. Immigrant households consumed roughly 13.1 percent of cash welfare benefits in 1990. Some immigrant groups have even higher welfare participation rates, such as Mexicans (11.3 percent), Dominicans (27.9 percent), Vietnamese (25.8 percent) and Cambodians (46.8 percent). Additionally, 83 percent of legal immigrants admitted since 1990 belong to affirmative-actionable groups. Again, open borders are likely to increase these numbers.
Not only is it questionable whether we want to import on a massively scale cheap labor that will increase social inequality and entrench the affirmative action welfare state, there are practical considerations that must be made. Should we accept murderers? Other countries’ prisoners (considering Castro has sent his criminals to the US before and that immigrants presently comprise 25 percent of the federal prison population)? What about communicable diseases? Open-border advocates ignore these issues. What would the consequences be for Israel if its borders were opened to whatever Palestinians wanted to come? What would the consequences be for America if half the Chinese Communist Party came here to live? What if as many as 150 million people, more than half our current population, decided to immigrate here unrestricted within a few short years? All of these have obvious consequences for Americans already here and for people all over the world who might immigrate here. None of them are recognized by the abstractions open-borders proponents seize on.
A number of thoughtful analysts have questioned whether countries such as Mexico (which has a very strict immigration policy) deliberately use the US as a safety valve and encourage their poorest citizens to immigrate, legally or otherwise. If so, open borders would leave us completely vulnerable. The income inequality that would result isn’t likely to produce the kind of society libertarians would like.
Steve Sailer has noted that our vast continental nation has offered many generations of Americans cheap land and high wages, providing the unprecedented conditions necessary for widely distributed land and property ownership. This is why America has been more successful at avoiding socialism than Britain and other similar countries – fewer people perceived a need for it. Bringing in large numbers of poor and unskilled people will increase inequality and produce conditions more favorable for socialism. Those faced with expensive land, low wages and social disharmony clamor for more state control, income redistribution and political favoritism.
Far better to preserve the conditions that make the US a free society with a vibrant capitalist economy and allow the peoples of the world to reap the benefits through free trade. As Peter Brimelow has noted, free trade is on many levels more a substitute for immigration than a complement to it, and free trade will benefit the Third World poor.
Immigration does contribute mightily to this country and has improved the lives of countless people around the world seeking opportunity in America. This does not mean it can occur without regard to the consequences for America or the conditions that make America such a beacon of hope and opportunity. We should strive for a more prudent and humane immigration policy without entertaining philosophically appealing but practically unworkable delusions of open borders.