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Immigrants on an ocean steamer, headed for Ellis Island, 1887

The Conservative Case for Legalizing Immigration

As Trump might say, “Make Immigration Legal Again”

This article was adapted from the February 27, 2022 edition of The Bob Zadek Show, featuring Benjamin Powell on the Economics of Immigration.

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One of the hallmarks of American conservatism is a longing to return to the ‘good old days’ when the United States was still a beacon of liberty to which the rest of the world sought to either immigrate (or at least imitate). Today, there is no shortage of glum news suggesting that we are no longer the envy of the world. George W. Bush’s post-9/11 line about the terrorists hating us “for our freedoms” would be viewed more suspiciously if it were delivered today.

Among the most troubling, but overlooked symptoms of America’s decline from the “shining city on a hill” is the fact that our population is growing at the slowest rate in our country’s history. This is partly attributable to the smaller number of immigrants we naturalize each year compared with the earlier part of our history — before the rise of discriminatory policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I recently sat down with Benjamin Powell, the director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, and senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, to discuss some of the persistent myths around immigration that lead many (mostly conservative) U.S. citizens to wrongly assume that we can’t go back to the Founders’ immigration policy of “let them all in.”

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The New Economic Case for Immigration Restrictions

First, we talked about his new book Wretched Refuse? The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions (co-authored with the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh), which tackles the most important potential argument against freer immigration — the so-called “new economic case for immigration restrictions”. Here’s how Powell defines it:

“The new economic case for immigration restrictions, made by Harvard economist George Borjas, Paul Collier, and others, is really not that new. It goes back to our Founding Fathers, who worried about immigrants coming and destroying our liberty.

The new case basically is, “Well, immigrants bring informal or formal institutions from their origin countries that are responsible for those countries being poor in the first place, and those beliefs could change the formal and informal rules that govern a destination country like the United States in a way that would make us less productive.”

Imagine Cuban immigrants fled socialist Cuba and came to Florida with the pro-socialist ideas that turned Florida socialist. Cubans then would not see the big increase in income from leaving Cuba and going to Florida, and Floridians would all become poor as a result.

We take the new case for economic immigration restrictions seriously and we address case studies of different things like corruption and freedoms that they could impact and ask if there is very much evidence for this. To preview the results, the answer is “No,” and in fact, quite often, the opposite is true.”

Do Immigrants Bring Dysfunctional Values with Them?

You might wonder why it tends to be conservatives who have this fear of immigrants changing our culture. Perhaps it’s because progressives welcome a change in our culture, and secretly hope that immigrants will vote for more liberal social policies. However, this idea runs into a challenge — both empirically and philosophically.

First, how could our system — freedom — be so fragile that it could be destroyed by immigrants who gamble everything to come here? Is it sensible to assume that large numbers of people will leave poverty and tyranny to come here, only to see to it that our country becomes just like the one they just left? The psychology doesn’t make much sense, and the reality confirms the flimsiness of this fear. Powell debunks this myth with an analogy that will ease many conservatives’ minds:

“People raise this same objection in Texas, thinking that it is turning purple or blue because of all of the crazy Californians. Is it? The answer is no, actually. Non-native-born Texans vote for Republican candidates at higher rates than native born Texans.

Non-native-born Texans vote for Republican candidates at higher rates than native born Texans.

“Are Californians coming to recreate liberal, California in Texas? No, the Californians who move [to Texas] are more likely to be the ones who want to go buy a gun when they get here.

There’s a selection bias of who chooses to come here. Texas is kind of a thing. If someone just wants to escape the high cost of living in California, they can lower it by moving north to Oregon, or east to Colorado, and still be in crunchy territory. The ones who come here to Texas like the idea of Texas. I say this as a guy who moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Texas to run a Free Market Institute. When immigrants choose to move here, it’s not certainly not with the intent to undermine American institutions that make us wealthy and productive, but instead to become part of that prosperity.”

What Part of Illegal Immigration do You Oppose?

When faced with this kind of argument, many conservatives will respond that they are merely opposed to illegal immigration — not immigration or immigrants themselves.

I always respond by asking, “Well, gee, I’m opposed to illegal everything. When you oppose illegal immigration, is it the illegal part you don’t like, or the immigration part you don’t like?”

Powell is more diplomatic:

“If your sole objection to illegal immigration is the fact that it’s illegal, that’s one of the few things where there’s a magic wand solution: make immigration legal. But I think that many people who say that are actually having other reservations about what would be legal immigration in greater numbers.”

He frequently hears people emphasizing that their grandparents came here legally, suggesting it’s not such a great barrier, to which he says:

“I want to return to the type of migration policy that your great grandparents faced. Ellis Island immigration policy allowed most people in the world to legally come to the United States.

Right now, almost everybody in the world is legally prohibited from migrating to the United States. So we’re going to return to law and order immigration. We’re just not going to restrict the numbers. This is a better way to build bridges with people.”

A Market-Based Solution for Immigration Policy

A return to law and order immigration sounds like a policy that conservatives could finally get behind, while satisfying formerly progressive constituencies of immigrants who have been scapegoated for too long by the Republican party.

Still, some might be afraid of opening up the floodgates with a policy of completely open borders. That’s not what we’re talking about. Of course, potential criminals and terrorists and those with communicable diseases must be screened prior to entry, and furthermore, there are many ways to limit the flow of immigrants to ensure that only those who truly wish to work hard to obtain the American Dream are allowed into the country.

I asked Ben to sweeten the pot a little more, and propose a policy solution that would add some sense of order and benefit to our country for the remaining skeptics out there. This is his proposal:

“The key is to drastically open up paths to legal migration all the way back up to Ellis Island style — meaning anybody can have a legal path here who’s not a criminal or has a contagious disease at the time. If you’re going to have quantitative limitations, we should be using a market to allocate those visas instead of the cumbersome immigration process.

Whatever the number is a visas — 1 million, 5 million, or 10 million — allow employers or relatives to bid on them to grant the right to come here. Hell, allow immigration restrictionists to bid on them so that they could burn the permits!

The only way to get the most efficient mix is to use a market to reconcile the competing demands for those visas. If we had a truly open Ellis Island system, then the market price would be zero, because anybody could get one by showing up.”

Finally, I asked Powell if there might be a danger from erring on the side of overly liberal immigration.

“Yes,” he says, “there is a limit.” However, no human being knows what the limit is.

“We cannot centrally plan an international labor market any better than the Soviet commissars can centrally plan the market for shoes, televisions, or anything else in the Soviet Union.”

And yet the same conservatives who so vehemently oppose central planning of the economy support Soviet-style quotas on immigration.

How do we handle it between US states, Powell asks?

“We allow employers to bid for our labor. We bid on apartments and houses, consider cost of living differences, and then we move or wedon’t move. Nowhere where people are free to move between jurisdictions do you see wage differentials of more than 50%, but yet we see them by orders of magnitude between countries.

We are so far from optimal immigration that we could let this process play out for a long time before we’d be going towards that limit. Market processes would slow it down and stop it. We don’t need the government planners.”

In other words, for now at least, let them all in. I couldn’t agree more. Or as Trump might have said, Make Immigration Legal Again.

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Bob Zadek

Bob Zadek • host of The Bob Zadek Show on 860AM – The Answer.