United States | July 14, 2013 at 9:10 pm

The Land of Opportunity: Dead on Arrival

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Statue_of_libertyThis past Wednesday, House Republicans asserted that the landmark Senate-passed “Gang of Eight” immigration bill would be “dead on arrival.” They vowed to pursue their own legislation which would further militarize the southwestern border and be far less accommodating for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

The libertarian position on immigration is simple, moral, and practical: allow individuals to move freely across the border. This doesn’t mean that there is no border at all. On the contrary, there would be legal channels through which prospective immigrants can travel, with no arbitrary limits or criteria for skills or education. If you’re not a criminal or a known terrorist, welcome to America.

Unfortunately, this view now seems radical to many. Americans worry about the effects such an open policy would have on American culture, national security, and, most convincingly, the economy. Indeed, even Milton Friedman (a well-known libertarian) feared the effects open immigration might have in combination with the American welfare state.

But as immigration reform reaches the House, it is perhaps more important than ever to consider the libertarian view. Otherwise, restoring the land of opportunity may indeed be an ideal that is dead on arrival.

First, “American culture” isn’t something to be threatened by immigration. In fact, our country had an open-border policy for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when that very American culture was being formed. America is a nation of immigrants, and its culture changes inevitably over time. Can one imagine how an American citizen from the 1850s might evaluate today’s culture? They would almost certainly lament a “cultural breakdown” and an utter loss of all things American.

Indeed, the “national culture” argument is archaic and unconvincing. As Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute pointed out: “Immigration always has been controversial in the United States. More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin worried that too many German immigrants would swamp America’s predominantly British culture. In the mid-1800s, Irish immigrants were scorned as lazy drunks, not to mention Roman Catholics. At the turn of the century a wave of “new immigrants”—Poles, Italians, Russian Jews—were believed to be too different to ever assimilate into American life. Today, the same fears are raised about immigrants from Latin America and Asia, but current critics of immigration are as wrong as their counterparts were in previous eras. Changes in culture are only natural, because culture is created spontaneously from the bottom-up, not preserved or shaped from the top-down. Attempting to use government to somehow “protect” an abstract sense of national culture is foolish.

Concerns over national security are similarly misguided. In fact, an open immigration policy would actually improve national security because it would transfer would-be illegal immigrants into legal channels. Those who seek to live and work peacefully in the United States are unlikely to go through illegal channels when they can do so legally. On the contrary, criminals and terrorists that can’t travel through such legal channels will continue attempting to enter the country illegally. Thus, our Border Patrol would actually be able to spot criminals and terrorists, as opposed to searching for them as dangerous needles in haystacks of peaceful prospective immigrants.

The economic argument against immigration—that huge waves of immigrants will over-burden our welfare state and cripple our economy—is at first the most convincing. But these dire predictions consider only one side of the ledger. Immigrants would also have a hugely positive impact on the economy, GDP growth, economy productivity, and thus on tax revenue. They would increase the amount of jobs in the economy and, as consumers, increase the amount of goods and services purchased. All of these things work to increase American income.

Considering the net effect, then, our common sense that the free flow of human capital maximizes economic growth is confirmed. Professor Hinojosa-Ojeda of UCLA estimates that immigration reform would increase U.S. GDP by $1.5 trillion in the ten years after enactment, not to mention that immigrants who use taxpayer-provided public goods will be able to do so as productive members of society rather than illegal residents.

Even this analysis, however, is a bit troubling, because it looks at immigrants as cold economic actors. It is perhaps most important to remember that immigrants are human beings who deserve respect and fairness. Our own grandparents were able to come to American and make lives for themselves. Why shouldn’t today’s immigrants also have the opportunity to be future Americans’ grandparents?

If we are going to honor the promise of the Statue of Liberty and continue to be the land of freedom and opportunity, then we need immigration reform. And not the kind being proposed by today’s House Republicans. Further militarizing the US border would be embarrassing for a nation built on immigrants.

So when reform finally does reach the House floor, I hope for a different outcome. I hope instead that conservative members of the House will decide to conserve the principles of individual liberty and constitutional adherence that they say they conserve on the evening news. Only then can we still call ourselves the land of freedom and opportunity with an honest conscience and strong faith.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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