I’ve just finished reading Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, originally published in 1995 and made freely available in 2007 (the book is available for free download here and has a Wikipedia page here). The book is part of the anti-open borders reading list on this website.
I was expecting that I would disagree extensively with the book, given its advocacy of immigration restriction, but I was surprised to see a number of points where I was in agreement with the author. Further, the book was more pleasant and less polemical to read than I’d expected, given the standard fare at VDARE, an immigration restrictionist website that Peter Brimelow founded.
Below, I list some of the many points of agreement:
- Brimelow points out that US immigration policy is pretty far from open borders. He critiques the term “immigration floodgates” and instead suggests the term “immigration scuttles” to describe the workings of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965:
The 1965 Immigration Act did not open the immigration floodgates: it opened the immigration scuttles — the influx is very substantial, but it spurts lopsidedly from a remarkably small number of
countries, just as when some of the scuttles are opened in one side of a ship.
- Brimelow writes in the preface:
There is a fundamental distinction to be made between immigration in principle and immigration in practice. Obeisance to the former is preventing observation of the latter. Readers may well disagree with much in this book. But I believe that they will also be left disagreeing with at least some of the workings of the post- 1965 immigration system.
I think Brimelow is right to point out that support for open borders, or for freer immigration, is not the same as support for the status quo or for existing immigration policies.
- Brimelow writes in the preface:
Firstly, the emphasis placed by the 1965 Act on “family reunification” rather than the importation of workers to fill specific labor needs. Secondly, the magnet of the modern American welfare state.
Both have served to uncouple immigration from American economic conditions . . . and, not coincidentally, from American economic needs.
As somebody who thinks that immigration of all forms should be freer, I am reluctant to critique family reunification in favor of skilled migration because I don’t think that the “total number of immigrants” needs to be held fixed (see also high versus low skill). However, there is a reasonable case to be made that, assuming that the total number of immigrants is held constant (a highly questionable and artificial assuption), a greater emphasis on skills-based immigration would be best for the welfare, both of the immigrant-receiving country, and of the world at large. Alex Tabarrok, who generally supports freer immigration, also makes the same point.
Brimelow’s critique of the relationship between immigration and the welfare state is also important, though (I think) overstated. See the welfare objection and contraction of welfare state pages for more.
- Brimelow is right to critique some elements of US immigration policy, such as (about Page 80):
Every country treated equally. All are entitled to contribute a maximum number of immigrants (recently 25,620) to the United States. (Regardless of size — compare India with Monaco! Regardless of historic contribution to the American population — compare Britain, Ireland and Germany with Mexico, the Philippines or Dominica! Regardless of whether the country splits up, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which promptly doubled their entitlement — again, putting U.S. immigration policy in foreign hands!)
In a world with open borders, there wouldn’t be limits on the number of immigrants from any country.
- Brimelow rightly points out that immigration is not “necessary” for economic growth, though it may boost economic growth. He also correctly critiques some pro-immigration arguments that simply claim the expanded size of a local economy as a benefit of immigration, and suggests two alternative approaches: the analytical nationalist perspective that compares per capita measures before and after immigration, and the citizenist perspective that compares the “with immigration” and “without immigration” scenarios for those who are currently citizens. He writes (about Page 58-59):
What does “economic growth” mean anyway? Basically it can be viewed three ways:
1. growth of overall national income — literally, any increase in the size of a country’s output. Of course, if immigration increases the workforce at all, it must cause such an increase, even if it’s just one immigrant mowing lawns.
2. growth in national income per capita — increase per head of the population, including the new heads that have just immigrated. This could happen, for example, if all immigrants earned more than the national average … as perhaps they might if they were just those Ph.D.s. Immigration of this sort would be a real economic luxury. Government policy could easily arrange it. It just hasn’t.
3. growth of the national income received by native-born Americans — that is, the Americans already here increase their standard of living because of the presence of immigrants, even if the immigrants themselves don’t rise to the same level.
Thus the American lawn-owner is happy to pay to have his lawn mowed. The lawn-mowing immigrant is happy too (presumably). And national output will rise by the amount of the wages he receives. But national income per capita will fall — because those wages are far below the national average.
Obviously, immigration that results in point 2, everyone getting richer on average, is the easiest to defend. And immigration that results in point 3, native-born Americans getting richer, is at least
rational in economic terms. But it might be socially disturbing if it led to a racially distinct, lawn-mowing servant caste.
Immigration that just results in point 1, some (possibly minimal) growth in overall output, is the most questionable. How much growth are we talking about anyway? One mowed lawn’s worth? And why should native-born Americans put up with immigration at all if they themselves don’t get significant— make that significant — benefits?
Unfortunately, point 1, some (possibly minimal) growth in overall output, is just about the only thing we can be sure that immigration achieves. It does generate instant population growth. The host country can’t achieve instant population growth by other policies. And an instantly larger population can be very useful if you are seizing a continent or fighting a war (at least before high-tech weapons).
Thus it’s possible to imagine all kinds of awful things if the United States had not increased its population quickly in the late nineteenth century. Just think: the Southwest might have been reoccupied by Mexico!
But, from an economic standpoint, instantly acquiring more people is not so obviously useful. A country’s living standard is expressed by its output per capita, not just by its sheer output. The
economies of Britain and China had about the same output in the early nineteenth century. But Britannia could afford to rule the waves while China was starving, because British output was fifteen times higher per capita than Chinese output.
- Although this doesn’t make it to his final list of policy recommendations, Brimelow considers favorably the possibility of more open immigration from countries of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. He writes (about Page 86):
In addition, there was the wholly unexpected unfreezing of a sea of potential immigrants in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, as the long Communist winter came to an end.
Not that those Eastern Europeans can get into the United States even if they want to.
And this is a profound tragedy. For there is no more important foreign policy problem facing the United States than the stabilization of the lands comprising the former Soviet bloc, to ensure that no further dragons arise there to trouble the final years of this most troubled of centuries. And there could be no surer way of binding that region into the civilized world than allowing, for a period at least, the immigration to the United States of hundreds of thousands of its tormented (although, incidentally, highly skilled) populace.
This is not quite the same as, but fits in well with, the material at emigration: escaping communism.
- Brimelow’s critique of the restrictive immigration policies of countries other than the US, and his argument that the moral case for open borders should apply to all countries, not just the US (Page 251 onward, Chapter Doing The Right Thing? The Morality of Immigration):
While we’re on this subject of the morality of immigration, let’s ask a question of our own:
• If immigration is such a moral imperative, why don’t the Mexicans/Chinese/Indians/Koreans/ Japanese (fill in any of the other recent top-ten suppliers of immigrants to the United States) allow it?
Don’t say: “These countries already have enough people.” The United States already has more than all of them except mainland China and India.
And don’t say: “They’re too poor.” As we have seen, the whole economic theory of immigration, as developed by immigration enthusiasts, is that immigration does not displace workers: it complements them. Well, it should work both ways.
Moreover, most of these countries are lacking in the very skills that Americans have in abundance — both technical and entrepreneurial. Finally, it’s precisely in these low-income countries that the returns to these skills are relatively the highest. That’s why George Borjas argues that Third World immigration to the United States is “negatively selected,” with the unskilled having more incentive to come. (See page 144, Chapter 7.) And it’s why there are thousands of young Americans in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, running small businesses and helping it develop — between 30,000 and 50,000 in the Czech Republic alone, according to some estimates.
But there is no equivalent young American community in China — although its economy has recently been growing at a sustained real rate of 10 percent a year, the fastest recorded growth rate in history and enough to make a lot of millionaires.
For comparison, note that there are about 28,500 Americans living in Hong Kong (population: 6 million). 12 If you project a similar ratio for all of China (population: 1.2 billion), that suggests a possible total of 5.7 million American expatriates.
Well, why not? After all, there are 1.6 million U.S. residents of Chinese origin.
This is why not: if you phone the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, D.C., and ask about immigrating, you get this answer:
Chinese embassy official [laughs]: “China does not accept any immigrants. We have a large enough population. A foreigner can visit on a tourist visa that can be extended for up to six months. Then
you must leave. To apply for a temporary work permit, you must first have an official letter of invitation from a company authorized by the Chinese government.”
In 1992, mainland China was the sixth largest contributor of immigrants to the United States — sending 38,907, about 3 percent of the total.
Americans get laughed at a lot when they ask about emigrating to the countries whose citizens are immigrating here. Or worse:
Mexico (number one 1992 immigrant contributor, with 91,332— plus 122,470 legalized under IRCA): “Unless you are hired by a Mexican company that obtains a temporary work permit, or are a retiree older than sixty-five who can prove financial self-sufficiency, you must get a six-month tourist visa and apply in person to the Ministry of the Interior in Mexico City. If your visa expires before the process is completed, you must get a new visa and begin again.”
Not surprisingly, there are only about 25,000 legal immigrants to Mexico each year. Mexico also devotes a lot of energy to hunting down illegal immigrants, mainly from Central America. They are deported — 80,000 in the first six months of 1990 alone — without right of appeal. Foreign residents are bureaucratically discouraged from becoming Mexican citizens. But guess what? Natives of Spain and other Latin American countries get special treatment. 
South Korea (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 19,359): “Korea does not accept immigrants.”
Philippines (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 61,022): You need to be married to a Filipino or have capital to invest. Otherwise: “Put your request in writing and mail it to the Immigration Department in Manila.”
Taiwan (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 16,344): “Wow! I can’t answer that question. Let me transfer you to my supervisor.” You need Taiwanese relatives by blood or marriage, or investment capital.
Jamaica (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 18,915): “You cannot simply immigrate to Jamaica. You can only enter Jamaica as a tourist [for a maximum of six months] or as a worker. To obtain a work permit, you must first have a job offer. Either the company or you must fill out the necessary documentation for a work permit. After working in Jamaica for more than five years, you can then apply for permanent residency status — but you must submit numerous personal records proving your financial stability and good character. Such records include an annual report of total income, bank statements and an estimate of the value of all the property you own in Jamaica and overseas and your police record. It is quite a process.”
Egypt (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 3,576): “Egypt is not an immigrant country. We do not permit immigrants. While work permits exist, when the specific assignment is completed, the individual must leave the country.”
And my personal favorite:
India (immigrants to the United States in 1992: 36,755): First official: “Are you of Indian origin?” [Told no.] “Submit your question in writing to the embassy.” [Hangs up] Second official: “Are you of Indian origin?” [Asked if important.] “Yes.” [Transfers call.] Third official: “Since you are not of Indian origin, while it is not impossible for you to immigrate to India, it is a very difficult, very complex, and very, very long process. Among other things, it will require obtaining clearances from both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs.”
Note that these Indian officials are asking not about citizenship, but about origin. For those unaccustomed to recognizing such things, this is racial discrimination. It is even more stringent than the 1921 Quota Act — an outright “brown-India policy.”
The world is laughing at America.
This hypocrisy on the part of the major emigrant countries may be only a theoretical issue for most Americans — as yet. However, it’s perfectly possible that the American children of immigrants from these countries might one day want to take their skills back to their ancestral homelands. The liberation of Eastern Europe has already attracted some third-generation Americans to take a look. And tens of thousands of Brazilians of Japanese origin have returned to Japan.
Currently, however, this hypocrisy most hurts the other, poorer, Third World countries. For example, in 1983, Nigeria (immigrants to the United States in 1993: 4,327) expelled up to 2 million illegal immigrants who had come from Ghana, Niger and its other neighbors. In 1985, it expelled another 700,000.