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Support for open borders is a fundamental tenet of libertarianism, and David Brat is not a libertarian

I live in Virginia, where unknown challenger David Brat just recently made US national news as a political giant-killer, toppling Eric Cantor from his Congressional seat and running on a vehemently anti-immigration, anti-open borders campaign. Cantor was widely seen as a strong candidate for next Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his loss was a huge shock to the US political establishment. A lot of ink’s been spilled on this, but I want to focus specifically on the libertarian response to Brat’s unexpected victory.

Brat teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, and generally describes himself both as a strong Christian and an adherent of Ayn Rand, a very influential thinker in the libertarian movement. He makes a lot of strong nods to libertarianism in his political rhetoric, although I’m unclear whether he self-identifies as libertarian.

Either way, I honestly don’t care that much about the outcome of this election: I have never liked Cantor, and although he has made some welcome limited moves towards amnesty for some irregular immigrants, he has basically been more pro-closed borders than many others in the political establishment (which says something). It is pretty amazing that Brat campaigned in part on the basis of alleging that Cantor supports open borders, and disappointing that Brat won, but it’s unclear how far his victory reflects voters’ stance on immigration or other policy areas, versus their general distaste for Cantor as a politician and legislator. I wouldn’t even bother to comment on this brouhaha, if not for how libertarians on the internet seem to be reacting to Brat’s win.

Now, full credit to the various libertarian analysts I’ve seen writing about Brat on immigration — virtually all of them dismiss his closed borders stance as inconsistent with libertarianism:

But reading through the reader comments on all these pieces, one cannot help but be struck at the amazing number of self-identified libertarians who are not just skeptical of open borders but outright opposed to it. If they support Brat for his alignment with Christian ideals or Randian thought, perhaps they ought to be aware that to the extent the Bible speaks about borders, it actually advocates for immigrant rights and the human right to migration (see our blog posts tagged Christianity), and that Rand was “indignant” at the idea of opposing open borders.

Although my personal policy stances (not just on immigration) tend to lean libertarian, like some other libertarian-leaners I have some skepticism about identifying as libertarian — in part because of the paleoconservative right-wingers who seem to occupy a disproportionate space in the libertarian movement. Either way, I lean libertarian, and so I feel somewhat obligated to engage with the idea that opposing open borders is consistent with the ideas of libertarianism.

In my view, it is impossible for a consistent libertarian to oppose open borders. One of the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism, which has been adopted (at least in name) by most of its descendants — including modern left liberalism and modern libertarianism — is respect for the individual’s rights and dignity. Prohibiting individuals from moving freely is a prima facie violation of these individuals’ rights. Now, in some or many cases, violating these individuals’ rights may be justified. But what sort of justifications can we provide that would be acceptable to libertarians?

The libertarian case for open borders hinges on the opinion — though I am tempted to call it fact — that you cannot justify arbitrary restrictions on the movement of individual people without resorting to fundamentally illiberal excuses which (to a libertarian) unjustly put the interests of the government or state ahead of the rights of the individual. From a libertarian standpoint, most — if not all — arguments for restricting the movement of individuals who have committed no crime against any identifiable victim simply boil down to collectivism, totalitarianism, or both.

On our site, we list out some common retorts to the libertarian case for open borders. They are:

  1. Enforcement of border controls is not a form of government action, and should be viewed instead as a form of government inaction
  2. Because governments are obligated to put the interests of their citizens above all else (a view sometimes called citizenism), they must prioritise the interests of citizens over the liberty of non-citizens
  3. The people of a state have a collective property right over their state’s territory which grants the state’s government a moral authority or right to arbitrarily exclude any foreigner that the polity sees fit to exclude
  4. That in an anarcho-libertarian world, many individual landowners would be able to and would in actuality exclude immigrants from their land, and therefore in a second-best world with government, governments must similarly exclude immigrants

True enough, virtually every one of these rationales for ostensibly-principled libertarian opposition to open borders has appeared in the reader comments section of the libertarian analyses I mentioned earlier. So let’s dissect them each in turn:

  1. Are states literally spending billions of dollars to do nothing? The barbed wire fences we build and gunships which our governments deploy in our name are surely meant to do more than just sit around and look pretty. It seems almost intentionally obtuse to deny that these things are meant to serve an active, violent purpose.
  2. There are many reasons to be skeptical of the citizenist worldview (or at least its most strong form), but to a libertarian, surely it’s relevant that citizenism outright declares that the interests (not just rights) of some individuals are more important than others’ rights. Sure, you can argue that a fundamental tenet of citizenism is that some people just aren’t entitled to certain rights, but you’re just shifting the goalposts: you can’t justify restrictions on individual movement of non-citizens without resorting to a literally collectivist worldview that says “citizens” are a collective whose interests supersede the rights of individuals that don’t belong to the citizens’ collective.
  3. The “collective property rights” argument literally has the word “collective” in its name. You can’t dress this up with liberal sprinklings of the phrase “property rights”. In the end, you’re still saying that a collective should be allowed to supersede the rights of individuals.
  4. First, I’m not sure the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual is all that compelling to libertarians who embrace minarchism or basically any non-anarchist approach. But even if it is, you can imagine a counterfactual world where many private property owners are happy to build a road and allow anyone to travel on it, whether for free or for a toll, and therefore bypass those landowners less amenable to immigration (if such a concept as “immigration” could even exist in a world with literally no borders). Libertarians who espouse this counterfactual also often take for granted that individual landowners could easily choose to ban natives, not just foreigners, from their lands. Consistent libertarians who take this idea seriously should agitate for stronger mobility controls over other citizens too, to preserve their property rights ostensibly implied by this counterfactual. In light of all this, why should my open borders counterfactual — one which also happens to more closely resemble the real world, with its actual roads built on the common law concept of right-of-way — be any less compelling than this strange hypothetical world?

You may not be a libertarian and find all of this irrelevant navel-gazing, if not possibly counter to your actual views. If so, sorry, but as is hopefully clear, these arguments aren’t aimed at non-libertarians. There are plenty of non-libertarian or non-libertarian-specific reasons to favour open borders and indeed to characterise open borders as a fundamental human right — I’m just intentionally not getting into them because I think the libertarian case for open borders ought to be compelling enough for libertarians.

Now, obviously a decent number of self-identified libertarians are able to reconcile their opposition to open borders with their proclaimed respect for individual rights. I think in general they do this by compromising a little and saying that collectives such as nations or states do have some rights (in some cases, such libertarians have explicitly made this part of their rationale).

Some libertarians no doubt will be tempted to right away dismiss these people as traitors to the libertarian cause. While yes, these people are surely no anarcho-libertarians, on the face of it they don’t seem to me all that different from libertarian minarchists or even other centre-leaning libertarians (such as, most famously, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom seemed content to accept the state even though this obviously necessitated some compromises on individual vs collective rights).

But saying that a collective has rights does not tell us what the collective is allowed to do — what its rights are, or how it may exercise those rights. I contend that a collective entity such as the state simply lacks the authority to forcibly exclude anyone, citizen or not, from its territory or jurisdiction on the basis of arbitrary reasons. Individuals may delegate collective authority to legislate to the government of a state, but that does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people whose last name starts with the letter Z, or people who have a freckle on their chin. It certainly does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people because of their race or sex or even sexual orientation.

I simply go one step further to say that place of birth should also be up there on that list of intolerably arbitrary criteria. I am not saying that your place of birth is irrelevant to who you are. It is no less relevant to who you are than your sex, your race, or a whole host of other things about you. I am simply saying that as far as the government is concerned, these conditions of birth should not be any of its business when it comes to deciding who it can exclude.

Now you can protest my general statement that governments cannot justifiably exclude people in an arbitrary manner — in which case you seem to be endorsing government exclusion of people on the basis of race, sex, and a whole bunch of other things, which in general is repugnant to libertarianism (a vocal racist fringe who self-identify as libertarian notwithstanding). But more likely you’ll protest my specific statement that exclusion of foreigners is arbitrary.

Now it’s certainly true that foreigners are different from citizens in a whole bunch of ways. They often grow up speaking a different language and operating under a different set of institutions. But our own citizens also grow up in a variety of communities, institutions, and backgrounds. Why do we treat citizens as morally non-excludable, and foreigners as excludable?

The objection seems to be that foreigners are fundamentally different from citizens. But why should this matter to a libertarian? If foreigners agree to respect the state’s laws, then they don’t harm any citizens and certainly don’t harm the state. If foreigners run afoul of the state’s laws, then the state may exclude them. The state certainly has no compunctions about excluding citizens who violate its laws, although it typically excludes them from society by jailing them instead of deporting them.

Perhaps anti-open borders libertarians worry that foreigners’ promise to respect the laws can’t be trusted. But judging from what they’ve written on this issue, it seems the clear theme is this: foreigners will respect the law, and that’s the problem. To be specific, they’ll obtain welfare as provided for by the state’s laws, and as Milton Friedman supposedly told us, society will literally collapse as a result.

To these libertarians, the claim that open borders and a welfare state are not compatible is a self-proving result; it also often seems to self-axiomatically lead to the conclusion that a welfare state which opens its borders will collapse into violence and disorder. Now, Friedman never stated that a welfare state with open borders would collapse into violence, so that second half seems completely suspect to me. But even so, it seems to me that libertarians are also completely taking for granted that Friedman must have been right when he declared this fundamental incompatibility.

The biggest reason Friedman was wrong is simple: welfare states generally do not determine who has access to their benefits simply on the basis of who is present on their territory or in their jurisdiction. There is almost always a whole bunch of paperwork you have to fill out to get your benefits, which is how the government makes sure you’re eligible. You can’t just show up and say “I’m a warm body, so give me my benefits!”

You might argue discrimination in benefits access isn’t an implementable public policy. But virtually every welfare state you can think of, even the most generous ones, already curtail foreigners’ and/or immigrants’ access to welfare benefits in some way. So it’s not impossible; it’s already being done. Americans often seem to forget that part of Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reforms included stricter eligibility criteria for immigrant access to federal benefits.

You might say that our insistence that the government refrain from arbitrarily excluding people inevitably forces us to open benefits access to anyone irrespective of birth condition. But this confuses two very different things: under the collectivist principles we’ve been taking for granted, governments have the authority to exclude some people from society, and they also have the authority to subsidise some people. These two things are separate. The criteria you use to decide who to exclude don’t have to be the criteria you use to decide who to subsidise.

Exclusion is a matter of fundamental justice; abuse of the state’s power to exclude is a violation of the fundamental human right to associate with other people. Fundamentally everyone agrees the state exists to provide criminal and civil justice services — failure to provide these in a just and fair manner is unconscionable. Subsidies on the other hand are a matter of redistributive justice or compassion. Yes, these are things which many if not most libertarians reject as any reasonable basis for government policy — but if we’re taking the welfare state as a given, we are still taking as a given that the principles under which welfare benefits get doled out may and ought to differ from the principles under which we decide who to criminally punish and exclude.

So Milton Friedman was just wrong here: the welfare state does not fundamentally require border controls to limit access to benefits. The welfare state already has access to documentary evidence which it uses to determine eligibility. It is not just strange to insist that the police-military state be allowed to violently exclude people for the sake of protecting a limited pool of welfare benefits; it is completely unnecessary. The welfare state doesn’t need you to violently exclude anyone, because it already has its own process for checking people’s papers to confirm eligibility for benefits.

Grasping for straws, anti-open borders libertarians finally reach for perhaps the least libertarianism-compatible of all objections so far: the claim that immigrants will implement or encourage citizens to implement more statist policies, such as an expansion of the welfare state, and that to protect what little libertarian policies are left, it is imperative for libertarians to support the exclusion of immigrants. This argument is so patently unjust and transparently unlibertarian that I am amazed anyone can make it and call themselves libertarian with a straight face.

Let’s take for granted the questionable empirical claim that immigration leads to an expansion of the state’s power over individuals. How does this justify restricting immigration, without also justifying a whole host of other unjust exclusionary policies?

After all, besides immigrants, you can think of a whole bunch of other demographic groups who seem inclined to oppose libertarianism: in the US context, these include people like blacks, women, perhaps Jews. Why shouldn’t libertarians support policies that exclude these people too? You know what: allowing blacks to eat means that there’ll still be blacks around to oppose libertarian policies. Therefore, a good American libertarian should support policies that restrict the sale of food to African-Americans. Force the state to starve the statists, and ensure a brighter future for liberty!

You will surely object: hey, libertarians should oppose policies that unjustly exclude citizens, but libertarians may and should support the exclusion of non-citizens who hold the wrong political beliefs. But what rationale do you have for holding non-citizens’ rights to a different bar? Now we go back to all the rationales you cited earlier: collective property rights, bla bla bla.  But it sure seems to me like your whole project to erect an edifice of libertarian arguments for closing the borders is actually tearing down liberty, not building it up: if you’re so willing to make compromises on the liberty of people who’ve committed no crime other than being born in the wrong place, or thinking the wrong way, it’s questionable whether you’re committed to the liberty of anyone else at all.

Let’s say you’re all right with the idea that libertarians shouldn’t oppose open borders, but still find it a self-defeating political strategy to “eat your own” when it comes to the likes of David Brat. After all, when there’s someone saying the right things about markets and all freedom and all those things libertarians love, but also saying the wrong things about some other things, is it fair to criticise him? Especially when he’s doing well in the polls and might make a real political splash?

I am not all that qualified to pontificate on the political ramifications here, but let’s focus on whether support of open borders should be a top consideration in assessing someone’s libertarian credentials. From our discussion here, it seems to me that any libertarian who opposes open borders either has some serious missteps in their thinking, or simply rejects, in very large part, libertarianism’s ostensible commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual. Libertarians who oppose open borders simply should not exist; either you favour open borders, or you aren’t a libertarian.

This is not an arbitrary hurdle, such as “Well he doesn’t fully oppose government subsidisation of healthcare, so he must be a statist nut” (as was said of Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party candidate for Governor of Virginia in 2013, when he articulated a healthcare policy that didn’t boil down to “Abolish all government subsidies”). No, if you are a libertarian, the way you think about open borders cuts to the core of what it means to truly respect and uphold the rights and dignity of individuals. Opposing open borders is not just putting the collective ahead of the individual in a few fringe cases; it is literally letting the collective trample on individuals who have done nothing wrong except choosing to be born in the wrong place or holding the wrong political views. This cannot be libertarianism.

For centuries, the clarion call of liberals standing for liberty has been: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You can come up with clever pseudo-libertarian justifications for opposing open borders, but those seem to me to virtually always devolve to: “I may disagree with what you say, and so if statists will let me, I’ll put you to death.” That characterisation may seem uncharitable, but I cannot see how you can describe yourself as committed to the rights of the individual if you have a gap in that commitment big enough to drive the lives of billions of people right through.

For decades, a commitment to the free market has been a key component of the libertarianism acid test. But as many libertarians responding to David Brat have observed, you cannot have a free market when you ban your citizens and billions of other individuals from doing business as they would like to do it in your country. But worse, you cannot have a free society. A society which spends billions of dollars to exclude billions of peaceful individuals by using violent force can hardly call itself free. No libertarian should want any part of a society built on the active and continuing oppression of innocents who have committed no crime worse than being born on the other side of a border.

Heritage Immigration Study Fatally Flawed

This post was originally published on the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is republished with the permission of the author.

There are indications that The Heritage Foundation may soon release an updated version of its 2007 report, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” by Robert Rector. That 2007 report’s flawed methodology produced a grossly exaggerated cost to federal taxpayers of legalizing unauthorized immigrants while undercounting or discounting their positive tax and economic contributions – greatly affecting the 2007 immigration reform debate.

Before releasing its updated report, I urge the Heritage Foundation to avoid the same serious errors that so undermined Mr. Rector’s 2007 study. Here is a list of some of its major errors:

  1. Count individuals, not households.[1]  Heritage counts household use of government benefits, not individual immigrant use. Many unauthorized immigrants are married to U.S. citizens and have U.S. citizen children who live in the same households. Counting the fiscal costs of those native-born U.S. citizens massively overstates the fiscal costs of immigration. 
  2. Employ dynamic scoring rather than static scoring. [2] Heritage’s report relies on static scoring rather than dynamic scoring, making the same mistake in evaluating the impact of increased immigration on welfare costs that the Joint Committee on Taxation makes when scoring the impact of tax cuts. Instead, Heritage should use dynamic scoring techniques to evaluate the fiscal effects of immigration reform. For example, Heritage should assume that wages and gross domestic product are altered considerably because of immigration policy reforms. In contrast to that economic reality, immigrant wages, gross domestic product, and government welfare programs are unrealistically static in Mr. Rector’s study. His study largely ignores the wage increases experienced by immigrants and their descendants over the course of their working lives, how those wages would alter after legalization, and the huge gains in education amongst the second and third generation of Hispanics.[3] Heritage is devoted to dynamic scoring in other policy areas – it should be so devoted to it here too.[4]
  3. Factor in known indirect fiscal effects.[5]  The consensus among economists is that the economic gains from immigration vastly outweigh the costs.[6] In 2007, Mr. Rector incorrectly noted that, “there is little evidence to suggest that low-skill immigrants increase the incomes of non-immigrants.” Immigrants boost the supply and demand sides of the American economy, increasing productivity through labor and capital market complementarities with a net positive impact on American wages.[7] Heritage should adjust its estimates to take account of the positive spill-overs of low-skilled immigration.
  4. Assume that wages for legalized immigrants would increase – dramatically.[8]  Heritage did not assume large wage gains for unauthorized immigrants after legalization.  In the wake of the 1986 Reagan amnesty, wages for legalized immigrants increased – sometimes by as much as 15 percent – because legal workers are more productive and can command higher wages than illegal workers.  Heritage should adopt similar wage increases to estimate the economic effects of immigration reform if it were to happen today.[9] 
  5. Assume realistic levels of welfare use.[10]  Vast numbers of immigrants will return to their home countries before collecting entitlements,[11] the “chilling effect” whereby immigrants are afraid of using welfare reduces their usage of it, and immigrants use less welfare across the board.[12]  100 native-born adults eligible for Medicaid will cost the taxpayers about $98,000 a year.  A comparable number of poor non-citizen immigrants cost approximately $57,000 a year – a 42 percent lower bill than for natives.  For children, citizens cost $67,000 and non-citizens cost $22,700 a year – a whopping 66 percent lower cost.  Heritage should adjust its estimates of future immigrant welfare use downward. [13] 
  6. Use latest legislation as benchmark.[14]  The current immigration plan, if rumors are to be believed, would stretch a path to citizenship out for 13 years.[15]  Most welfare benefits will be inaccessible until then, so Heritage’s report must take that timeline into account.
  7. Remittances do not decrease long term consumption.[16]  Remittances sent home by immigrants will eventually return to the U.S. economy in the form of increased exports or capital account surpluses.  Heritage should recognize this aspect of economic reality rather than assuming remittances are merely a short-term economic cost.  
  8. Factor in immigration enforcement costs.[17]  Heritage did not compare costs of legalization and guest workers to the costs of the policy status quo or increases in enforcement.  The government spends nearly $18,000 per illegal immigrant apprehension while the economic distortions caused by forcing millions of consumers, renters, and workers out of the U.S. would adversely affect income and profitability.[18]
  9. Use transparent methodology.[19]  Heritage’s methodology should replicate that of the National Research Council’s authoritative and highly praised – even by immigration restrictionists – study entitled The New Americans.[20]  That study is the benchmark against which all efforts at generational fiscal accounting – including Heritage’s 2007 report – are measured.  If Heritage deviates from their methods, it should explain its methodology in a clear and accessible way that states why they altered practice.[21]
  10. Don’t count citizen spouses.[22]  Heritage counted U.S.-born spouses of unauthorized immigrants as fiscal costs.  Counting the net immigrant fiscal impact means counting immigrants and perhaps their children at most,[23] not native-born spouses who would be on the entitlement roles regardless of whether they married an immigrant or a native-born American.
  11. Suggest changes to the welfare state.  Heritage has elsewhere called low-skill migrant workers “a net positive and a leading cause of economic growth”[24] and accurately reported that “[t]he consensus of the vast majority of economists is that the broad economic gains from openness to trade and immigration far outweigh the isolated cases of economic loss.”[25]  Instead of arguing against low-skill immigration, Mr. Rector should instead suggest reforms that would, in the words of Cato’s late Chairman Bill Niskanen, “build a wall around the welfare state, not around the country.”[26]

It is imperative that the economic costs and benefits of increased immigration be studied using proper methods and the most recent data.  A previous report by the Heritage Foundation in 2006 entitled, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” by Tim Kane and Kirk Johnson roundly rejected the negative economic assessments of Mr. Rector’s 2007 study.[27]  Not only does Mr. Rector not speak for the broad conservative movement; it appears that economists who have worked for the Heritage Foundation also disagree with Mr. Rector’s conclusions. 

For decades, the Heritage Foundation has been an influential intellectual force in conservative circles.  Its economic analyses have been predicated on consideration of the dynamic effects of policy changes as opposed to static effects.  Unfortunately, Mr. Rector’s past work has not been consistent in this regard, employing the same static scoring conservatives have traditionally distrusted in other policy areas. 

Many conservatives rely on the Heritage Foundation for accurate research about immigration’s impact on the economy.  Before releasing another study assessing the net fiscal impacts of immigration reform, Heritage should correct the errors outlined above to guarantee the most accurate information on this important topic is available.

[1] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 1.

[2] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 14.

[3] Fry and Lopez, “Hispanic Student Enrollment Reach New Highs in 2011,” Pew Hispanic research Center, August 20, 2012.

[4] Beach, “It is Time to Include Dynamic Economic Analysis in the Process of Changing Tax Policy,” Heritage Testimony on the Economy, October 6, 2011. 

[5] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, pp.19-20.

[6] Kane and Johnson, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” Heritage Institute Backgrounder, No. 1913, March 1, 2006, pp. 2-3.

[7] Borjas and Katz, “The Evolution of the Mexican-Born Workforce in the United States,” in Mexican Immigration to the United States¸NBER Book, May 2007, Lewis, “Immigrants-Native Substitutability: The Role of Language Ability,” NBER Working Paper 17609, forthcoming in David Card and Stephen Raphael, eds., Ottaviano and Peri, “Rethinking the Effects of Immigration on Wages,” Journal of the European Economic Association, 2012.  Peri and Sparber, “Task Specialization, Immigration, and Wages,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economic, 2009, Peri and Sparber, “Highly-Educated Immigrants and Native Occupational Choice,” Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration Discussion Paper Series No. 13/08, November, 2008.

[8] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, pp. 19-20.

[9] Amuedo-Dorantes, Bansak, and Raphael, “Gender Differences in the Labor Market: Impact of IRCA,” American Economic Review, 2007, Rivera-Batiz, “Undocumented Workers in the Labor Market: An Analysis of Earnings of Legal and Illegal Mexican Immigrants in the United States,” Journal of Population Economics, 1999, Kossoudji and Cobb-Clark, “IRCA’s Impact on the Occupational Concentration and Mobility of Newly-Legalized Mexican Men,” Journal of Population Economics, 2000, Kossoudji and Cobb-Clark, “Coming Out of the Shadows: Learning about Legal Status and Wages from the Legalized Population,” Journal of Labor Economics, 2002, Baker, “Effects of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act on Crime,” SSRN Working Paper, 2011.

[10] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 8.

[11] Alden, The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, p. 74.

[12] Ku and Bruen, “Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens,” Economic Development Bulletin, Cato Institute, No. 17, March 4, 2013.

[13] See Ku and Bruen, “Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens,” Economic Development Bulletin, Cato Institute, No. 17, March 4, 2013.

[14] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 21.

[15] Bennett, “Senators Agree on Path to Legal Status for Illegal Immigrants,” Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2013.

[16] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 30.

[17] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 20.

[18] Nowrasteh, “The Economic Case against Arizona’s Immigration Laws,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis, No. 709, September 25, 2012.

[19] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, pp. 8-9, 23.

[20] This advice is based on praise of those methods by the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist think-tank in Washington, D.C.: Camarota, “The High Cost of Cheap Labor: Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget,” Center for Immigration Studies, August 2004.

[21] See Smith and Edomnston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1997.

[22] Rector and Kim, “The Fiscal Cost of Low-Skill Immigrants to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Special Report, SR-14, May 21, 2007, p. 9.

[23] Kandel, “Fiscal Impacts of the Foreign-Born Population,” CRS, October, 2011, R42053, p. 8.

[24] Kane and Johnson, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” Heritage Institute Backgrounder, No. 1913, March 1, 2006, p. 3.

[25] Kane and Johnson, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” Heritage Institute Backgrounder, No. 1913, March 1, 2006, p. 3.

[26] Niskanen, “Build a Wall Around the Welfare State, Not Around the Country,” Cato Institute Blog, June 15, 2006.

[27] Kane and Johnson, “The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution,” Heritage Institute Backgrounder, No. 1913, March 1, 2006.

Cato’s March 21, 2013 immigration event

The video is embedded below.

  • For the first twenty minutes, Shikha Dalmia argues for more “low-skilled” immigration, citing some of the studies discussed at the suppression of wages of natives and US-specific suppression of wages of natives pages.
  • For the next twenty minutes or so, Stuart Anderson makes the case for “high-skilled” immigration and discusses some of the politics and real-world constraints related to green cards and H-1Bs.
  • For the next ten minutes, John Tyler of the Kauffman Foundation argues that immigrants are entrepreneurial based on some studies. The studies and related stuff are discussed here.
  • For the last ten minutes, Alex Nowrasteh discusses the impact of immigration on native wages, repeating some of the material covered by Shikha Dalmia from a somewhat different perspective. His discussion here builds upon his blog post on the subject. On the subject of the welfare state/fiscal burden objection, Nowrasteh discusses a Cato bulletin (and working paper) that I blogged about here.

You can also view the event on the Cato page here.

New Cato bulletin on immigrant welfare use in the United States

We at Open Borders: The Case have not blogged much about the empirics of the welfare state/fiscal burden objection. We do have some thoughts on the matter which we hope to blog in the future. But one reason why this is a low priority, at least for me, is that I think that whatever the specific truth regarding welfare use by immigrants (under the status quo, modest variations thereof, or open borders), the keyhole solution of building a stronger wall around the welfare state to prevent immigrants and non-citizens from accessing it is politically feasible. Other keyhole solutions, such as immigration tariffs and DRITI, often run against opposition from voters across the political spectrum, but denying immigrants benefits seems to be quite politically popular. At any rate, (open borders + strong wall around the welfare state) seems no less feasible than (open borders without strong wall around the welfare state).

Nonetheless, the empirics of welfare usage, both under the status quo and under open borders, are important in so far as these allow us to better understand and prepare for the impact of open borders. With this in mind, I link to Economic Development Bulletin No. 17 put out by the Cato Institute. The bulletin is Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens and it is authored by Leighton Ku and Brian Bruen. It is a shorter version of a Cato working paper by the same name. Here is the conclusion of the bulletin:

Low-income non-citizen adults and children generally have lower rates of public benefit use than native-born adults or citizen children whose parents are also citizens. Moreover, when low-income non-citizens receive public benefits, the average value of benefits per recipient is almost always lower than for the native-born. For Medicaid, if there are 100 native-born adults, the annual cost of benefits would be about $98,400, while for the same number of non-citizen adults the annual cost would be approximately $57,200. The benefits cost of non-citizens is 42 percent below the cost of the native-born adults. For children, a comparable calculation for 100 non-citizens yields $22,700 in costs, while 100 citizen children of citizen parents cost $67,000 in benefits. The benefits cost of non-citizen children is 66 percent below the cost of benefits for citizen children of citizen parents. The combined effect of lower utilization rates and lower average benefits means that the overall financial cost of providing public benefits to non-citizen immigrants and most naturalized immigrants is lower than for native-born people. Non-citizen immigrants receive fewer government benefits than similarly poor natives.

These results seem to be at odds with research and findings published by the Center for Immigration Studies, one of the relatively more respected think tanks on the restrictionist side. The authors of the Cato bulletin explain the discrepancy as follows (I’ve removed the internal footnotes in the quoted text):

A study by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)found that immigrant-headed households with children used more Medicaid than native-headed households with children and had higher use of food assistance, but lower use of cash assistance. The CIS study did not examine the average value of benefits received per recipient.

There are several reasons why our study differs from CIS’s study. First, CIS did not adjust for income, so the percent of immigrants receiving benefits is higher in their study in part because a greater percent of immigrants are low-income and, all else remaining equal, more eligible for benefits. Non-citizens are almost twice as likely to have low incomes compared with natives. We focus on low-income adults and children because public benefit programs are means-tested and intended for use by low income people. It is conventional in analyses like these to focus on the low income because it reduces misinterpretations about benefit utilization.

Second, CIS focused on households headed by immigrants while we focus on individuals by immigration status. Our study focuses on individuals because immigrant headed households often include both immigrants and citizens. Since citizen children constitute the bulk of children in immigrant-headed households and are eligible for benefits, CIS’s method of using the immigrant-headed household as the unit of analysis systematically inflates immigrants’ benefit usage. For example, 30 percent of U.S children receiving Medicaid or CHIP benefits are children in immigrant-headed families and 90 percent of those children are citizens.

Third, CIS focused on immigrants in general, including naturalized citizens, while we also included non-citizen immigrants. Naturalized citizens are accorded the same access to public benefits as native-born citizens and are more assimilated, meaning their opinions of benefit use are more similar to those of native born Americans. Separating non-citizens from naturalized Americans gives a clearer picture of which immigrant groups are actually receiving benefits.

I haven’t had time to study the data carefully, but the most obvious counter-response seems to be that even if immigrants use benefits at a lower rate than natives, the fact is also that on average they pay less in taxes, so that they are still bigger net fiscal drains than natives. A related argument is that even if they do better than low-income natives, this is too weak an argument, because low-income natives are even bigger fiscal drains. But low-income natives are here to stay, while immigrants can be denied entry, so it makes sense to admit immigrants only if they are net fiscal pluses. In this view, immigrants performing better than low-income natives, even if true, is not a good enough argument to support more immigration. The “net fiscal burden” argument is one that we will take up on this blog some other time for more detailed discussion.

Another related point that is highlighted by this paper is what relevant groups one should look at when studying the effects of immigration. The position taken by the CIS is that the relevant groups to look at are all foreign-born people, including citizens and non-citizens, as well as the minor children of the foreign-born. Others have taken the position that we should look only at the proportion of the population that comprises non-citizen immigrants, and that it would be cheating to include their citizen children in the calculation. I tend to be agnostic on this question framed generally, since a lot depends on what specific aspect is being studied. For this reason, I like the fact that the Cato paper explicitly separates naturalized citizens and non-citizen immigrants, as well as separating children based on both their own and their parents’ immigration status, and dutifully reports all numbers.

Alex Nowrasteh’s new policy analysis of guest worker programs

Alex Nowrasteh‘s latest policy analysis on guest worker programs has just been published by the Cato Institute and can be accessed here on the Cato Institute website (here’s the direct link to the PDF). Alex makes many similar points to what I made in a blog post a month ago replying to Daniel Costa, but he also includes some historical background and other details that make for more compelling reading. Among the historical precedents he references is the case of Metics in ancient Greece, which my co-blogger Nathan blogged about half a year ago. He also has an interesting description of how “worker abuses” have been carried out not just by private firms, but by government bureaucrats, and how more flexibility on the part of workers to change jobs and less government discretionary authority can help curb these abuses. Here’s how he puts it:

Abuse is not confined to firms. Some of the worst abuses of guest workers have occurred at
the hands of government employees. During the Bracero Program, Department of Labor (DOL) inspectors often slapped, berated, and cursed at Braceros for asking questions. According to one eyewitness: “Nobody had any patience. Immigration, Public Health, Labor Department—it’s all the same. Everybody curses at the Braceros and shoves them around.” Violence and abuse perpetrated by government inspectors and bureaucrats was endemic. The Braceros were frequently humiliated, but as one observer recalled, “migrants usually just stood there and took the abuse–what else could they do–they felt pretty bad about it. I must have seen a lot of Braceros cry after they were talked to in this way.”

Abuse by government bureaucrats has diminished over the years or become stealthy, but the entire problem could be removed by contracting out, licensing, or just relying upon private companies to carry out inspections, recruitment, health checks, and other guest worker functions. Visa portability that lets guest workers change jobs with a minimum of paperwork or notice to employers as long as the worker notifies the government after the fact deprives abusive employers of employees, incentivizes good behavior, and acts as an enforcement mechanism that punishes employers who do not treat employees as well as competing firms. Visa portability allows workers to regulate their own work environment or change it at will.

Read the whole policy analysis (direct link to PDF).